Art by Mags Ocampo
In her essay “ The I in Internet,” which appears in her book Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino investigates when and how exactly the internet became a hellscape. We all have our own ideas — manipulative algorithms, 4chan, Cambridge Analytica, etc. But such a diagnosis presumes that, once upon a time, the internet was not like this. “The early internet had been constructed around lines of affinity, and whatever good spaces remain on the internet are still the product of affinity and openness,” she writes, referring to the halcyon days of blogs tended like gardens, and open forums where “flaming” was anomaly and not paradigm.
The early internet promised us something — the realization and expression of our truest, most unencumbered selves, and all of us doing this in a highly communicative environment. One can argue that the last meme that came closest to fulfilling this promise was a pop song gone off its PR rails, a hit that found popularity when virality was a condition to be stumbled upon instead of a form of status actively pursued through the farce of Search Engine Optimization. Call Me Maybe had to age before we could make this take, but we’re here now, two albums after “Kiss”.
I’m not referring to the song, exactly, but the dancing-in-front-of-the-webcam phenomenon that was, at the time, inextricable from pop culture’s experience of the song. It started with Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Ashley Tisdale and their friends dancing in front of a webcam (“potato quality,” as was the parlance of the early 2010s) and lip syncing to Call Me Maybe, and then it all just kind of snowballed from there. Your barkada most likely got in on it, this invitation to be silly with people you had no problem looking silly in front of. Discounting other famous people (like our very own artistas), no one was doing this for fame. At the time, we didn’t know what clout was.
Dancing in front of a webcam to Call Me Maybe was free-spirited exercise of frivolity, unchoreographed and unpretentious. There was definitely a sense of pa-cute performativity to the whole thing, sure, and it’s not like every lip-sync “cover” of the song was good. But we were all in on it, not so much as a joke, but as a fun thing to do. Type “call me maybe dancing” in the YouTube search bar and you’ll find videos uploaded seven years ago that still retain their joy. Wedding flash mobs! Universities from Harvard to La Salle doing school spirit things! This one barkada I don’t know but could have been any of us, cutting every one or two lines, going into it with few if any predetermined steps or movements, lip syncs bursting with ebullience, bodies disrupted by spontaneous laughter. When was the last time we as a digital community engaged in something so lighthearted, with such unified verve?
Dancing in front of a webcam to Call Me Maybe was free-spirited exercise of frivolity, unchoreographed and unpretentious.
Perhaps this meme’s closest relative was the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, a campaign promulgated to raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. You dump a bucket of cold water on your head, shiver comically, and tell people to do what you just did. And that was fun for a while. But the Ice Bucket Challenge was predicated on a sense of moral duty, a wholesome (if not a little vapid) project built on being kooky for a cause. It also involved explicitly telling others to participate in the activity. No one told you dance to Call Me Maybe. Y’all just did it. And you didn’t dance in front of your webcam for a cause. You did it just ‘cause.
Before “EMOTION” came out, critics wrote Carly Rae off as a one-hit-wonder (many of us did) and Call Me Maybe a powerful but short-lived blip on the radar. We didn’t see the waves it was making. Lip syncs weren’t a new thing at the time, but one could argue that the Carly Rae webcam lip-sync explosion walked so that TikTok (and its more localized cousin Dubsmash) could run. Now when we see someone young and brazen lip-syncing a song they like, we dismiss it as cringe content, but once upon a time, that’s what we were.
Not anymore. We watch ourselves so much. We guard our poise with the vigilance of a surveillance state. The thing the internet promised us — a way of digital living where we aren’t so goddamn self-conscious — is a thing we had in Call Me Maybe.
Have we been cast out of paradise? Or can we regain entry into the Eden of the internet’s old vision for itself? I don’t know, but with these questions in mind, one line in Call Me Maybe hits a little differently now. “Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad” is such a rowdy lyric, one that rejects the logic of linear time and therefore rejects all certainty of decay. It asserts that the effect of a memory outperforms even the reality that produced the memory.
I mean to say it is all right to miss a joy we couldn’t fully comprehend when we were feeling it. It is all right for longing to propel us through the digital wasteland that we’ve wrought. And in the wasteland, we realize a new promise, that we will inevitably come upon the scattered detritus of old happiness, and think to ourselves not “this is new,” but “I missed you so bad.”