Buy Me Maybe: Can A Meme Sell Records?

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This is crazy, but Carly Rae Jepsen could pull off the rare YouTube-to-riches success story.

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YouTube user connerhulse / Interscope Records / Pop Hangover

In 1881, The New York Times proclaimed exasperatedly that "Hitherto the problem with electricity has been bottling it." To the great frustration of guys like Thomas Edison, the awesome power of lightning was visible and knowable—but there was no apparent way to capture it.

A century or so later, we've solved that specific problem, but this week, Canadian pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen will attempt to pull off its 2012 equivalent. With the release of her album Kiss, the voice behind the outrageously catchy, YouTube-dominating hit "Call Me Maybe" will become just the latest in a long line of Internet music sensations to try to harness the frenzied momentum of viral fame and channel it into profitable, long-term pop stardom—something that many have attempted, but few have done.

Yes, "Call Me Maybe" has a quarter of a billion views on YouTube, and yes, it has an accompanying homemade fan-video craze—two telling trademarks of the modern one- or two-hit wonder. But Jepsen herself is a new kind of viral star (an industry-seasoned one), and "Call Me Maybe" is a new breed of viral hit (an un-ironic, earnestly beloved one). So with the help of another web gem-turned-superstar—Justin Bieber, ever heard of him?—and his label Schoolboy Records, Jepsen's Kiss could be the next chapter in a rare YouTube success story.

THE YOUTUBE RECORD DEAL: A HIT-OR-MISS ENDEAVOR

YouTube, launched in 2005, has been cranking out hyper-shareable song sensations for years now (remember "Chocolate Rain"?). But in the years since "viral video" became folk vernacular, Internet stardom has become notoriously difficult to monetize. And at the surface level, that's understandable: Records cost money, while YouTube is free.

But of the many Internet music sensations who have tried to score a profitable music career, a handful have succeeded. Justin Bieber, for instance, was discovered in 2008 when his now-manager Scooter Braun was browsing YouTube. Soulja Boy, similarly, sparked a dance craze in 2007 with the viral video "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" and garnered a platinum album, Souljaboytellem.com, the year afterward. Eighteen-year-old Christina Grimmie landed a Disney web series and a summer gig opening for Selena Gomez.

For other artists, though, the "second act" hasn't taken off so spectacularly. In 2008, Dutch pancake house waitress Esmee Denters was the first artist signed to Justin Timberlake's record label Tennman Records after she became a YouTube phenomenon with her covers of Timberlake's and Natasha Bedingfield's pop songs. Her 2009 album peaked in the mid-50 range on a few European countries' album charts and failed to chart outside of Europe. Greyson Chance, a 12-year-old who was hailed as the "next Justin Bieber" for his floppy haircut and viral 2010 talent-show cover of Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi," released an album via Ellen DeGeneres's label that spent a modest six weeks on the Billboard chart last August. Malaysian folk singer Zee Avi was heavily promoted by YouTube and even toured with Pete Yorn in 2009, but her two full-length releases have spent a combined total of three weeks on the Billboard 200—peaking at No. 129.

And Lana Del Rey, a captivating young ingénue (or so it seemed at the time) enjoyed a swirl of reverent, murmured Internet buzz last summer, and by winter she had risen all the way to the Saturday Night Live stage. But her mystique quickly crumbled when it surfaced that "Lana Del Rey" was the re-invented persona of a failed, parentally pampered pop star of the past. Critics panned her album Born to Die and a stiff, bizarre SNL performance left viewers doubtful, and since then Del Rey's early promise has dwindled, sadly, to punchline status.

There's a wide range of reasons, then, why a YouTube darling's bona fide pop stardom could fail to materialize. Maybe her preteen adorability wilted under the harsh glare of celebrity; maybe his original material wasn't nearly as breathtaking as his covers of Bruno Mars songs. Maybe the act was funny enough to click and share for free, but not nearly funny enough to buy.

Jepsen, though, nimbly sidesteps some of these all-too-familiar traps—so to the extent that these things can be predicted, the 26-year-old British Columbia native could be our latest, best hope for a real YouTube-to-superstar success story.

"THE MOST CATCHIEST SONG I'VE EVER HEARD"

"Call Me Maybe," recently named Billboard's 2012 Song of the Summer, will probably one day be presented in textbooks as a hallowed case study in the principle of Internet "virality." Though the single, released by Canadian label 604 Records, had been driving YouTube traffic and earning play on some Canadian radio stations since September 2011, it became a global cultural phenomenon almost literally overnight when Bieber, a fellow Canadian who's called the song "the most catchiest song I've ever heard," tweeted about it. He and a few Disney-friendly pals posted a goofy "Call Me Maybe" lip-sync video to YouTube on Feb. 28; Bieber's expansive flock of loyal followers then clicked, squealed, and shared, driving up the lip-sync video's traffic exponentially. And when the official video surfaced two days later, that, too, went viral worldwide, as evidenced by the visible bump in its weekly interest chart on YouTube's Trends blog.

Jepsen signed with Justin Bieber's label, Schoolboy Records, and the song rocketed up the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart to hold the No. 1 position for nine weeks. The song went on to dominate YouTube and Billboard charts throughout the spring and summer, and on its way there, it was repurposed in countless different ways as a wacky photo caption and inspired a craze of lip-sync videos like Bieber's. Sports teams, friend groups, college students on spring break, and other "Call Me Maybe"-obsessed fans began uploading their own silly renditions of the now-ubiquitous track.

To date, according to YouTube's Trends blog, the official video has more than 250 million views—but fan videos mentioning "Call Me Maybe" have been seen nearly a billion times.

And that figure is perhaps the most telling of all. The fact that the official pop song and the fan-video meme both took off so explosively at the same time highlights one way "Call Me Maybe" is different from its predecessors: It's a funny meme, but it's also a great song.

The "Call Me Maybe" meme is one of the first in recent memory that's been fueled by the surprising fact of how likable a song is. Gawker's Emma Carmichael called it "a flawless pop song" after the official video debuted in March: "Resistance is futile, people," she wrote. "As much as I want to hate this song, I have listened to it seven times today (maybe more like 10 times) and I am not yet sick of it."

Some of the most popular viral fan videos of "Call Me Maybe," too, are driven by the cheeky humor of seeing people we'd never expect to love girly bubblegum pop songs sing and dance to a girly bubblegum pop song. When the Harvard baseball team released an instantly beloved road-trip video tribute to Jepsen's hit in May, CBS News' Jim Armstrong mused, "It's not how you picture varsity Harvard athletes in their downtime." It's probably not how you picture Division I rowers, Today show hosts, the U.S. Olympic swimming team, Darth Vader, or President Barack Obama spending their downtime, either.

The "Call Me Maybe" meme is one of the first in recent memory that's been fueled by the surprising fact of how likable a song is.

(Plenty of theories have been floated as to why, scientifically, "Call Me Maybe" is just so damn addictive. Among them: The juxtaposition of a soft rhyme—"crazy" and "maybe"—with the conceptual dissonance of a closely situated directive and caveat—"call me" and "maybe"—create a "cognitive itch" that begs to be scratched. Seriously.)

And unlike other music memes of the past, the buzz surrounding "Call Me Maybe" isn't born of mockery. Though it did become one of the greatest Internet inside jokes ever, "Call Me Maybe" achieves what Rebecca Black's deeply troubling 2011 viral video "Friday" and the aw-bless-his-heart American Idol reject William Hung's tone-deaf albums never did: It's found a widespread audience that loves it un-ironically and non-patronizingly. As we've learned from the Rebecca Blacks and William Hungs of the world, irony can't be relied on to create bona fide pop stars. And neither can tweenage cuteness, in the case of Greyson Chance.

But likable, infectious music has sold records ever since records became a thing. In fact, it's the only thing that ever consistently has. And if Jepsen's follow-ups to "Call Me Maybe" are any indication—like the Owl City-assisted duet "Good Time" and "This Kiss" and "Tiny Little Bows" from Kiss—we're in for more squeaky-clean, disarmingly cute Jepsen earworms in the future.

YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR

Over the years, would-be buyers have learned to be wary when viral stars go the studio route. With good reason: Often, after label execs have stepped in and whipped up a star, the final product barely resembles what the viral video advertised.

When Greyson Chance, then 13, released his first album Hold on 'Til the Night, Chris Willman of Reuters observed that while Chance obviously had talent beyond his years, the album might give listeners "the sense of being at someone's home where the host parents have dressed an overachiever kid up in adult clothes and asked the poor savant to belt out a Judy Garland tune before bedtime." Precocity, Willman mused, could be fun—but Chance's producers had missed the tongue-in-cheek element of his mature-sounding "Paparazzi" cover, and instead played up the melodrama to the extent that Hold on 'Til the Night felt sappy and age-inappropriate. And Dondria, a young R&B singer who was signed by Jermaine Dupri after posting startlingly soulful covers of Rihanna, Beyonce, and Aaliyah songs, released her album in 2008 to a similar chorus of buyer's remorse. Critics were disappointed with her seeming lack of, well, soul: "When dealing with the obviously sensual, the fresh-faced singer lacks the emotional depth required to make the song believable," wrote Shirea L. Carroll of Essence. In both cases, it seemed some element of that home-grown, Flipcam-captured magic had somehow been left on the cutting-room floor.

Jepsen, though, has gotten her growing pains over with. Unlike YouTube discoveries like the aforementioned, plus Denters and Avi, Jepsen already has a good deal of music-industry experience—namely, a third-place finish on Canadian Idol and a 2008 album named Tug of War—under her belt, not to mention a full repertoire of original material. The popularity of "Call Me Maybe" is grass-roots and homemade, but the song itself isn't: It was, after all, recorded in a licensed sound booth in Vancouver, which makes Jepsen a sort of hybrid super-meme sensation, forged from equal parts shrewd studio production and fervent, organic fan enthusiasm.

So fans can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that Carly Rae Jepsen, the commodity, actually sounds reliably like Carly Rae Jepsen, the spunky viral video star. Whether Kiss propels Jepsen even further into the upper echelons of pop or not, her story will likely become either a how-to template for other viral stars looking to make the leap, or quickly join the canon of cautionary tales about how not to. Present and future Internet darlings will be watching and taking notes as Jepsen attempts the old Benjamin Franklin trick this week—with their own proverbial kites and jars at the ready.

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Ashley Fetters is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers entertainment.

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