Buy Me Maybe: Can A Meme Sell Records?

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

call me maybe.jpg
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.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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