Unpublishables 1: Hard to Look Right

[This is an essay I wrote about Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe. I believe that the essay is of publishable quality but I have no idea where to submit a piece like this–long, self-regarding, devoid of obvious political content, about a pop song. If you have any ideas let me know.]

Somewhere in the verdant center of America a van is driving down a highway. At the center of the back row, a red-hatted man is singing, but the sweet-barbecue voice we hear is (we strongly suspect) not his own, and certainly the friend sleeping on one of his shoulders is not the drummer. As the chorus begins, another friend undocks from behind the seat on his other side. Together they begin a dance: they raise their right fists in unison, then their left, then both together in a crossed x. They do not sing the chorus. An emerger from the middle of the next row forwards sings the next verse; his row joins him for the chorus. And so on.

The song is Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe,’ and the video is the Harvard baseball team’s youtube cover. It has almost 13 million hits on youtube and has almost singlehandedly spawned an inexplicably-choreographed youtube genre of its own: the athletic-roadtrip-dance vid[1]. It may also be the most mesmerizing pop object to have emerged from our national infatuation with Jepsen’s early-summer earworm.

Why mesmerizing? For the difference. Excepting the numerous[2] Harvard-baseball imitations, the live-action internet covers of ‘Call Me Maybe’ generally refuse the pose of certainty. The earliest, an endearingly-bemustached Bieberfriends clip, confesses immediately to a spirit of impetuous improvisation: I am making this video in my Pajamas. Here Pajamas are the sign of spontaneous expression. I was in my Pajamas, say the Pajamas, when this song happened to me, and when it happened I could do nothing else but make this video, spontaneously, with my famous friends, because we were overcome with joy, and because we had to do something.

Elsewhere, Katy Perry is issuing directions to her friends, the Roots are glancing conspiratorially at each other behind Jimmy Fallon, and Tay Zonday sounds baffled as he tells us he’s chosen to sing as deeply as possible: lacking Pajamas, the other early ‘Call Me Maybe’ vidcovers all substitute their own signs of improvised response.

All but Harvard Baseball. The video has the socio-econo-erogenous rush of watching a certain kind of Harvard man do anything: the thrill of watching someone certain. If it’s possible to dance apodictically[3], this is how. Of course the correct response to ‘Call me Maybe’ is to raise alternating fists into the air. Of course one should lip-sync the verses and gaze forwards through the chorus with steely fixity. Of course it all should happen in a van. The self-confidence is Stalinesque; the implication that of an unerring apprehension of the true nature of the song. The song has an essence, says this video, a crucial message or a secret soul, and it is apparent to the Harvard baseball team.

Part of the mesmeric quality is that such certainty almost certainly outstrips its viewers’. Why, after all, do we watch a youtube cover of a song? Likely we have already heard the song, even seen the official video. Yet this has proved inadequate. As has the rest of life—we are, after all, on youtube. And so we look for something more. Might we assert that the 67mm hits counted beneath these five videos count 67mm instances of dissatisfaction rather than of satisfaction, 67mm times human individuals wanted just a bit more of ‘Call Me Maybe?’ Pop song: a drink of saltwater, inspiring more thirst than it can satisfy.

Following these first improvisations came a second wave of more considered ‘Call Me Maybe’ youtube covers—collaborations between insufferable youtube stars, various layered a cappella takes, the internet’s inevitable pets. Though lacking the same pajama-wearing glee as their forerunners, these show another truth: as rich as the ‘Call Me Maybe’ reaction has been, it has yet to drive anyone outside themselves. College athletes respond with muscular unison, teen video stars with teen videos, TV revuers with unexpected guests, deep-voiced gentlemen with deep voices, corgi-ographers with, well, corgis. And now, perhaps, an essay.

An essay about ‘Call Me Maybe’ would proceed from the same basic insatiability as all the youtube hits: someone can’t get the song out of their head and wants to do something more about it than watch Harvard baseball one more time. But what would an essay about ‘Call Me Maybe’ do? What value would it add? Could an essay exotify more successfully than Zonday? Encuten more successfully than corgis? Almost certainly not. Instead, it would have to do the things an essay does. It would have to look closely. It would have to reason inductively. It would have to locate something hidden. Like Harvard baseball it would have to go into ‘Call Me Maybe’ and come out clutching something. Would such an essay be worth the work? Would it even be possible? Could it say why the song had gotten so big?

***

An essay might start with context. If pop in the twenty-tweens has a single characteristic moment, it’s a held vowel, often autotuned, delivered over piano or synth, with an absent rhythm instrument: the wail of gleeful abandon. Flo Rida’s ‘Wild Ones’ has an exemplary wail in the chorus, as does Fun’s ‘We Are Young,’ Nicki Minaj’s ‘Starships’ and Maroon 5’s ‘Payphone.’ Less-pure examples are found in the entire career of Adele and at the peak of Gotye’s otherwise-atypical ‘Somebody That I Used To Know.

What is the wail? A promise; a signifier of intense emotional presence. A majestic forgetting of the verse’s banal metronomes. Dancing fervently, we too may bloom into great passion, great abandonment, great sexual desire or its satisfaction—a sudden expansive vibrancy in the middle of a club. For those who are drunk enough and fun enough, the wail implies, the drums will drop away and we will leave our bodies in favor of sheer joy.

Why wail? All art may be about the circumstances of its own creation—but also the circumstances of its own consumption. ‘Wild Ones’ doesn’t need to work on American Bandstand, or on an LP in your bedroom. It needs to work in nightclubs. Here the wail mixes consolation and enticement: the promise of the great night out. In the midst of dancing you might suddenly achieve the release: ‘ooo—oo—ooo-oo-ooo,’ you might exclaim, forgetting baser rhythms, moved briefly into something greater than a club.

The other place that modern pop needs to work is in private, in your headphones. Here the wail’s long full vowels signify similarly, but with a condescending implication: while you are listening to your headphones, someone else is being moved to wail. This person is higher than a motherfucker. Likely, they are having more fun than you are. It’s a brilliant economics: modern pop is about how much fun it is to pay money to be somewhere modern pop is being played very loudly.

The music of the wail is the music of cupid: first, the cupid of infatuations, promising that overwhelming feeling may strike you suddenly, as an arrow fired from across the club. Second, the cupid of acquisitive desire, hoping for more bottles of champagne and someone to go home with. Finally, the cupid of nonexistence. No one, likely not even Flo Rida and Nicki Minaj, is having this kind of transcendent fun at nightclubs on a regular basis.

Or are they? Certain famous libertines—perhaps Flo Rida is our Lord Byron, perhaps Kanye our Marquis de Sade, perhaps Minaj our Baudelaire, Drake our essential Rimbaud. If so, Marx will be proved right. The history of derangement will note both the writing of prodigious poems in a certain France and, in a certain farcical America, the prodigious sales of iTunes singles. For the wail shares (or at least endorses, at least markets) the same basic faith as the letter to Izambard: that we may “arrive at the unknown through a derangement of all [the] senses.That, beyond debauchment, there may lurk profundity.

Formillante Cité! And can we not imagine Rimbaud himself, writing to Izambard that poets were like starships, were meant to fly (-yyy), that tonight he was young (uh-uh-uh-ung), that he was a wild one (ooo-oo-ooo-oo-ooo), that he couldn’t stop because he felt so high? Can we not imagine Minaj[4] rapping to the effect that ‘whatever happens you’ll end up self-satisfied/someone who has done nothing and has never wanted to do anything/…your subjective poetry will always be disgustingly tepid/…you are not a teacher for me/I beez in the trap/beez beez in the trap?” How many motherfuckers would it have taken to tell Baudelaire anything?

Hearing wails in a nightclub, then, we’re meant to write ourselves into Rimbaud, into the pose of fulfilling abandon. But, hearing wails in the gym or on the subway, we become the jealous Izambard, anxious to return to the club and participate ourselves in a derangement.

‘Call Me Maybe’ has no wail, and we can imagine Casanova coming nowhere near it. This is a song about remembering the rules, not forgetting them. Jepsen keeps her vowels tight, strained, almost curt. Some barely escape (in my way) others are sung through clenched teeth (this is craazy): these are extremely anxious vowels. And ‘Call Me Maybe’ is at heart an anxious song. Encountering a cute boy, it imagines him explicitly as an obstacle to be overcome (in my way) rather than a pleasure to be taken. Sia in ‘Wild Ones’ approaches the object of her interest directly, offering to be his ‘home run’. Carly Rae approaches him as well, but only with extensive caveats, only after hiding when he sees her through the window.

***

The essay succeeds: it finds a technical difference between its object and that object’s genre, even pins an adjective—‘anxious’—on that difference. But what does a difference mean? Why prefer anxious songs to gleeful? Is not the rest of our culture a headlong flight for consolation? And if there is a value here, who should be credited? Maybe the crucial question in the cultural-object essay is that of the subject’s admitted consciousness. Beginning to write, we imply we’re writing about something important. But is it important inadvertently, as an access into some subconscious only the essayist is smart enough to see[5]? Or is it purposefully important, as a conscious comment on an important situation[6]?

An example: Lady Gaga, having grown up on the Upper West Side, briefly attended Tisch, and seeming both competent and cunning in interviews, has seemingly inexhaustible credit as agente manipulateure with the critical press. Lana del Rey, on the other hand, despite having released this winter a single of superior quality to anything Gaga’s done in the last two years, is seen as a pawn, a surgically-reconstructed airhead who somehow managed to stumble into buzz.

‘Call Me Maybe’ is almost comprehensively impervious to such questioning. On the one hand, there’s the tissue-thin lyrics and frustratingly adolescent[7] insistence on talking about asking him out instead of simply doing so. There’s also the robust dissonance of the music video. The song is about spontaneously approaching someone; the video a lengthy refusal to do so, an insistence on inane car-washing stunts instead of confident approach. The only thing the video gets right is its picket-fence anachronism—the song, too, seems to be from a different decade than our own.

On the above evidence one could make a case for ‘Call Me Maybe’ as the Madonna of the Jif Peanut Butter—a spontaneous occurrence, the probabilistically catchy product of the sheer number of pop singles released each year and nothing Carly Rae Jepsen could take credit for. But in the actual performance of the song, in Jepsen’s control of her voice and in certain details of that same video, there’s reason to give ‘Call Me Maybe’ a bit more credit: she delivers an ingenious performance of the felt tension of handing someone new your number.

Jepsen isn’t gifted with Adele’s epochal roar or Carey’s iridescent quaver. She has the pleasant, sometimes thin talents of a gifted finalist from ‘Canadian Idol.[8]’ But she uses those talents brilliantly. Again the key is in the vowel enunciation. As she watches the boy during the verses, the biggest vowels are the brief, repeated Ys and As of ‘In mY wAy.’ Sung quickly, their strain is the strain of repression—the vowels swell with anticipation, threaten to escape. The chorus’ vowels, though longer, are high and tight, more Ys than As (the other boys don’t try to chaaase her, they try to chayyyse her,) until she reaches the crucial refrain ‘call me mAybe.’ The round A in that line, though brief, is also the most completely sung, unstrained vowel in the entire song, alongside the huge Os of the following bridge (I missed you sO bad/I missed you sO sO bad).

What are we listening to? The anxiety of wanting, in two dimensions: duration and fullness. Our noticing, though brief, has an aching, burgeoning intensity, perhaps granted by our loneliness, which is broad and round and only confessed rarely. We approach the object of our wanting in expansive, quivering anxiety, relieved only by the momentary openness of the request. It’s possible that no vocalist has sung neurosis so well since David Byrne, possible that this is an explanation: ‘Call Me Maybe’ fills a niche first inhabited by Talking Heads and generally absent from top-40 since[9]: nervous mainstream, the dance-pop of the fretful superego.

Why is this so effective? Imagine two worlds: in one, we’re approached at clubs by members of the opposite sex. Having heard we are a wild one, they moan with anticipation and invite us home. In another, we spend all night building the courage to give them our number in hopes they’ll maybe call. The second is a far more common human experience—anxiety far more common than solicitation, hiding behind windows much more frequent than losing ourselves in dance.

There’s an intense personal—what the greeks would call ethical—appeal as well. These days listening to the music in a nightclub, or simply turning on Spotify’s most-played list, can be something other than constructive for self-confidence: Kanye is in a Murcielago and your girlfriend is trying to do him a sexual favor. The accompanying music videos are xxx acquisition-porn, more luxury-merchandising than narration. But Carly Rae Jepsen isn’t interested. She doesn’t want to trash the party you’re at, the car you’re driving, or the relative beauty of your sexual partner. She’s too busy giving her number to the cute boy down the street, who happens to be gay. She’s selling not aspirational abandon but empathized anxiety. And so, in a way, she isn’t selling anything at all, not Cristal or the other-other Benz or Air Carlys. What she offers instead is a recognition of the world that we do inhabit, one where we’re making excuses even as we confess our crushes—and an implicit commiseration for us, the youtube-watchers, the unsatisfied, who are not driving convertibles in Dubai or being beamed into Oahu.

What does this create? Exception, again—and a bit of kinship with the major recent indie-crossover hits: all earnest songs about common states of human being. The effect in all cases, but maybe most of all in ‘Call Me Maybe,’ is one of trust. You could tell Carly Rae about your problems. Really, you could. She’s probably had them too. Nicki Minaj? Even if we suspect that real Onika Tanya has seen far more, is likely far wiser, than the real Carly Rae, not the character. Not Nicki. She’s too busy at the beach (each).

***

But even if we give Jepsen credit–as a singer and an avatar–for the many things ‘Call Me Maybe’ does well, the song must tell us something about its audience as well. To judge by the last few months of popular music, if you’re a girl in North America in 2012 you confront major romantic difficulties. First, it can be difficult to introduce yourself even to boys who are in your way. Second, once you do successfully introduce yourself there’s a reasonably good chance that he’ll become a callow, inattentive boyfriend—mostly concerned with your sexual availability and with video games. Some of these issues may cause you to lose sleep, and if you eventually do break up with him you may feel either sorrowfully triumphant at what he threw away or plaintively jealous of his life with his new girlfriend. You may send friends to collect your records; you may change your number; he may be piqued.

One thing missing here (historically, not proscriptively) is any problematization of chastity. Why? First, the music of the wail satisfies largely through its indulgence of a male fantasy structure (we can meet Nicki, she will be an eager debauchette) which can hardly admit the possibility of non-penetrative relationships. But also a cultural correspondence: for the young adults ‘Call Me Maybe’s listeners are or aspire to become, the maintenance of chastity is not a major interpersonal dilemma. ‘Call Me Maybe’ and most nightclub songs seem to imply sex in the future, Adele and ‘Video Games’ imply it in the past.

Andrew Marvell, among others, would be surprised. His coy mistress would listen to his poems but not sleep with him. ‘Call Me Maybe:’ a data point, along with ‘The Flea,’ ‘Rude Boy,’ and ‘To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time’ in the history of apostrophe. What can we learn from such a history? That the site of romantic difficulty has moved. In 2012 it is more difficult meeting people and less difficult to sleep with those who we have met, or those who will admit to liking us. This sounds a lot like progress: our are real problems, problems from our hearts and those of our lovers rather than problems of obeisance. And Carly Rae, in 1652, would have been far more likely the object of affection than its subject.

But something has been changed as well: as seduction has moved itself from the middle to the beginning of a relationship, so too have the constituents of seduction. Sia has heard we are a wild one—that’s all. No non-sexual performance of wildness is required, no intermediate proof. Jepsen’s attraction, as well, is to the constative—to the appearance of a boy on a hot night, to skin showing through ripped jeans. Increasingly, it seems—and okcupid and craigslist corroborate—seduction is appearance, is reputation, is in first impressions rather than in poems. Is in our surfaces rather than our depths.

Here, perhaps, an explanation for the gnawing mystery of the title: why ‘Call Me Maybe?’ The meter could be satisfied with ‘call me baby,’ or under minor rewrites by any number of others. But it’s ‘maybe,’ with all its waffling conditionality, that the song depends on. It’s another articulation of Jepsen’s nervousness—even when giving her number she can’t quite be wholehearted. Why? Possibly because, in the world of surface seduction, to not be called is both a real risk and a real judgment. To not be called isn’t just an oversight—it’s an indictment of our entire presented being, one whose harshness must be deflected in advance, with an admission that this is crazy and a softening of the request to be called.

Compare with Marvell’s introductions. There, a rigid set of rules on who could be introduced to whom, and how. A certain bow, a prescribed extension of a hand, a recitation of pleasantries—a meeting. No concern for pickup lines: if Austen is a guide love developed slowly, in the course of several hands of whist and only eventually a private conversation. Jepsen, by contrast, is expected to impress immediately. She can approach any boy. But she’ll have about ten seconds—loud seconds, buffeted by strangers—to convince him that he wants to call her. What she’s dealing with—what we’re almost all dealing with—is elevator-speech-love, the love of first impressions. Sia’s moaning pitch, in this world, is far more effective.

If it was only love we might not mind as much. ‘Call Me Maybe’ might still be a hit. But this is our world: employer facebook stalking, pre-first-date googling, linkedin, resumes disqualified for imperfect punctuation, SAT and credit scores. We persist, somehow, in believing in a numinous humanity, in souls and life-long virtues. But we know the world doesn’t. Carly Rae knows: the anxiety of ‘Call Me Maybe’ isn’t just the anxiety of sexual rejection. It’s the anxiety of ‘Blink,’ the anxiety of knowing that a first impression isn’t just the first—increasingly, it’s the last, and the only, and (implicitly) the correct impression.

***

Ultimately, an essay reads. ‘Call Me Maybe’ is a tough target: there’s scarcely four hundred words in the entire song, and while they’re intensely figurative it isn’t the inventive, playful figuration of the metaphysicals. Instead, it’s the tepid figuration of refrigerator poetry[10]: ripped jeans, hot nights, wishing wells, and other props of young infatuation. There’s blowing wind, a confusing kiss/coin exchange rate, a second verse implying that he does eventually call—but not much for a textual analysis.

The most interesting line is the first couplet of the second stanza of the chorus. ‘It’s hard to look right/at you baby,’ sings Jepsen. On the page it reads quickly, as an iamb (it’s HARD) followed by a slurred pyrrhic swallow (tolookrightatyou) and then a final trochee (BAby). But Jepsen sings it slowly and dramatically, as a trochee (ITS hard), a triumphant amphibrach (to LOOK right), a pause (pause) and what’s properly a tertius paeon[11] (atya BAby) but is best described as a thin garnish of syllables around Jepsen’s vast tight A.

What makes the line so good? It’s practically the only one in the song that we seem not to have heard several hundred times before. It’s also one of the few with any actual interpretive interest. It’s an intuitive line the first time through. ‘I’ see ‘you’ across the bar; it’s the good kind of eye contact[12]. The difficulty that follows—of looking right at you—is at the heart of the song. But which ‘right’ is Jepsen talking about? Is it difficult to look directly at ‘you’? Or is it difficult to look correctly?

Fiendishly, both work. It is a real challenge looking straight at that person. But it’s also difficult to look correctly. The second reading poses the difficulty. Even the question of what it means to look correctly is open to interpretations. It might mean accurately—we’ve woken up beside, or showed up for dates with, people we didn’t mean to. Everyone looks accurately in the morning, even if many partners don’t look right.

But morning rightness isn’t necessarily the rightness we want when we introduce ourselves at parties: had we been in the mood for sober analysis of potential partners, we could have stayed home and gone on okcupid. Looking ‘rightly’ at a potential ‘baby’ means something other than total accuracy—it means looking for the right things. The right things? This might mean the size of their primary sexual features. It might mean the size of their empathy, or of their 401(k)—anything, really, ranging in relevance from six minutes to sixty years. It might, saliently for Jepsen, mean being able to tell if someone is gay.

The best joke in the entire song might be how vague everything is. This absence of specificity is, of course, part of the song’s generalizable appeal. The video supplies a specific tattooed love object, and the lyrics make it pretty clear that it’s a boy on the other end of things—but what Jepsen’s reciting, purposefully voided of any messy sexual logistics, is more the itinerary of intuitive infatuation than anything specific to a certain person. Her crush is on a boy, but it could just as easily be on a different boy, or on a girl, or a purchase—anything we’re intensely attracted to without comprehending.

Even a pop song: there’s an eerie parallel between the way we relate to top-40 hits and one-night stands or other pickups. We seek them out online, or are accosted by their beauty in a bar. There’s a thrilling rush of blood, a brief and absolute insatiability, a moment of reckoning. In the morning we are sometimes desperately unhappy (Creed), other times eager for another round (Kanye), and other times simply confused about what we have encountered (Jepsen). There follows, for most of us, a period of awkward comprehension as we attempt to understand just what could have attracted us to them, or them to us, in the first place, and what it says about our lives, our world, and our hearts

But in the end, with songs as with hookups, we find it difficult to look right at them. Whether we over- or under-scrutinize, whether we let pretty be pretty or insist on reading a song as though it were a text, it’s almost impossible to get these interactions right. As good as our tools may be, and however deftly we might apply them, it’s hard for an essay to look right at ‘Call Me Maybe’—it’s not that there isn’t much there. There is: a fantastically catchy pop song, one we’d gladly call, one we’d take out for a night, maybe an entire summer. But anything longer than that? Any of the Harvard Baseball certainty about what this song is, or why, or what we should do about it? We can imagine, can tell any number of interesting stories. We can let it signify the artistic power of anxiety, or the basic terror of a world voided of anything but first impressions. But in the end we’re simply using the song the same way we often use the people who we meet: as a hook, on which we hang our own preoccupations. In the end it’s just hard to look right at you, Carly. Maybe we’d just better listen to the strings, and lift our right fist, then our left, then both together.


[1] The theory here being, apparently, that the product of cell-phone videography and boring roadtrips with people you already spend all your time around is everyone wanting to pay more attention to varsity athletes.

[2] UCSB women’s crew? Ellsworth Community College? MSU crew? Texas State baseball? LSU cheerleaders? All accounted for, the last with impeccable choreography.

[3] Harvard baseball: maybe not your first destination for critical self-doubt.

[4] The most likely poet of them.

[5] From Caligari to Hitler, Mythologies, essays about‘keep your government hands off my medicare’ protestors.

[6] Reactions to Lena Dunham, Up, Simba!, most  literary blogging.

[7] Hamletesque?

[8] How strange that this can be a cutting line—Jepsen is in the top .000001% (maybe more zeros) of humans in singing, a pursuit which along with dancing has probably been a more consistent feature of the human experience than any other form of personal expression. And yet an essayist can find room to knock her for not being Janis.

[9] Despite the valiant efforts of LCD Soundsystem and Robyn.

[10] This reads harsher than it should. While the lyrics of ‘Call Me Maybe’ deserve all the scorn that can be heaped on them, the lyrics aren’t really the point. Getting too excited about this would be like knocking a manuscript of ‘Nine Stories’ for poor kerning. It’s about the vowel sounds, and about the whoosh before the chorus, and about the synths. Most of all the synths.

[11] Thanks Wikipedia!

[12] This is why the scene early in the music video, in which the boy catches her looking at him out the window, is so crucial—the entire song is about what to do after eye contact is made, and it’s the pressure of that  eye contact that drives both video and song.

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