The following is an excerpt from Switched on Pop: How Popular Music Works and Why it Matters, by Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding, with illustrations by Iris Gottlieb. Based on Sloan and Harding’s acclaimed podcast, the book closely examines a variety of Top 40 hits, from Britney Spears to Kendrick Lamar, breaking the songs down musically to explore the techniques behind them and show why pop music deserves to be taken seriously. This excerpt, from the book’s introduction, looks at Carly Rae Jepsen’s infectious bop “Call Me Maybe.” Switched on Pop is now available for purchase.
How perfect are those lines? They feel as old as the earth, like something archaeologists would discover carved in stone at an ancient Druid burial ground. But of course it’s not just the words that resonate; it’s the music that is subconsciously added to them by anyone who has heard Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2012 #1 hit “Call Me Maybe.” It’s the rhythm, melody, and harmony of the line that make the lyric so effective. The music thrusts listeners into the position of the song’s narrator, into the state of suspended animation that comes from doing one of the bravest and scariest things in the world: asking someone out. The preceding verse finds Jepsen in a more contemplative mood, narrating her interior emotions. But in the chorus, Jepsen—and her listeners— suddenly plunge into real time. Through four lines, over four measures of music, Jepsen and her co-writers Tavish Crowe and Josh Ramsay generate heart-pounding suspense. Jepsen delivers her first lyric, “Hey, I just met you.” Then, she pauses, as if waiting for a response, but there is none. The silence isn’t filled by another voice, only by synthesized strings sounding out the syncopated rhythm “daa da da.” Inconclusive, at best. How will the object of her affection respond? Jepsen continues, “And this is crazy.” Another pause, another syncopated string stab. “But here’s my number.” Another string hit. “So call me, maybe?”
Every other musical element in the chorus reinforces the exquisite awkwardness of the encounter between Jepsen and her crush. Nervous about showing her feelings, Jepsen hesitates before singing the first word of the chorus, “hey.” The lyric is probably better written as “[pause] hey.” One might expect Jepsen to sound the word on the downbeat, the first pulse of a musical measure. Instead, she waits until the second beat. It’s unexpected, but effective, like she’s working up the courage to say her piece. The chorus’s underlying chord progression also keeps things up in the air. The progression never lands on what we call the tonic chord, in this case, G major, the harmonic “home” of the song. It only glances at it. In fact, the only time that the harmony firmly lands on G major is on the very last chord of the song—an absence that makes listeners feel giddily unmoored.
This avoidance-of-the-home-chord technique in “Call Me Maybe” is similar to one used in Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” (2010). In a 2014 article for Slate, the musician Owen Pallett describes how the lack of a home chord in Perry’s hit creates “suspension . . . in the emotional sense, which listeners often associate with ‘exhilaration,’ being on the road, being on a roller coaster, travel.”
Like so much pop, the creation of “Call Me Maybe” does not map to the genius myth common to high art. Carly Rae Jepsen did not stand on an oceanside cliff, lift her brow skyward, and wait for divine inspiration to bellow, “Hey, I just met you.” “Call Me Maybe” thus raises a question that listeners of our podcast ask over and over: do these musicians even know what they’re doing? That is, did Jepsen and her collaborators sit down and consciously decide to avoid using the tonic chord until the end of the song in order to increase the harmonic tension? Are these musical choices even intentional? The answer is, sometimes. Max Martin, the Swedish mastermind behind more hits in the twenty-first century than anyone else, is known to approach a song with panoptic precision, an approach that has been dubbed “melodic math.”
On the other hand, songwriter Emily Warren told us in an interview on Switched On Pop that she’s never started a song with such calculation but rather proceeds completely by intuition. When a producer working with Sia complained that she made the same amount of money for writing a song in twenty minutes that would take him three weeks to produce, Sia replied, “Yeah . . . but it took me fifteen years to take twenty minutes.” “Call Me Maybe” is likely a song built from a mix of clever engineering and happy accidents. The song began life as a country tune before its writers realized that the pop textures most listeners are now familiar with would prove more effective. Some lyrics don’t really make any sense, like “Before you came into my life I missed you so bad.” And yet, it doesn’t seem to matter, because the line’s rhythm and melody are so expertly crafted.
Every type of music lover has something to learn from listening to pop. It is not essential to love every song in this book, but it is essential to take them all seriously—which is not always easy to do. Critics often dismiss pop music as corporate, a Marxist’s nightmare of boorish middle-aged svengalis presiding over an assembly line of aural baubles destined for the brainwashed masses. There is truth in the image. There is a lot of bad music, and there are plenty of terrible musicians out there. There are also genuine artists among the bunch, and that is who we have sought to represent in these pages. And even when pop is the product of corporate strategy sessions and focus groups, its music remains unruly. It does not obey the intentions of its creators. As manicured or messy as a song may be, once it’s released into the world, predicting how it will resonate is impossible. Listeners take music and remake it in their own image. As the cultural theorist Stuart Hall has noted, there are two ways to read the term “popular.” One is popular as the product of mass media. Oppressive, reductive, prizing commercial success over artistic integrity. The other is popular as in “of the people,” accessible art that soothes the pain of everyday life. Hall concludes that popular art is never one or the other, solely top-down or bottom-up, but rather a negotiation, a dialogue, a give-and-take between the two.
“Call Me Maybe” is a perfect example of the deeply collaborative and commercial nature of twenty-first-century pop, and in this respect, the art and business of making pop music has changed little since the invention of the phonograph in the late 1800s. At the same time, the twenty-first century presents new iterations of certain themes. Popular music reflects the society, economy, and technology of the world from which it emerges, so by learning the language of pop we can better understand our mad, modern existence. To be switched on is to be curious about how every part of a song interweaves to create movement and meaning. When we listen this way, we find that the injustice, inequality, and intolerance of the world is all in there, but so is its beauty, kindness, and wonder. If, as Stuart Hall suggests, popular culture is a dialogue, then when we listen more clearly, we engage more clearly too. Switched on listening will help you better enjoy the songs you love, better appreciate the songs you don’t, make you a more politically engaged and socially empathetic listener, help you relate to your fellow citizens, and embrace change. Also—and this is crazy—it’s absurdly fun.
From Switched on Pop: How Popular Music Works and Why it Matters, by Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding. Copyright © 2019 by Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.