Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” is the musical embodiment of what critical theorist Jacque Derrida refers to as “différance.” Unlike “Call Me,” the previous hit song by Blondie of almost the same name, “Call Me Maybe” throws the initial utterance, the command to “call me,” into question, even forces it under erasure, through the retroactive emendation of final ambiguity, “maybe”; “call me” lies simultaneously with its very negation. Yet the call itself has not been placed, and in fact exists only in the world of the Imaginary—that which, in Lacan’s parsing, by definition we cannot know. The call forever remains hypothetical, subjunctive, unrealized: deferred. As Derrida explains, “the relationship to the present, the reference to a present reality, to a being—are always deferred.”
At the same time, the title’s syntactical construction posits its speaker, “me,” in the object position, the patriarchal relegation of the feminine, even while the speaker simultaneously issues the grammatical imperative, “[You] call,” (re)positioning her in symbolic authority. Derrida suggests that “Différance is the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences … the simultaneously active and passive…”—just as the speaker of “Call Me Maybe” implies as well. Further, the lyric sheet reads “Call me, maybe,” with the comma to separate the command from the adverb, suggesting a heightened claim of ambiguity. Yet the title, “Call Me Maybe,” with its elided comma and conventional titular capitalization, refigures its meaning entirely: the statement employs the dative declension, echoing literature’s most famous manifestation of this form, Herman Melville’s opening line to Moby-Dick, “Call me Ishmael.” She is commanding the listener that she should herself be called Maybe, a name that is Not.
The speaker’s utterance, but also the speaker herself, has thus been rendered indefinite, unknowable, and differed ad infinitum. The title must be read simultaneously as “Call me, maybe,” “Call Me Maybe,” “Call me, maybe,” if the call is never placed, or “Call me, maybe” if it is. We therefore find Carly Rae Jepson in the rhetorical situation of Derrida translator Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak. In her Translator’s Preface to Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Spivak writes that her “predicament is [that of being] ‘under erasure.’ This is to write a word, cross it out, and then print both the word and deletion. (Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since it is necessary, it remains legible.)”
While I have been using the gender specific pronoun “she” to refer to the speaker, since Carly Rae Jepson’s voice, clothing, and sex all code her as “heterosexual female,” the gender identity and sexual orientation of the speaker are in fact ambiguous as well. The opening line, “I threw a wish in the well/Don’t ask me, I’ll never tell” recall the famous “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law established under the Clinton presidency preventing gay and lesbian solders from revealing their sexual orientation, under the risk military discharge. The ending, or “punch line,” of the “Call Me Maybe” music video introduces the possibility that what we had been viewing all along is not a heteronormative enactment of adolescent dating rituals but rather their subversion, playing upon the complacent viewer’s culturally rigid assumptions of masculinity.
Indeed, the song not only embodies différance; it embraces paradox. The repeated last line to each verse, “And now you’re in my way,” as well as the reiterated “Where you think you’re goin’, baby?” imply the threat of male coercion despite the feminine vocal delivery. And the final bridge section, repeating “Before you came into my life/ I missed you so bad” like a mantra, becomes a Zen kōan, reflecting upon a sublime yet uncanny sense of temporal disconnect. The notion that one can miss something that has not yet been experienced recalls haiku poet Matsuo Bashō, who writes of the ways in which one can long for an interior, emotionally subjective construction of life even at the expense of its own reality:
Even in Kyōto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyōto
The sense of différance set forward by the lyrics is further augmented by the music behind the chorus. The standard popular song follows a I-IV-V-I pattern: firmly establishing its chord progression with the I cord, developing tension through the IV and V chords, and then resolving the musical conflict by reestablishing the root or alternately moving to the root’s relative minor. In “Call Me Maybe”’s key of G major, however, the chorus chords move back and forth between C (the IV) and D (the V) without ever returning to G (the I) or moving on to E minor, never resolving, a musical manifestation of différance itself, even throughout the end of the song, which, unlike the conventional fade-out, ends in a pitchshifitng downward spiral, deferring even the idea of a musical conclusion.
The final result of this radical indeterminacy is that “Call Me Maybe” is a musical Mona Lisa, rendering itself a cultural cipher, a tabula rasa upon which any reader may impose meaning; with over 222,500,000 views on YouTube, its video is a floating signifier capable of accommodating virtually any viewer. As such, the Internet is inundated with “Call Me Maybe” memes, each imagining a different, resolved signified of the song that, taken together, negate each other, paradoxically denying any such certainty.
Time: 75 minutes
Derrida quotations from “Interview with Julia Kristeva” in Positions (University of Chicago P, 1981)