Carly Rae Jepsen

When “California Gurls,” Katy Perry’s sugary, rollicking piece of pop, was unleashed in the summer of 2010 — out of car stereos, on TV commercials, at bars, barbecues and in the innuendo-leaden music video — it was like being steamrolled. The song, whether liked, loved or bemoaned, commands surrender — throw your hands up in defeat, give in to the fantasy; the lyrics “sun-kissed skin so hot we’ll melt your popsicle” have been woven into the pop cultural lexicon.

Perry’s song is one in a series of what the music industry and press calls Songs of Summer; the top 40 summer season hit that become so large, so beyond the scope of a four minute song that they permanently become part of the cultural consciousness. They are not forgotten. They define years, moments and artists’ careers. They are so well-known and have melodies and lyrics so easily regurgitated, that to not know them is alienating. Millenials know them: The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” (2009), Rihanna’s “Umbrella” (2007), Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” (2002).

But how does a summer song embed itself so permanently into our brains? Because you commit them to memory, says David Allan, an assistant professor of marketing at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia who has worked in the radio industry for more than 20 years, including at Clear Channel Communications. Summer songs are often experienced in the background to some of our most memorable moments — the soundtrack to summer fun. These episodic or autobiographical memories, Allan says, are why Songs of Summer stick with you 20 years later.

THE RULES

So what has 2012 wrought? With Memorial Day just behind us, there are a handful of contenders, frontrunners and outliers. To narrow down our own search, we’ve adapted some industry standard rules:

• No ballads 
• Top 40 radio fare are what will be primarily considered — they have the marketing and airplay muscle to become serious earworms. But we’ve indulged other tastes. 
• Songs that have reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 before Memorial Day are ineligible (sorry, Gotye).

Going forward, we will give weekly Song of Summer 2012 updates, looking closely at songs’ ubiquity (that “booming-out-the-car-stereo” quality), sales and Billboard chart positions and general buzz. 

THE FRONT RUNNERS

Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe”

Bieber and tween-teen-approved, this seemingly innocuous breeze is really more like a Canadian storm system — no use hiding, it’s everywhere.  

Usher, “Scream”

We like “Climax” better, but based on how aggressively successful this single has been, it’s foolish to discount “Scream”’s au courant club rush. 

Rihanna, “Where Have You Been”

There’s an exotic, pulsating undercurrent to Rihanna’s latest. It’s not a classic like “Umbrella,” but it’ll take hold just as well. 

Justin Bieber, “Boyfriend”

He raps! Or something. Bieber’s attempt at Justin Timberlake-ification is intriguing, possibly misguided, but formidable.

CONTENDERS 

Katy Perry, “Wide Awake”

Having dominated the Song of Summer market for the past few years, Perry is an immediate contender, regardless of the (slower) song. 

Rita Ora, “How We Do (Party)”

An homage to Notrious B.I.G.’s “Party and Bullshit,” this song is a four minute hook: Jay-Z’s latest protege is our pick for the Song of Summer’s dark horse. 

One Direction, “What Makes You Beautiful”

Even amidst other teen stars like Jepsen and Bieber, these Brits and their breakout single have staying power. Its guilty pleasure factor is ridiculous. 

Maroon 5, “Payphone”

This is the kind of shimmery, widescreen pop that was this group’s claim to fame. It’s smooth.

OUTLIERS AND INDIE JAMS

Tanlines, “All of Me”

Those droning vocals and rhythmic syncopation wash over you in a beach party montage kind of way. An alternate summer jam. 

Icona Pop, “I Love It”

If only these Swedes were more famous! This is the kind of anthemic, blow-your-roof-off blitz that would do well on Top 40 radio. You will still hear this at parties. 

Santigold, “The Keepers”

Compared to other songs on this list, Santigold’s latest single is mellower and much simpler. “Keepers” is a nice foil to summer songs’ heavy production. 

Canadian up-and-comer Carly Rae Jepsen’s addictive pop song “Call Me Maybe” is making a stir online and may be this summer’s surprise jam. (Photo Courtesy of 604 Records)

It’s about that time of year when music critics and casual pop-lovers alike are struggling to anoint the coming summer’s Top 40 anthem. Likely candidates include Nicki Minaj’s house-inspired jam “Starships” and Usher’s slick new single “Climax.”

But one earworm of a ditty is poised to become the stealth jam of the summer: Carly Rae Jepsen’s bouncy tale of flirtation, “Call Me Maybe.” At this point, you’d be easily forgiven for not having heard the song, or even of Jepsen herself; she was the 2007 runner-up on Canada’s version of “American Idol,” and her single hasn’t yet broken the Billboard Top 40 radio charts (it’s currently floating around the 70s).

But Jepson’s irresistibly sugary tune has flourished online. As of Thursday night, “Call Me Maybe” occupied the No. 7 slot on Billboard’s digital chart, which tracks online downloads regardless of genre. The seemingly golden touch of Justin Bieber’s recommendation rocketed “Call Me Maybe” to its current level of Internet fame.

After initially tweeting his love for the song back in December (“Call me maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen is possibly the catchiest song I’ve ever heard lol”), Jepsen signed to Bieber’s own Schoolboy Records, making her a shoo-in for the position of new teen-pop darling despite her practically ancient age of 26.

The real clincher for the pool of Bieber fans ripe for Jepsen’s picking is a homemade montage YouTube video of Bieber, girlfriend Selena Gomez (also a favorite of the tween set), former “High School Musical” star Ashley Tisdale and various members of the apparently swoon-worthy Nickelodeon boy band Big Time Rush dancing and lip-synching to the song.

The video (which has now been viewed more than 29 million times) looks like the famous bunch filmed it at a co-ed sleepover; they’re dancing in what looks like someone’s kitchen and living room, sporting fake mustaches and ultra-casual T-shirts and tank tops, making silly faces and at one point forming a conga line. In short, it’s a fascinating glimpse of superstar teens acting like the goofy kids who live down the street — catnip for tween fans who want to believe more than anything that their favorite stars are just like them.

As for the song itself: it’s the prefect teen pop crossover bound to follow in the footsteps of Gomez’s “Love You Like a Love Song” and “Boyfriend,” Bieber’s new single that shows off a slightly edgier side; whether that attempted edginess actually works is up for debate.

The song’s lyrics are a strange mixture of summer romance cliches (“Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad,” anyone?) and surprisingly apt descriptions of what it’s like to be struck with infatuation by someone so blindingly good-looking as the object of Jepsen’s affections (“It’s hard to look right at you, baby”).

For all of the song’s virtues (Jepsen’s perfectly bland, unobtrusive vocals; the fun, bouncy tempo and its simplicity), what makes “Call Me Maybe” an unforgettable song is just that — it’s unforgettable. After a few spins, you’ll be incessantly singing about ripped jeans, hot nights and trading your “soul for a wish” (whatever that means) for weeks.

I have a feeling that “Call Me Maybe” will be the pinnacle of Ms. Jepsen’s career — while she’s a serviceable singer, cute and reasonably fun to watch on-screen (the “real” music video depicts Jepsen checking out a guy through her window only to discover that he’s gay), the song itself is the true star here. Selena Gomez herself could be singing it instead of Jepsen and it would have the same effect.

But hey, we’ve just met her. There’s a chance she’ll surprise us.

Printed on Friday, April 6, 2012 as: Radio epidemic maybe?