Ever since I gave Carly Rae Jepsen a NNNN review for her second album, Kiss, people have been asking if I've lost my mind.
After all, this is a protege of teen pop superstar Justin Bieber, who specializes in the kind of saccharine bubblegum pop that is the antithesis of the counterculture mindset of the music editor of a paper like NOW.
Know what's more surprising? Many have sheepishly admitted that they agree with me.
The end of the pop music monoculture made the idea of a universal pop song seem a quaintly antiquated relic of the pre-internet era. But Jepsen's megahit Call Me Maybe has transcended our infinitely fractured cultural landscape to unite an impressively wide cross-section of listeners. After so many years of pop as a producer's medium, she's made it on the basis of her songs, not the sounds and pictures behind her.
Not that hers is under-produced singer/songwriter roots music, although she comes from that tradition. But even if you stripped away those huge synthetic string section riffs and that pounding kick drum, Call Me Maybe is incredibly effective, as proven by the countless cover versions that have sprung up on YouTube like dandelions (See the Top 5 Call Me Maybe versions).
The various reworkings' sheer diversity of approaches is a reminder that a good song is a good song and everything else is just window dressing. For example, the band fun.'s version reimagines it as a dramatic power ballad framed around acoustic guitar and dispensing with that monster dance-pop beat.
"I love that band! I think they're really offering something cool to the pop world," gushes Jepsen from a Paris hotel room. "That being said, Call Me Maybe in its baby stages was written on acoustic guitar and was very folky to start off with."
Tempting as it is to dismiss Jepsen as a one-hit wonder, the rest of Kiss is packed with earworms and for an album by a mainstream top-40 artist has remarkably few low points. If only more indie rockers could cram this many solid hooks into their albums.
Despite her earlier appearances on Canadian Idol, Jepsen's current life as a pop star wasn't at all what she had planned. Born and raised in Mission, BC, the musical theatre student saw herself on Broadway, but then left college after a year with a "guitar under my arm." She cut her teeth the old-fashioned way on small gigs in pubs and coffee shop open stages. She even briefly sang in a swing band. ("They were looking for a sax player, but I called them up anyway.")
It was only while working on the Curiosity EP (on which Call Me Maybe first appeared) that she started considering the possibilities of pure pop. She talks about the shift almost the way others describe falling in love with someone who doesn't match their description of the perfect lover.
"It was an attraction that I couldn't really deny any longer. I went into the studio with every intention of writing some folk songs, and out came these pop songs.
"It probably had to do with the fact that I was listening to a lot of La Roux, Robyn and Dragonette. I wanted to put my own spin on the pop world, and with Call Me Maybe, I really just embraced that. I was just going to do it and see what happened. I guess it goes to show that when it feels right, people can tell that it's more honest."
Unlike most pop stars, Jepsen owes her success to her own songwriting prowess. Only two songs on Kiss lack a Jepsen writing credit, and they're the worst on the disc, seemingly added so the label could get the brand power of Justin Bieber and Owl City. No wonder she thinks of herself as a songwriter first and a singer second.
"That's my main passion. I love singing - don't get me wrong - but if I had to pick between singing for the rest of my life or writing songs, there wouldn't be a competition. Hands down I'd want to be a songwriter."
Not that Jepsen plans to flip the monster success of Call Me Maybe into a longer career behind the scenes writing for others who are more interested in the spotlight. That idea appeals to her, but she's got a wider set of goals she's hoping to achieve first, and her newfound love of pure pop hasn't soured yet.
"I have a whole long-term life plan, but if anything, my love affair with pop music is just getting stronger. I am listening to dancier things, though, so I wouldn't be surprised if my next album goes that way. I'm just going to follow this yellow brick road wherever it goes. And I'd still love to do a folk album someday."
It must be a bit strange for someone who just turned 27 to play shows with Bieber for audiences so much younger than her. It's been suggested that she's portraying herself more as a little girl than a grown woman, the kind of squeaky-clean, family-friendly performer that some parents wish Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera had remained.
But her comments on this subject seem to indicate that her self-presentation is more about her unwillingness to adopt the hyper-sexualized image that female pop singers are now expected to embrace.
"It's important to me that I feel very much true to myself, and that's what I base my decisions on: does it feel sincere and genuine?"
In the video for Call Me Maybe, Jepsen is seen attempting various "sexy" poses but comically failing. Meanwhile, the sexual object in the clip is clearly the hunky shirtless guy mowing the lawn across the street.
When the punchline drops and her crush gives his phone number to her male guitarist instead, it comes across like a casual, accidental gay rights gesture - the flip side of Lady Gaga's tactic of making the issue central to her image. In Jepsen's case, it seems it didn't even occur to her that conservative parents of some of her preteen audience could be offended. Miraculously, it doesn't seem to have sparked much controversy at all.
"Well, I should hope not. Among the people I surround myself with, it is so not an issue. When it comes to gay rights, it's something that shouldn't even be an issue. I have so many amazing friends who are gay, and it's very hard for me to get why anyone would have a problem with any of that."
On that subject, as when she politely explains that she'd rather not discuss her love life, her cheerful, perky demeanour turns serious. But the biggest shift in her mood comes when I tell her my story about hearing Call Me Maybe for the first time in a grocery store, stopping in my tracks and sticking my iPhone in the air to use a song ID app, only to be embarrassed to find that the singer was the Bieber-approved chart-smasher I'd assumed I wouldn't like.
"You did not! You just made my night - I've never heard of anyone Shazam-ing my song. Oh my gosh, I wish I'd seen this moment."
After all, there aren't many people left in the world who have yet to catch themselves singing along to that song.