By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Call Me Maybe’ is the best-known song by the Canadian singer-songwriter Carly Rae Jepsen. This 2011 song began life as a folk song, written by Jepsen and Tavish Crowe. It’s about a girl who sees a boy she likes; she gives him her phone number and tells him to call her, if he wants to. The song leaves us wondering whether the two of them actually end up getting together.
Although this is a light and upbeat song whose meaning appears to be immediately graspable, there are some curious details to ‘Call Me Maybe’ which warrant closer analysis and investigation.
‘Call Me Maybe’: meaning
A girl makes a wish, and she is looking at someone she likes as the coin drops into the well. Now she is besotted with him. She likes him so much she would sell her soul to make her wish come true: her wish being to kiss him. His ripped jeans, revealing a bit of his bare skin underneath on a hot, windy night, were enough to make her swoon.
She knows it’s too soon to be saying such things, but she gives him her phone number and asks him to give her a call, if he wants to. He is so sexy she almost cannot bear to look straight at him, probably because she’ll grow all shy and nervous. She’s not short of admirers, but she wants the one guy who isn’t after her. We always want what we can’t have.
The guy doesn’t call her immediately, playing it cool perhaps, in stark contrast to the swiftness with which she fell for him. Although he’s not shown much interest in her, he’s still on her mind and occupying her thoughts, getting in the way of her going about her life. Although it was love (or at least attraction, or lust) at first sight, she knows it’s the real deal.
Before she met him, she missed him without realising she did. In other words, she retrospectively looks back on her life before he was in it and realises what she was ‘missing’: she needed him in her life to make it complete.
‘Call Me Maybe’: analysis
Some songs are the musical equivalent of a tasty piece of bubble-gum, and ‘Call Me Maybe’ is surely one such song. Its lyrics require little close analysis or interpretation for the song’s meaning to be grasped. And yet, as ever here at What Songs Mean, some questions arise from a closer inspection of the song’s lyrics.
For although ‘Call Me Maybe’ appears to be a straightforward song with a clear ‘narrative’ – girl meets boy, girl falls for boy, girl makes the first move, boy plays it cool with girl, girl wants boy even more – there are some moments in the song which problematise such a neat summary of the song’s meaning.
Let’s start with that first verse. The girl is presumably either standing over a wishing-well, dropping a coin into the water and making a wish, or she is using this as a metaphor: although not literally at the well, she is making a wish to herself, hoping it’ll come true.
But what is the wish? She is looking at the guy when she makes the wish, but then ‘complains’ (or faux-complains) that he’s now in her way, implying an unwanted impedance or obstacle.
In other words, she implies that she didn’t intend to fall for him, but she did so because she just happened to be glancing at him (out of curiosity or by sheer accident) when she made her wish – her wish presumably being to fall in love and meet someone special.
Yet later in the song, Jepsen – or the ‘speaker’ of the song, at any rate – implies that it was love (or lust) at first sight. They’ve ‘just met’, remember. So what happened? Did she see him, fall for him and then make a wish that he would fall for her too? Or did she see him, make a wish that she would meet someone special, and then realised it was him she had fallen for?
In other words, ‘Call Me Maybe’ actually poses an intriguing question about the nature of falling in love (or just fancying the ripped jeans off someone we’ve just met). Do we ever feel in complete control of whom he love (or lust after)? Do we really just fancy someone because of them, or is it because we’re looking for someone to fall for, and they just happen to be in the right place at the right time?
Jepsen’s song also reminds us that we want what we can’t have. Playing hard to get is not just a romantic truism or cliché: it’s hard-wired into our evolutionary psyches.
We tend not to fall for someone – at least not in the same way – if they come across as too ‘into’ us, too desperate or keen. The inner masochist inside us often makes us fall for the person who is displaying the least interest in us. Something about playing it cool really does work when it comes to getting people to fall at your feet.
Or at least, so ‘Call Me Maybe’ appears to imply. After all, the song ends with us wondering whether this boy and girl ever got it together. True, he did call her back – eventually – but he also gave her nothing at all, she tells us. So although Jepsen has said this song is about a ‘pick-up’, is it about a pick-up that never actually led anywhere, despite the girl’s best efforts?