The Next Perfect Pop Song, Maybe

A detailed and comprehensive examination of “Call My Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen and whether it is truly the next perfect pop song. This article also includes A Brief Breakdown of Possible Contenders for Song of Summer 2012, as well as A Brief Case Study on Lyrical Gaffes in Popular Music.

At the bottom of this page, you can find an embedded Spotify playlist that contains most of the songs discussed or named in this article. You will be able to hear some of the songs without it, but maximum enjoyment will not be received unless you have access to Spotify. Get it here.

There is a Canadian jetliner called the CRJ which is capable of soaring at fantastic heights and is widely popular all over the world. Although this plane actually does exist, for the purposes of this article, you need not be concerned with it as anything more than a metaphor for Canadian pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen (aka C.R.J.), who is achieving admiration all over the world through her debut single “Call My Maybe”.

Chances are that if you’re a human being with at least one properly functioning ear and you have been in proximity of a radio, television, or teenager within the past few months, you know what I’m talking about. You’re probably singing the song to yourself right now, aren’t you? Well, don’t stop on my account. In fact, have another listen:

In December of 2011, like various perfumes and nail polish before her, Jepsen received an official endorsement from fellow Canadian and all-around-super-mega-teen-idol, Justin Bieber. Riding the wake of this invaluable press, “Call Me Maybe” was number one with a bullet in Canada by February. By March, being the resident music buff in my circle of friends, word of “Call Me Maybe” had made its way to my inbox (multiple times). It was being hailed as “the new perfect pop song.” That’s high praise.

Recognizing the potential greatness that sat in my inbox, I maintained a reserved excitement about the song on account of the Bieber-endorsement. Was the song actually that good, or was it solely living on Bieber-manufactured hype? His initial tweet about the song read as follows:

Call me maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen is possibly the catchiest song I’ve ever heard lol

An old economics professor of mine used to frequently say of Alan Greenspan (then Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve): “When that man sneezes, the whole economy shakes.” A similar observation can be made about Bieber: “When that boy tweets, the collective opinion of Earth’s teenagers changes.” If Bieber knew the true power each of his tweets held, he’d never be “laughing out loud” while sending them… unless he were some sort evil scientist, that is. (Conspiracy theorists, take note.)

Nevertheless, sometime in early March, I listened to “Call Me Maybe” for the first time. I then proceeded to listen to it a second, third, fourth, and fifth time. That same day, I wrote a nearly 4,000 word first draft of this very article. However, I couldn’t finish it. I needed to ruminate on the song a little more. I mean, it was clear to me at that point that “Call Me Maybe” was not living on the hype alone; but that was no longer the question I was interested in. The one question on my mind was whether “Call Me Maybe” was truly the next perfect pop song?

It has been about four and a half months since then and I finally have come to a conclusion. Appropriately, the answer is “maybe.” If you’re wondering what my scientific method was in making this determination, there was none; obviously, this is all purely subjective. (Don’t forget that last part!) However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have many detailed reasons for making my decision. Let me take you through my thought process…

It’s Catchy, But Not Too Catchy

The most difficult quality for a perfect pop song to obtain is that of “catchiness.” There is no definition of what that word means, but if you’ve ever heard music before then you understand what I’m talking about. Every perfect pop song is catchy one way or another, but not every catchy song is perfect. In fact, many otherwise decent pop songs suffer from being too catchy. To be considered a perfect pop song, a delicate balance must be struck on the spectrum of catchiness. This concept is best illustrated by example.

The most recent example of a song that is too catchy is Cee Lo’s “Fuck You”. It’s an undeniably catchy song, simple to learn, and fun to sing; but there’s not much else to it. I remember the day it was released. It was a Friday on YouTube (perhaps the title of my yet-to-be-written memoirs?), and the typographic music video for the song was “going viral!” I played it for my roommates later that day and told them this, verbatim:

This is a new song by Cee Lo. Enjoy it while you can because by the end of next week, you’re never going to want to hear it again.

-Myself, truth-sayer, prophet, and sarcastic braggart.

Time proved me correct. That song tastes too sweet. It’s only good in moderation. Take a trip back to your more formative years for a moment and let’s talk about cereal, namely Waffle Crisp and Cinnamon Toast Crunch – two breakfast foods uniquely inspired by other breakfast foods. Do you remember the feeling you get after opening a box of delicious Waffle Crisp cereal and then accidentally eating the whole thing in one sitting? What you once considered to be Earth’s most delicious food just moments earlier is now nothing more to you than a toxic box of sugar and a future belly ache. I hypothesize that this is why General Mills packages Cinnamon Toast Crunch in such a tiny box, so consumers can never overindulge that much in one sitting and never want to see their product again. To this day, Cinnamon Toast Crunch seems to be the more popular cereal. [NOTE: Waffle Crisp is a product of Post.] The same idea applies to your hearbuds (once again, your sonic taste buds). Apologies for referencing college economics twice in one sitting, but the problem with this type of song, ones that are too catchy, is that they have an easily attainable point of diminishing returns. That means a person does not have to listen to the song very many times before he or she stops deriving enjoyment from it.

People who love “Call Me Maybe” have a bad habit of calling it “the catchiest song of all time” or “the catchiest song I’ve ever heard.” That is a mistake. First of all, as established above, being “the catchiest song of all time” is not necessarily a good thing. And second, the title of “catchiest song of all time” belongs to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin – a song so catchy it became too sickening for him to keep playing.

After having “Call Me Maybe” stuck in my head continuously for all of last week, I serendipitously walked by a bar playing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and it instantly replaced “Call Me Maybe” in my head. As far as I’m concerned, those facts are good enough to prove my claim.

There’s no way to measure how catchy a song is or should be. Drawing inspiration from the epic poet Homer, when you listen to a song, you want to essentially ask: “Is it crispy? But not too crispy?” This is the crowning achievement of “Call Me Maybe” – it is very catchy, but not too catchy. If this song were porridge, it would be just right.

It’s Going The Distance, Not For Speed

As a testament to how balanced this song is, all you have to do is look to the charts. The song hit number one in Canada last December, but didn’t begin to gain ground in the States until February. It was only two weeks ago that Jepsen made her first televised late night performance on Fallon. She doesn’t even have a proper album out yet to support the single! And despite how ubiquitous you think this song already is, there are most definitely still people who haven’t heard it. I’ve met them. That means that there is still room for growth. This may be a frightening thought, but as big as “Call Me Maybe” currently is, it is still merely “taking off.”

Regardless of whether or not we have perfect song on our hands, we most definitely have a perfect storm. You may have not realized it because of this spring’s exceptionally nice weather, but summer officially arrived last week. Now, although not every summer consists of a fantastic voyage with waterfalls and beautiful girls, each summer is guaranteed to have a select group of songs that define it; past examples of which include “Fantastic Voyage” by Coolio, “Waterfalls” by TLC, and “Beautiful Girls” by Sean Kingston. Every summer, one of these songs rises above the rest to become the Song Of Summer (SOS).

In this case, the CRJ is still ascending – please keep your tray tables in the upright and locked position. And once a song like this makes it to those hot summer sound waves, it will easily coast on to September. Although we won’t have a definitive idea as to what the SOS 2012 officially is until we get a little deeper into the season; there is zero doubt in my mind that it will be “Call Me Maybe”. It’s hard to think of another serious contender. This song’s got legs (and so does she)!

A Brief Breakdown of Possible Contenders for Song of Summer 2012 (SOS12)

Would Be…

These songs would be the most serious contenders for the title of SOS12, were it not for timing issues.

“Somebody That I Used To Know” by Gotye
The problem with this song being the SOS12 is that it was released on July 6, 2011. For some, this was already the SOS11. The other issue is that the popularity of this song has risen and fallen so many times in the last year, it just seems like it’s out of gas. The mumbles of discontent with Gotye began weeks ago. Additionally, the lyrical content and message behind the song make it feel like it belongs on the winter side of the spectrum.

“We Are Young” by fun. feat Janelle Monáe
On paper, this song was meant to be the SOS12. It’s anthemic, youthful, and radio friendly. The problem is that it feels like it’s already peaked. At best, it’s on its way back down right now. Conversely, “Call Me Maybe” is still on its way up.

Could Be…

Most mainstream artists and labels recognize the importance of having a hit single in the summer – the financial upside is tremendous. Being supported by the mass marketing and funds required to break a song to the public, these are songs that could challenge “Call Me Maybe” – that is, they have the backing and track record necessary to do it.

“Scream” by Usher
Usher is no stranger to massive summer hits. For instance, in 2004 “Confessions Part II” and “Burn” finished at numbers one and two, respectively, for overall summer performance on the Billboard Hot 100. He’s had big summer hits before and since. “Scream” feels like it’s a hit song before you’ve even heard it. Then you hear it and nothing happens. It’s vapor. There’s nothing to hold on to. I heard it at a big party recently and it chilled the dance floor. I know some huge Usher fans too, and it’s not doing anything for them, either. I’m sure it will be successful and part of the soundtrack of summer, but it will only earn that ground on reputation alone.

“Let It Roll” by Flo Rida
Although Flo Rida has never had a huge summer single, he is the one responsible for “Low”, which was the first song to ever reach over 5 million paid downloads. Flo Rida seems poised for summer greatness. He has a history of hit songs and he’s from (you guessed it) Florida; but still doesn’t have a summer hit. He’s due and he knows it. Cue “Let It Roll”, his new single. It’s dance-y, party-y, and all about “letting the good times roll.” I mean, he’s really going for it on this one, at one point going as far as saying: “Let the good times roll / And let’s go all night, all night / Wake up the club / And let’s go all out, all out / Mo’ drinks for us / Toast to the good times / May they last forever, we’re young / To the good times, raise your glass, let’s all have some fun.” It’s just candy, but there’s something more to hold on to than “Scream”, which has the weight of an imaginary feather.

I think Flo Rida’s song “Wild Ones” featuring Sia would have been a better candidate for his summer jam. Getting hit with Sia’s distinct vocal right off the bat gives the listener something remember and there are some bread crumbs dropped in between choruses, too (re: “dooze it, dooze it”). Both of these songs will be big summer hits; but their disadvantage lies in their unoriginality of sound and content.

Should Be…

Essentially, these are the sleeper picks. In most cases, they’re better songs than what mainstream radio and television pump down the collective throat of America. These should be the songs of summer, but will never gain wide-enough popularity or the recognition necessary to be considered so. Remember when Arcade Fire won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2011? It’s like that.

“Okay Cupid” by Kitty Pryde
Although there’s plenty of buzz surrounding this yet-yo-be-pigeon-holed suburban rapper and tumblr sensation, she seems too drowsy to pose any serious threat to CRJ.

“Jumanji” by Azealia Banks
The song that should really be considered a contender for SOS12 is Azealia’s “212” featuring Lazy Jay; but it’s far too verbally offensive to gain the widespread popularity necessary to be considered the SOS12. That’s not to say “Jumanji” is a bad song, because it’s not. Plus, there are steel drums in it – an instrumentation choice that never hurts a potential SOS (see: “P.I.M.P.” by 50 Cent“Crank That (Soulja Boy)” by Soulja Boy). Something just tells me that the time is not right for Azealia Banks. Not yet. She’s coming though.

“The House That Heaven Built” by Japandroids“This Summer” by Superchunk, and “Heaven” by The Walkmen
Each of these songs carries that anthemic quality that people love in a good summer jam. Expect these songs to see heavy rotation amongst your friends with a more discerning (re: snobby) taste in music. They’re anthems for the indie crowd, but probably not for anyone beyond there… unless one or more of them is featured in some big summer advertisement.

Honorable Mention

“Heatstroke” by Brick + Mortar
Being as far off the radar as these up-and-coming rockers out of Asbury Park, NJ are, they really have no hope of garnering the attention necessary to have a massive summer hit. Nevertheless, they’re a really great band and have a couple songs that are well-deserving of a spot on your summer playlist. Don’t forget to check out their new single “Old Boy” either.

Also, don’t expect “Call Me Maybe” to run out of steam in September. This song has true staying power. Jepsen’s obviously going to be playing this song for years to come; but the beauty of it is how easy it will be to turn it into a ballad. I think it’s not that hard to picture because the strings are already there, but imagine what the “Unplugged” version of this song sounds like: All of a sudden the song is pushing five minutes in length and Jepsen’s being backed by (at least) a string quartet. By no means am I comparing these songs at face value, but think about what Springsteen did with “Thunder Road”.

The X-Factor

 It’s very hard to define what exactly the x-factor is here. Maybe it’s because Jepsen hails from The Great White North. Maybe it’s because she has one of the biggest songs in the world right now, and it’s her only notable song. There’s a sort of “awww” appeal to her; but then you realize that she’s 26 and not just some wunderkind protege of Bieber’s. She’s not a diva and she’s not putting on an act (re: Ke$ha, Lana Del Rey). If you’ve heard the song and seen her perform it, you understand. I don’t know of an antonym for the word “diva”. Maybe it should be “jepsen.”

She performed Queen’s “Killer Queen” when she was a contestant on Canadian Idol in 2007, but before doing so, she workshopped the song with with Brian May and Roger Meddows (Queen’s guitar player and drummer, respectively). Of her performance, May had this to say:

She is irresistible, isn’t she? There is no doubt about it. She has such a twinkle, like a little star. You can’t possible watch a performance like that and not smile.

She hasn’t lost an ounce of that charm, either. There are no bells, whistles, or dance moves. There is no “cool” factor. There’s just a smiling girl singing a very addicting song. Have you seen her perform “Call Me Maybe” live? She’s having more fun than everyone who’s singing along (and everyone is singing along). Or how about this performance she did with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots using nothing but toy instruments?

I’d regret not using this opportunity to plug Toys And Tiny Instruments, a band from Brooklyn named after the objects they use to make music. Their music is very fun and high energy. Check them out right here. For starters, I recommend the song “Lottery Ticket”.

So, Brian May was right, she is irresistible. Take her response to Bieber’s initial tweet about her song for instance. Everybody loves her – boys and girls, moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas. Trying to hate Carly Rae Jepsen is like trying to hate Jack McBrayer – it’s not possible. “Call Me Maybe” played at a wedding that I recently attended (per my request) and not only did it tear the roof off the reception hall, but it flooded the dance floor with boys and girls, moms and dads, and grandmas and grandpas. All of the people knew all of the words. She’s gunpowder, gelatine, dynamite with a laser beam, guaranteed to blow your mind anytime.

Perhaps the biggest testament to the likeability of Jepsen and “Call Me Maybe” is the fact that there has yet to be any Internet backlash against it… and there is always Internet backlash. The general behavior pattern of the Internet seems to be that something (be it a musician, song, television show, movie, etc.) starts to build some buzz; then there’s a backlash to that buzz; then a backlash to the backlash; then a backlash to the backlash to the backlash; repeat ad nauseam until someone ultimately writes a piece about how nobody is right, and everybody is entitled to their own opinions. (Don’t forget that last part!) In the last couple of months we’ve seen this cycle play out with singer Lana Del ReyLena Dunham and her show Girls, and most recently, Aaron Sorkin’s new show The Newsroom. (For more on Sorkin and the so-called Backlash Era we now live in, please read The Backlash Era: Smelling Sorkin Blood by Richard Rushfield.)

The fact that there’s been no backlash against “Call Me Maybe” either means that the song is so insignificant that nobody cares enough to complain about it, or it is so good people can’t find anything to really complain about. Since a song as pervasive and popular as “Call Me Maybe” is right now cannot possibly be considered insignificant, it must  just be that good.

Freak-Out Time

Notice that “Call Me Maybe” begins with a four-second staccato violin introduction. If you’re wondering why the four most bland seconds of the song are so special, you already know… just maybe not consciously. When you’re listening to “Call Me Maybe” on your iPod or computer at home, these four seconds are inconsequential; but in the right setting, they serve a very specific and very important purpose. They amount to, what I like to call FOT, or freak-out time.

The scenario usually plays out like this: You’re out at a bar, club, wedding reception, or some other event that requires a DJ. Alcohol is usually involved. Like most, you only want to hear the songs you love. Had you control of the turntables and any idea of how to use them, you’d be “pumpin’ your jam” all night. But alas, the DJ is not taking requests and he knows better than to play the big hits all night. Not only would that be hack, but he would lose the crowd (there is an art to song selection). But don’t worry, every now and then, when you really need it, he’ll hit you with the great stuff. Just enough of it to keep you going. You just don’t know when it’s coming… which is part of the fun.

The suspense is terrible! I hope it’ll last…

-Oscar Wilde, Willy Wonka

It’s getting to close to the end of the night. You were in a groove, but your friends are getting tired and the song currently playing, something by some post-chillwave blogbuzz band out of Brooklyn, isn’t helping. Then, out of thin air, you hear the auspicious plucking of a synthesized violin. This. Is. Your. Jam. Finally!

This is precisely why the four-second intro is so vital. It’s your freak-out time. Here is an incomplete list of things you might use the FOT for:

  • Screaming very loudly
  • Violently squeezing a friend’s arm
  • Picking your jaw up off the dance floor
  • Locating your BFF who you practiced singing this song with before you went out that night
  • Putting your cell phone away
  • Unpacking your air violin
  • Finishing your rum and diet
  • Shouting, “This is my jam!”
  • Readying your beer bottle as a microphone
  • Running back onto the dance floor

The point is that people tend to freak out when they hear songs that they really love. Sometimes we’re fortunate enough to be given a few seconds to prepare for these songs. For instance, Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” also allots four seconds of FOT – just enough time to gather “the girls.” NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” allots seven seconds of FOT before the song kicks into gear, which happens to be just enough time for everyone to free up a hand to pantomime the waving-goodbye-dance-move they do in the music video. The Backstreet Boys give us an even more generous nine seconds of FOT before “I Want It That Way” really hits; but the extra FOT is necessary here so that you can get enough arms linked for proper swaying.

If this still seems ridiculous to you, let’s look at what happens when there’s inadequate, or no FOT at all in front of a big hit. To illustrate the problem, we need not look further than “Ignition Remix” by R. Kelly. Never once has a person been fully prepared to hear “Ignition Remix”. Next time you’re out and it comes on, watch all the people scramble. People will trip. Phones will be dropped. Drinks will be spilled. Why such madness? Because R. allotted zero seconds of FOT before the song hits. Some may argue that he actually gives us seven seconds of FOT on this track, but let’s be serious, he ruined that time by talking during the introduction. Every one knows the opening line; it’s become part of the experience: “Now, usually I don’t do this; but uh, go ‘head on break ‘em off wit’ a little previews of the remix.” The kicker is that those words spoken during this alleged FOT are evidence of R. Kelly’s inattentiveness as to the need for FOT. He was only going to break us off with a preview of the remix, but then the song was so great he couldn’t help but give us the entire thing anyway.

If that is only a preview of the remix, I speak for us all when I say that we’d love to hear the entire song. On a related note, thanks to IFC, R. Kelly is resurrecting his infamous Trapped in the Closet series.

By this point, on the spectrum of pop songs, I think it’s sufficiently clear that I find “Call Me Maybe” to be a bona fide great one. (Canada. Gretzky. Shoots. Scores!) But now, it’s time to get into the grey area. When asked whether or not this was the perfect pop song, I answered “maybe.” Well, I wasn’t just being poetic. The answer essentially turns on how you view two specific issues: the synthesized violin, and a lyrical gaffe.

The Synthesized Violin

I am torn when it comes to this part of the song. The violin track on this record could have easily been any other instrument, and I mean that in a mechanical sense as much as an aesthetic one. Did you ever fool around on an old Casio keyboard (or GarageBand on your MacBook)? Remember how easy it was to hit a button and change what instrument the keyboard sounded like? The same idea applies here. The violin could have been power chords on an electric guitar, a horn section, a piano, a pennywhistle, a synth… anything. Even hand claps. I’m sure they tried every instrumentation on the hard drive, too; yet, when it was time to mix the master, the violin won.  I’ve heard multiple people say that the violin makes the song sound urgent or important. There is probably some truth to that, but regardless of what feeling the violin evokes, what’s really important is that it makes the song pop, and frankly, pop songs need to pop.

However, the synthesized violin is also a little gimmicky and gimmicky instrumentation is rarely the best way go (re: “Dancing In The Dark” by Bruce Springsteen – a fantastically written song that remains overshadowed by the gaudy synth riffs featured on the track). If there’s one ingredient in here that is going to someday make listening to “Call Me Maybe” a sickening endeavor, it’s the synthesized violin. The song is good enough on its own. It doesn’t need a gimmicky synthesized violin on it, and there’s a lot of gimmicky synthesized violin on it. In fact, aside from some quiet, inoffensive electric guitar and a dance drum loop, it’s the only instrument on the track.

Opponents may cite “Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners as a violin-heavy pop song that has withstood the test of time. I would agree, but the difference is that “Come On Eileen” features live strings and, generally speaking, more instruments, including piano, bass, and banjo, which provide for a more rounded-out sound. The strings are not only used more cohesively in “Come On Eileen” than in “Call Me Maybe”, but they also are not relied on as heavily. Melody Lau of RollingStone called “Call Me Maybe” a “sugary dance-pop tune (think Taylor Swift meets Robyn).” I think that might be an accurate description, but that’s not necessarily helping the cohesiveness of the song. And I’m not necessarily crazy about hearing what its like when Taylor Swift meets Robyn. Either way, it’s hard to imagine either of those ladies bringing a synthesized violin to the party anyway (they’d probably spend too much time packing platform shoes and paper to make fortune tellers with).

On the bright side, it has been four months since I first heard “Call Me Maybe”, and I am still not sick of the violin track. I originally had a much more skeptical view of the violin, but the fact that the track still holds up after four months has appeased some of my skepticism. Apparently the song is also very mashupable, which will help keep it fresh and reduce auditory exposure to the violin. (For starters on the mashups, see “Semi Charmed Call” by Chambaland“Call Me On Broken Glass” by Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend, and over 500 search results on SoundCloud.) At this time, I am unprepared to call the song imperfect on account of the violin; but that doesn’t mean we won’t look back on “Call Me Maybe” in 10 years and say, “ew!” Either way, we may all be saving that reaction (or likely worse) for auto-tune.

Now that that’s settled, there’s one more issue…

Lyrics

The lyrics of “Call Me Maybe” are great for many reasons. Take the opening line for instance: “I threw a wish in the well / Don’t ask me, I’ll never tell.” It sets the half-shy/half-excited tone of the rest song. It’s also a nice twist on the expected (this same trick is also used in the chorus, as we’ll see). Instead of literally singing about throwing a coin down the well to make a wish, she throws a “wish” down the well. She’s not going to tell you what the wish was because then it won’t come true, and she really wants it to come true. I obviously did not need to explain the meaning of those lyrics to you, but the fact that I can goes to show how bad and on-the-nose they lyrics could have been.

The hook is great, too. “But here’s my number. So call me… maybe? Just when you think she’s going to drop the ball and say “baby,” she doesn’t, and that makes all the difference. What that one word does in this song is truly amazing. Instead of making you say “bleghh,” it makes you go “awww.” Instead of making you wince, it makes you smile. If someone was raving about how great this new song “Call Me Baby” was, I think I’d be too off put by the song’s name to even press play.

But here’s the catch…

The song also contains this lyric: “Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad.” Call me nitpicky or what have you, but I see this as a blatantly illogical lyrical flub. Read it again. It sounds okay, but it’s nonsensical. You can’t have some more of something you haven’t had yet and you can’t miss something you didn’t know existed before. Some people might argue that she’s using “poetic license” with this line. Despite the fact that the idea of poetic license is something I generally have a problem with, isn’t the right to use that license supposed to be earned by the artist by proving herself over time through a rich body of artistic work? It seems like the lyric is supposed to evoke the same sentiment as this one from the song “Slow Show” by The National: “You know, I dreamed about you / For twenty-nine years before I saw you / … I missed you for twenty-nine years.” The difference is that the line in “Call Me Maybe” misses the mark. And if you miss with a line like that, you miss big. Do you see the difference or is it just me?

Either way, I’m not just being a stickler for the sake of it. In fact, I’m normally a proponent of nonsense. A wise man once said, “a little nonsense, now and then, is relished by the wisest men.” This is just not a proper time. And I’m not picking on this song alone – in fact, this isn’t even that grievous of an offense. The problem is that these types of nonsensical errors are currently an epidemic in popular music. It happens all the time and it bothers me each time I hear it. The worst part is that most of them would have been very easy to correct, so when they’re not, the songwriters come across as careless. And who wants to listen to an artist doesn’t handle their work with care?


A Brief Case Study on Lyrical Gaffes in Recent Popular Music

Considering the quality of and rate at which rap music is being released today, I feel comfortable saying that there is an infinite amount of nonsensical rap lyrics in the world. They just keep on coming. Someone is probably recording one right now and it will probably be streaming over your local Internet in a few weeks. You could fill many leather-bound tomes with Lil Wayne’s nonsense alone. To spare you the time, here’s just one quick example. In 2009, Lil Wayne had a smash hit with the song “A Milli”. One of his lyrics in that song is:

“Even Gwen Stefani say she couldn’t doubt me.”

Let that one sink in. It sounds okay, but it’s nonsensical. Gwen Stefani is the lead singer of a band called No Doubt. Wayne is trying to say that you cannot doubt his talent. The phrase “no doubt” means exactly that - “I do not doubt whatever it is you are proclaiming.” If Gwen Stefani named her band I Doubt Everything Anybody Tells Me And I’m Very Stubborn About It, this lyric would make sense. As it stands, it’s the equivalent of bragging that you hit the Sprite button on a soda vending machine and a Sprite came out.

If you’re not into rap, then listen to Rob Pavaronian dissect the nonsensical bits from “I’ll Be There For You (Theme from FRIENDS)” by The Rembrandts:

The most recent example of this sort of careless songwriting comes from “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. The lyric in question comes from the chorus:

“In New York, the concrete jungle where dreams are made of.”

Read it again. It sounds right, but it’s nonsensical. The worst part about this mistake, and what makes it so egregious, is that it has such an easy fix. The lyrics could be “that dreams are made of” or “where dreams are made up.” Either would suffice. One word.

Let’s count all the culpable parties here. According to Wikipedia, the original song was written by Angela Hunte and Jane’t Sewell-Ulepic, two unknowns who submitted the song to Jay-Z. Normally fault would fall on the original songwriters; however, Jay-Z had the sense of mind to throw out everything about the song except for the hook. Being that he was only taking less than 30 words from the original and was adopting the track as a love letter and anthem to his home, he should have had the sense of mind to grammatically correct it. The same thing goes for Alicia Keys, who must have sang the song many times before recording it, the producer Al Shux, and either of the other two credited writers of the song (Burt Keyes and Sylvia Robinson).

It was nominated for three Grammy Awards and won two. Apparently “Grammy” is not short for “grammar.”

Despite the rampancy in which these errors appear in popular music, there is a silver lining. They speak to just how great the rest of the song is. On paper, your high school English teacher would spill bloody red ink over errors like these; but within the confines of the song and the feeling the artist creates when performing it, they go unnoticed.

I recently read an interview with comedian Bob Odenkirk, and (unless you know me well) this will definitely seem out of left field, but in regard to comedic films, he said, in pertinent part:

That’s very important: to have a good feeling, an upbeat feeling. There are very few comedies that I can name that don’t have ‘dog’ jokes in them, or ‘dog’ scenes — meaning just awful jokes and terrible scenes. But in the good comedies, you excuse those bad scenes and bad jokes because you just don’t care; it doesn’t matter. They blow you away — they’re not weighed down, and the good things are still worth waiting for.”

 [This passage was excerpted from And Here’s The Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft by Mike Sacks.]

Regardless of whether it is more difficult to write a perfect comedic film than a perfect pop song, I think his words shed some light on how these pop songs work. They’re magic, but by way of misdirection (unintentional or otherwise) rather than slight of hand. And when something is that magical, people don’t need to be bothered with the logic of it all.

So, there you have it. A detailed, complete and arguably overblown analysis of “Call My Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen. So, is the song perfect? That depends on your definition of the word. Arguably it has faults; but if you record a song that makes everybody so happy they all rhetorically exclaim “could this possibly get any better!?” then does it even matter? Not really. The good things are still worth waiting for.

And by the way, if you have been wondering this whole time what the last perfect pop song was, the answer is “Hey Ya!” by OutKast; but let’s talk about that another time.

Music relevant to this article:

There is much to digest and much to discuss here. Let’s continue in the comments section…

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10 Responses to “The Next Perfect Pop Song, Maybe”

  1. Liz Fennell
    Liz Fennell
    June 25, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

    1. Carly Rae Jepsen is 26!? WHAT!?

    2. My favorite part of this was the analysis of how the alloted FOT in a song affects its potential. The bulleted list of ways to use FOT was extremely accurate.

  2. Brittany
    June 25, 2012 at 1:29 pm #

    “2. My favorite part of this was the analysis of how the alloted FOT in a song affects its potential. The bulleted list of ways to use FOT was extremely accurate.”

    Agreed. Although I try to unpack all of my air instruments immediately upon arrival. Except for the air stand-up bass, that one is too heavy to bring with me.

  3. Marty Lebel
    Marty Lebel
    June 25, 2012 at 1:33 pm #

    TL DNR… JK!!!

  4. Thonederdome
    June 25, 2012 at 2:01 pm #

    So I’m hesitant to click any links or watch any of the videos, because I’ve only heard < 8 seconds of this song, because it was tied in with a youtube haiku channel.

    Meaning I haven’t heard this song. Which is a pretty impressive accomplishment.

    So I’m debating on whether or not to actually listen to the song, or try and keep my streak going, which I’m rather good at doing. (Still haven’t heard a Justin Beiber song. I have been forced to listen to Nikki Minaj, though.)

  5. Evan
    June 25, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

    Much agreement from my end concerning this article, but I when I got to the section concerning Internet backlash, I was hesitant to concur. I felt as though I’d Gwen-stefani-edly come across content online debasing this song and it’s catchy pervasiveness. But after reviewing my sources, I found that people weren’t necessarily angry with the song or it’s popularity. Sure, there are haters out there (i.e. a recent FB post I saw declaring that the song had already been stricken from his wedding playlist 2 months out) as there will always be, but other seemingly negative commentary was actually utilizing the massive popularity of the song for their own comedic devices and personal accomplishments. Following is a perfect example:
    http://i.imgur.com/pMlMQ.png

    And normally not one to let public opinion ruin my enjoyment of music (example: my unabashed and very public love affair with Miley Cyrus’ “See You Again”), I was worried I was jumping aboard a flaming bandwagon just about to careen off a cliff, as I hadn’t come across this song until a wedding two weeks ago. But thanks to your post, Mr. Petro, you’ve breathed new life into my attraction to this song and allayed my concerns of being a tool.
    A strong shot of Halftime Hennesy was all I needed.

    • Joe Petro
      June 27, 2012 at 9:31 am #

      Yes, it seems the Internet has fully embraced “Call Me Maybe” and if you have that endorsement, it’s the only one that matters. The Internet giveth, and the Internet taketh away.

      And you’re welcome for the new found interest in the song – it is nothing to be ashamed of. This one’s a certified classic. And I thank you for reading all those words about a pop song you were on the fence about.

  6. Jacoby
    June 27, 2012 at 12:36 am #

    Does Miley Cyrus “Party in the USA” fall into this category? Because I feel like that song is a close relative of “Call Me, Maybe” and was definitely a summer anthem. It also has a FOT of about 10 seconds. The song still plays, sir.

    • Joe Petro
      June 27, 2012 at 9:46 am #

      In a word, no. Don’t let the fact that both songs are/were massively successful and performed by young, female pop singers fool you. Given that I have not conducted any thorough research or analysis on “Party in the USA”, the fact that the song has some weird Inception-like things going on. For all intents and purposes, it is a party song, impliedly intended for the entire United States of America (see the GIANT American flag in the music video). Yet, the song is actually about a different party, the one where the “the Jay-Z song” and “the Britney song” were on. Huh?

      Also, I remember hearing that Miley didn’t even like the song when they presented it to her and wasn’t going to record it. A quick glance at her Wikipedia shows that it’s even worse than I thought:

      “And I remember thinking this song is amazing, but I don’t know if it’s me 110 percent, you know. You can kind of feel it.” The song reached Cyrus while she was creating an EP with Dr. Luke. The writing team then reworked the lyrics, intending to write an accompanying theme for Cyrus’ joint clothing line with Max Azria, exclusively sold in Wal-Mart stores. In order to please audiences, Dr. Luke, Kelly and Jessie J fixated on composing a fun, upbeat song that narrated reflections of Cyrus’ personality. “They feel they’re buying into a great experience but also buying into the artist”, Kelly said of the song’s fans. To write his contributions to the song, Kelly said he desired to mimic Cyrus’ songwriting: “It’s the same song from a different point of view, you just have to find that unique perspective.” To record the song’s instrumentation, they decided to mingle computerized sound with “the warmth of live instrumentation”, using live electric guitars and drums. Cyrus was pleased with the song and selected it partially due to a need of tracks for The Time of Our Lives.

      Every one of those sentences sheds different light on the contrived and unenthusiastic creation of “Party In The USA”. This song is not in the same league as “Call Me Maybe”.

  7. Michael Bender
    Michael Bender
    June 27, 2012 at 3:07 pm #

    wait. Justin Bieber is from Canada?????

  8. dr. jay
    December 15, 2013 at 10:14 pm #

    “Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad.”

    Before a *person like you* came into my life, I missed having a *person like you* so bad.

    Not even close to a “blatantly illogical lyrical flub”
    It’s a bit of beautiful poetry, alluding to fate, deepening the sense of craving that pervades the song.

    Great review though. Thanks!

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