Earlier this year, I offered some thoughts on the transnational nature of Carly Rae Jepsen’s meteoric rise on the pop charts, before “Call Me Maybe” become the song of the summer and before its memeification spread to the outer reaches of the solar system. Since that point, the meme has threatened to swallow the artist, which Katherine St. Asaph focuses on in a recent MTV Hive article, “How the Internet Killed Carly Rae Jepsen.”
It’s an interesting piece that highlights the low sales for Jepsen’s album Kiss, which has sold under 100,000 copies. St. Asaph makes the case that Jepsen’s attempt to establish herself as an artist has been impossible in the wake of her unprecedented success:
This sounds counterintuitive; shouldn’t it help Jepsen for thousands of people to remix, recreate and otherwise rejoice over her song? But the meme’s not about Jepsen; it’s about her song, and she is secondary…This is the problem Carly Rae Jepsen’s facing: loving “Call Me Maybe” as a meme hasn’t made people invested in her as a musician. To be fair, she’s at a few disadvantages. She’s 26, making music most people would call teenpop. She’s best associated with Justin Bieber, someone who’s still a moptop preteen in the non-fan imagination. Her 2008 debut, Tug of War, inexplicably remained Canadian-only. And she isn’t the type to flaunt the outsize personalities that bring success in U.S. pop. She’s just charming, to the point of being demure.
The article features some good analysis of how recent changes to the Billboard charts have changed the nature of pop hits, taking new metrics into account, but it doesn’t ask a question that has been on my mind—and that I’ve talked about with my brother Ryan, whose beat I’m encroaching on talking about this—since the album debuted: why was this album released when it was?
Answering this question does not dramatically change Jepsen or the album’s fate, but it does offer some different context for the logics Jepsen’s career is operating under at this moment.
Kiss‘ September release was outside of holiday shopping windows (when people who don’t normally buy records are most likely to buy records), still too far removed from the height of “Call Me Maybe” to truly ride the same wave, and in a crowded week with multiple new releases (including P!nk, a direct competitor, and The Killers). It was too late and too early, rushed in a way that still somehow felt as though it was late to the party, and without any kind of marketing campaign—viral or otherwise—beyond the hope that the ubiquity of “Call Me Maybe” would be an innate draw (it wasn’t).
The only answer I’ve been able to work with is that they needed the album not so that it would sell well (although I’m sure they were hoping it would sell better), but because it could sell to the audiences who would be seeing Jepsen on tour with Justin Bieber. In a crowded stadium filled with teens who may well know every Justin Bieber song by heart, I wonder if there were concerns that Jepsen would have floundered without an audience that at least could potentially know more than her single hit song. With an album, you’re assured that at least some audience members could sing along with more than the one hit; it also assures that those who like the songs they’ve never heard before have something to go buy—or stream—when they get home.
It puts the album’s sales on a more long term trajectory, as right now it’s not being asked to carry any degree of risk for Scooter Braun. Adding Jepsen to Bieber’s tour offers greater security than a tour of her own, continued exposure that can keep album sales slow but steady until we reach the holiday season, where “the album from that “Call Me Maybe” girl” might actually be a popular stocking stuffer with the right demographics. Of course, it also means further tying Jepsen to Bieber’s star text: it’s advantageous for Braun to simply use Jepsen as an opening act to help bolster his new record label on the back of his most famous client, but one wonders if it is most advantageous for Jepsen herself, or her musical future.
Speaking to St. Asaph’s larger point, none of this will necessarily change Jepsen’s ephemerality within the cultural zeitgeist, particularly given the fact that I had a student who attended one of Bieber’s concerts recently who didn’t even bother paying attention to Jepsen’s set (except for “Call Me Maybe”). It’s true that the “memeification” of “Call Me Maybe” has pushed Jepsen out of her own narrative (which is why I found the Jimmy Fallon video so encouraging, as she finally got to really take part in her own story), and it’s going to mean Kiss—which, while too reliant on singles, has grown on me as an album—isn’t the kind of pop success it might have been in a different timeline. However, I would be interested to know what the expectations were behind some of the decisions in terms of how the album was promoted and released.