"Call Me Maybe": Pop With Rock & Roll Characteristics

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The acoustic guitar says, "I care that people think I care about acoustic guitars." - PHOTO COURTESY KEN STEWART
  • photo courtesy Ken Stewart
  • The acoustic guitar says, "I care that people think I care about acoustic guitars."

I may have been the last person to notice this--surely Carly Rae Jepsen noticed it first--but here's when I noticed it: Rihanna released "The Only Girl in the World," and I was briefly convinced I'd accidentally set the satellite radio to one of those Europop stations where the DJ is broadcasting from the bottom bunk of a youth hostel in the former East Germany. I listened to the boomy synths and the near-English drone and for a few days I lectured anyone unfortunate enough to sit next to me about how Rock And Roll Was Truly Dead in the marketplace and destined to be filed next to jazz and the blues among the genres of popular music kept alive by NPR and people who buy Bose radios.

Into this breach: Indie hits "We Are Young," and then "Somebody that I Used To Know," and now "Call Me Maybe." I'm not going to pretend that they share a lot, other than massive, endless Billboard success, but they share a little: Namely, a command of rock-sounding tropes.

Commercially rock probably is the weakest it's been in decades, and I think that's a legitimate problem for it as a living art form. but like most amateur lecturers I was basically wrong, and also annoying my girlfriend, probably. But what I was recognizing while Rihanna abandoned all pretense of appealing to non-dancers wasn't the death of rock-it was the death of Pop with Rock and Roll Characteristics.

Debbie Gibson didn't play rock and roll, or Savage Garden or the Brady Bunch, but for 50 years or so pop almost always used the vocabulary of rock and roll. Guitars and drum sets, rebellion and running away, long-haired types who purport to write their own songs and Get Back To Basics on their followup album. Pop songs had rock noises and structures and pop artists sounded like rockers when they spoke to reporters. That seemed gone. Pop songs ape R&B's language first, and sometimes they just are dance songs, and I can go an hour on any station named KissFM or HotFM or BangFM without hearing anything even designed to sound like a guitar riff. Crossover rock songs are drenched in their own sound; the average Nickelback song is just a collection of noises that producers used in 1998 to make pop singers sound more like Matchbox 20.

So then I heard "Call Me Maybe." The biggest pop song in the universe is indistinguishable from a Mandy Moore song circa 2001.

Now, I whined about Mandy Moore like any good wannabe rock-snob in 2001, but if you're a rock fan you should be happy about the surprise return of rock and faux-rock in this year's three biggest hits.

I got mostly Cs in my Anthropology courses, but it was my understanding that the living languages--English, as opposed to Latin--are basically the ones that are still constantly being pidgined and made into dialects and, if you're a prescriptive type, bastardized and ruined.

I may like The Format more than their synthier, dancier descendents in fun., but if rock and roll is still viable enough in the wider world to spawn three very different-sounding, enormously popular singles in three months--to push us away from the single-minded club sound that got me whining in the first place--I'm willing to deal with the occasional hybrid.

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