Call it the “call me” summer.
There are likely few corners of the globe that haven’t spent the past several months humming along—if not more—to Canadian pop star Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” The fun, flirty invitation to a dreamy crush has been on the USA Top 40 singles chart since March, holding the #1 spot for nine weeks from late June through mid August. It’s also been #1 in Australia and Brazil. Canada and Finland. New Zealand and the UK. It hasn’t been lower than #3 on the World Singles Official Top 100 since the first week of May. That’s a lot of listens.
And is there anyone who hasn’t yet made a parody or lip dub video? Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, the US Olympic swim team—even Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster. It’s all hands (usually flaunting a “call me” gesture) on deck. As of this writing, the song’s official video has been watched more than 207 million times.
The official video, moreover, has pushed “Call Me Maybe” into some very interesting conversations about contemporary romance. Written and directed by Ben Knechtel, the video shows Jepsen, playing the song’s protagonist, fanning herself with a romance novel as she spots her crush for the first time, mowing the lawn outside her window. A few shots later, the camera pans slowly over a coffee table to show two more romance novels, also presumably hers. About two-thirds of the way through the story, Jepsen’s character imagines herself and the target of her affection as models on the clinch cover of a romance novel titled—you guessed it—Call Me Maybe.
Whereas the song leaves the protagonist’s happy-ever-after in exquisite suspense—”So call me, maybe?” yearns chorus after bright chorus—the video makes clear that the crush will not, indeed can not, return her declaration of interest. As it turns out, he’s gay. At the end of the video, he walks past Jepsen’s character (now lead singer in an adorable garage band performing “Call Me Maybe” sweetly for the crush) to offer his phone number—and his own “call me” hand gesture—to one of her male bandmates. The video then fades out on Jepsen’s look of surprise and disappointment.
Although it takes a bit of freezing and zooming, it’s possible to identify the actual romance novels used in the production. Jepsen’s character is fanning herself with Dana Marton’s Stranded with the Prince (2010) from the Harlequin Intrigue line. The novels on the table are Linda Warren’s Skylar’s Outlaw (2010), a Harlequin Superromance, and—perhaps most fittingly—B. J. Daniels’s Love at First Sight, another Harlequin Intrigue (2000; rpt. 2010). Harlequin was thrilled, gleefully tweeting “Singer Carly Rae Jepsen fans herself with a Harlequin Intrigue in a music video & other romances make a cameo!” in early February.
Opinion on the web has been more divided. Some commentators see romance fiction being used as a cheap joke, cultural shorthand for overwrought desire. After all, the more skin the crush exposes (as Jepsen’s character watches, he stops mowing the lawn to take off his shirt), the more vigorously she fans herself. When the crush accidentally catches her watching him, she plunges out of view, pulling the open book down with her. At the end of the video, when her fiction-fed hopes—remember the clutch cover fantasy?—are deflated by the surprise twist, the video all but says, “see what silly dreams such stories conjure?”
But where some see humiliation, others see empowerment. Blogging for SPIN.com, Daniel Kreps writes: “I wish The Atlantic or some other brainy periodical would do a scientific study about how many girls have asked out guys in the past six months by quoting the lyrics to this song. Gotta be over 2.5 million, right?” And here’s NPR music critic Ann Powers on “Call Me Maybe’s” protagonist: “She’s the girl in the rom-com who’s a little quirky and clumsy and doesn’t seem like the hero’s type, but who represents freedom and spontaneity and an open door to a new life. Call me maybe: I’ll walk you into a different sunset.”
For many critics, including Powers, the video’s closing twist is less important for what it implies about romance readers than for the validation it gives to gay male romance. “The ending of the ‘Call Me Maybe’ video,” she writes, “takes a . . . step toward the proudly queer: after watching Jepsen perform, Hunk ambles up to the male guitarist and gives him the longed-for digits. Jepsen looks bummed, but not shocked. LGBTQ people are clearly a part of her world.” Powers sees this ending validated by the multiple responses to the video that playfully celebrate male-male love and desire. As a cultural phenomenon, she argues, the video thus provides a powerful message: “Wake up, be human, be happy, don’t turn your back on love.”
That’s a soundtrack for any summer.
William Gleason is a professor of English and associate faculty member in African American Studies at Princeton University. Find out more about William Gleason.