For our second class of English 228B here at the University of British Columbia, I drafted a short lecture on reading – on beginning a close reading – Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe,” a song which I had used as an introductory example in the first class, on pop music and lyrics. The students had been asked to look at the video, and to look at the “parody” done by Carly Rae Jepson with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots. I decided to write out some lecture text – the preferred mode for the class, I’m imagining, will be workshop discussion – in order to give something of a firm anchor point from which to begin thinking about how reading takes place. The class took place on Wednesday, January 8, 2014. An audio capture of the lecture portion of the class (hosted on my SoundCloud page) is attached below. (Just a note – in the audio, I credit Eve Kosofsky Sedwick with the term “heteronormativity” [I am thinking of her introduction to Epistemology of the Closet], but the term seems to have originated with Michael Warner.)
The protagonist of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel High Fidelity, Rob Fleming, defines his self-awareness in terms of his record collection, an accumulation of popular music he inhabits and that gives him a second-hand voice: “Is it wrong, wanting to be at home with your record collection? It’s not like collecting records is like collecting stamps, or beermats, or antique thimbles. There’s a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colorful, sleazier, more dangerous, more loving world than the world I live in; there is history, and geography, and poetry, and countless other things I should have studied at school, including music.” Following on our initial reading of Carly Rae Jepson’s song “Call Me Maybe” at our first class, I want to suggest some of the ways we can begin to address what I called the “cultural work” of popular music, how (in more contemporary terms) the playlists of favourite songs – a version of what Rob Fleming and his record-store colleagues call their “top five“ lists – both produce and define their listeners as subjects, and speak to the welter of value systems – taste, morals, desires – through which we circulate.
For this course, I’m suggesting that we concentrate on the poetics of song lyrics, on the kinds of texts that popular music articulates but also on the cultural contexts in which those words operate. One of the things to notice in the passage from Nick Hornby’s novel – which we’re not reading in this course, and which I’m unlikely to mention again – is its utopianism: text and context intersect to form an ideal “whole world,” a world that appears to promise comfort and escape but that also presents a qualitatively better, richer position from which to view our contemporary world critically. (This is, as a matter of fact, one of the ways in which the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch understood the transformative political impetus of utopian, as offering what he calls “the principle of hope,” as an instance of the “not yet.” ) In class last day, we arrived at a what seemed like an essential conflict in our assessments of “Call Me Maybe” – both the lyrics and the video – that suggests that the song might either encourage conformity to an illusory middle-class heteronormativity (the romantic idealism that manifests itself in clichés that come from other pop songs and romance novels – “I trade my soul for a wish”) or that it might be a critically-minded parody of those dangerously mindless delusions, that it does in fact see the boy-girl, romantic-rescue scenario it thematizes as “crazy” and disempowering (some of you noted, for example, how the song appears to invert the terms of agency, so that the stereotypically passive ingénue becomes the one who is actively seeking an erotic encounter, thus undermining heteronormative gender hierarchies – an inversion marked in the video, although not in the song itself, by the singer’s disappointment when it’s revealed that the object of her desire, of her gaze, is gay). We might appear to have reached a bit of a stalemate: which reading of the song is right, or at least to be preferred? Is the utopianism of the song’s vestigial “romance” narrative self-reflexively critical or does it merely reproduce coercive mass-culture escapism?
I want to look at the lyrics to try to work our way through this dilemma, and to think about how popular song interpellates us as listening subjects. By “interpellate,” I mean what Louis Althusser describes as “hailing,” when the apparatus of the state or of “ideology” calls out to us. Althusser’s famous example is a policeman’s “Hey, you!” but I want us to think for a moment about how this song calls us, maybe. The trope in the title is the phone call, after the persona behind the lyrics has given her number to a prospective lover. That number is, if you think about it, a marker of personal identity, like her name. To be called at your number is to be recognized, to be desired back, and, as the title indicates, to be hailed as a “me,” as somebody who’s seen, whose gaze (“I looked to you,” “I wasn’t looking for this”) is returned, who gets noticed, seen herself. Not to be noticed, in this schema, is to be nobody.
The song remains, however, in a kind of state of abeyance around this possibility. We don’t know if her call or her gaze is answered, if she does get interpellated by her prospective “baby.” The title (which is also the tag line of the chorus) indicates this uncertainty in its clipped and tenuous syntax – it doesn’t feel like a proper sentence – but it can also be read as the persona naming herself: her name, what she’s called, is Maybe. Her sense of self consists in the dilemma we’re contingently trying to resolve here. She’s an aggregate of her own desires, uncertain of the terms in which those desires can articulate themselves. Her sense of the rightness of her object of desire, the “foresight” she seems to have, attempts to firm itself up in the circular repetition of the chorus and the bridge – “Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad” – but in the temporal paradox that she voices here, that sureness and that feeling of (his) presence are effects of desire, of want, of absence, of “missing,” which in turn suggests that her maybe-ness is the only space she has, a fractured assemblage of clichés and skewed grammar that is as catchy as it is troubling.