Carly Rae Jepsen's New Song Is Exactly What's Wrong With Pop Music


Carly Rae Jepsen, the 29-year-old Canadian famous for her breakout single "Call Me Maybe," just released a new single, "I Really Like You." Despite the fact that her previous album, Kiss, received mixed reviews, people seem to have forgotten that she ever did anything other than "Call Me Maybe." "I Really Like You" is being dubbed "irresistible" and "pop perfection." Some are even claiming the single is catchy enough to signify Jepsen's triumphant "comeback."

But these people are forgetting that just because a song is catchy doesn't mean it's a good song. Jepsen's new song is exactly this: catchy and not particularly good. If anything, the catchiness of a song is more a testament to the success of its marketing than its actual artist. Recent science has proven that repetition — in lyrics and radio plays alike — essentially brainwashes listeners into thinking a song is good by producing warm feelings of familiarity. Carly Rae Jepsen's "I Really Like You" is a perfect example of this trend.

A perfect earworm: Jepsen says the word "really" 67 times in a mere three and a half minutes of "I Really Like You." Jepsen said she was writing about the kind of relationship where it's too early to say 'I love you," but there is, doubtless, a more sophisticated way of conveying this. The function of the repeated "really" is to insinuate itself into a listener's mind — not to convey the song's theme.

In an article for Pacific Standard, Tom Jacobs explained that people tend to prefer simple lyrics and melodies because they're easier to process. Jacobs described a study that shows that when we encounter "the same set of words several times in the space of a few minutes — positive emotions are triggered." These positive emotions are connected to comprehension: When people understand something, they feel positively towards it.

Therefore, when you listen to a song that is easy to comprehend (and easy to get stuck in your head) like "I Really Like You," you essentially trick yourself into liking it.

To prove that theory, researchers analyzed songs on Billboard's Hot 100 chart from 1958-2012. They found that "a song's likelihood of making it to No. 1, as opposed to staying at the bottom of the Billboard chart, increases by 14.5%" the more the chorus is repeated. The same went for the repetition of words — when they were increased, the song was more likely to make it to the top 10 on the charts. This is borne out by the current Billboard Hot 100 rankings. Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off," currently in 24th place, sticks in your mind thanks to its repetitive phrases and "distinct shape," according to musician Chilly Gonzales's breakdown of the song. Big Sean's "I Don't Fuck With You" is sitting at No. 29; in it, the singer says a variation of "I don't give a fuck" 43 times.

The pop machine: Of course, there are some who could see past a song's catchiness and decide that they don't like it. But the real problem is that even if the lyrics don't grab you, record labels will make sure people hear the song enough times to eventually crave it.

There's a major trend in the industry now where songs are played because they have proven-popular qualities (like repetitive lyrics and star power) rather than because they're actually high quality. If a song has strong enough industry backing, it can easily become a hit, whether through predictive anaytics or careful radio strategies. In an article for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson talked to iHeartMedia exec Radha Subramanyam, who said that "the idea that DJs are just picking songs because they like them is so antiquated." Just like with "Call Me Maybe," the idea that a song is going to be popular influences listeners and winds up generating more popularity.

Though artists should be called out for making simplistic music that relies on repetition, the audiences that encourage them are also at fault. Pop fans these days are seeking out this sort of musical comfort food — songs that don't take risks or challenge us. In Thompson's article, Norbert Schwartz, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, explained that "when you're stressed out, you don't want to put on a new movie or a challenging piece of music. You want the old and familiar." 

In that inattentive musical world, the songs with the best chance of being overplayed to the point of familiarity are often the most simplistic and repetitive. The ones like "I Really Like You." It's time for artists and listeners alike to come out of our musical comfort zones and to encourage music that pushes the envelope.