What Is Your Deal With Carly Rae Jepsen?
Wherein I try to explain what my damn deal is with listening to Carly Rae Jepsen
The first time I got excited about a record, I was six years old. My dad came home one day and told me he had something special — and he said this while holding both his arms behind his back, which is like the universal signal to little kids that some exciting shit’s about to pop off. WHAT IS IT I demanded to know and I remember this funny jig he did where instead of pulling whatever it was from behind him, he slowly turned around in a circle so I could momentarily see that he was clutching a copy of Michael Jackson’s 1987 album Bad. I fucking lost my mind.
I don’t know if you were alive in the mid-1980s but if you were not or were too young to remember, let me explain this moment a little bit. Before he was all the regrettable and problematic things he became known as later in his life, Michael Jackson was a space alien rockstar demigod who made the greatest music in history. A sliver of vinyl bearing his songs, there in MY house for me to listen to WHENEVER I WANTED was a spring break pizza dance party trip to Boblo Island* at my fingertips.
I honestly don’t give my dad enough credit for that. Thanks, dad. I’ve bought A LOT of records since that day and it feels a little bit like in all these years of crate digging and mail order impatience, I’ve been chasing the high I got from that first one. And I honestly don’t blame my dad enough for that. THANKS.
Thirty years later, I was excitedly bouncing out of a theater with my friend Alayna. We had just seen a rock musical our friend Chris had written and performed and in the free evening air, we were going to make a short drive to a bar for the afterparty. Piling into my car and revving it up, Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2015 album E•MO•TION blared out of the speakers. It was what I was listening to (and talking about and posting on social media about…) all of the time at that point and Alayna turned to me and said something along the lines of OKAY WHAT IS WITH YOU AND CARLY RAE JEPSEN?
Fair. Up until then, anyone unfortunate enough to engage me in a conversation about music probably got an earful about some post-hardcore band they’d never heard of and an extensive family tree of solo projects and associated record labels. Or I was very excited about some Icelandic black metal band. Or I was insisting they give Lifter Puller just one more chance, you’ll get used to that guy’s voice eventually I promise. So veering into the territory of screaming teenage girls was probably unexpected.
I got introduced to Carly Rae Jepsen the same way everyone else on the planet (except for Canadians**) did: “Call Me Maybe.” Of COURSE “Call Me Maybe.” Her Justin Bieber-approved 2012 viral hit was like a pop music war of attrition. You are going to HEAR THIS SONG and you are going to FIND IT UNDENIABLY CATCHY and after a lot of bitching and moaning about it, you are GOING TO LIKE IT. Uncle. You got me.
After hearing that song a few dozen times I realized that not only did I like it, as a musician, I was jealous. I’ve been listening to and playing punk music for decades and no riff makes me more envious than the fuzz guitar blended with the strings in the hook to “Call Me Maybe.”
And then I spent several years barely thinking of Jepsen at all, a clever ruse on her part, I think, to make sure that she caught me completely by surprise when, in March 2015, she released the music video for “I Really Like You” from her album E•MO•TION. If you have not seen it or it’s been a while (it has not been a while for me), it features Tom Hanks (THE Tom Hanks) lip syncing Jepsen’s lyrics as he goes about his day, getting out of bed, catching a cab, walking down the street. Carly is barely in the video at all until she joins Tom and a group of dancers who look to have stepped out of an Old Navy commercial as they box step down an empty street. It is adorable, especially coupled with the lyric proclaiming that while she may not fully be in love, “I really really really really really like you.” It is exactly the type of thing you can imagine yourself sincerely saying to somebody at seventeen years old.
The entire album is like that: the giant teenage emotions of love and heartbreak magnified further by the tropes and trappings of pop music, filtered through an artist who at the time was on her way out of her 20s. An artist who in the time between her massive, global hit song and this follow-up, reportedly wrote over two hundred songs.*** TWO HUNDRED. If you wanted to get good at writing songs and really hone your message, that is a decent way to accomplish that.
“But Myke,” I imagine y’all asking, “are you not a man well on your way out of your 30s? Why tarry and trifle with teenage emotions?”
Rude, but fair. Also, who says “tarry?”
My high school years are a couple decades in my rear view, which is enough time to have attempted to outrun them, tried to outgrow them, tried to forget them, before finally, frustrated, looked back and tried to understand them. The teenage years is a very raw time of life and all the while, teenagers are treated simultaneously as if they could just be adults right now if only they tried harder (oh and they’re trying SO HARD) and as if they are overdramatic toddlers. Being in that awkward terrible amazing stage is like being a flayed person with all their nerve endings exposed. Anything could affect you with the slightest touch, and the stakes all felt impossibly high. Basically, your emotions and hormones are giving their wildest Nicholas Cage scenery-chewing performance for those years and the struggle this puts you through deserves some respect.
“Jepsen is often characterized as a teenager, or as writing from a teenage perspective,” Brad Nelson wrote in The Guardian after E•MO•TION’s release, “[b]ut there’s something thoroughly adult in her ability to translate shapeless, excruciating feelings into nimble and precise words.”
This makes me think of where Jepsen’s physical records sit in my collection, followed on my shelf by the Jesus and Mary Chain and Joy Division. Both of these bands wrote extensively about heartbreak and the raw feelings of youth (JAMC have a song called “Teenage Lust” for Christ’s sake), but their art’s legitimacy does not get questioned over their drawing from that well. It could be because they are men making music with loud guitars rather than women making music for people to dance to. It could be that both of those bands tend to write music that sounds best on a rainy, dreary day, and the sorrow and anger and negative feelings they sing about are more readily coded as male and therefore acceptable, to Jepsen’s wide-eyed neon joy and songs about love and longing, more readily coded as female and therefore less acceptable. Or less acceptable for men to consume. Men, consequently, being the half of the population most in need of a widening of the emotional palette.
I became a father the same year “Call Me Maybe” was the summer jam and since then have experienced a funny thing, emotionally. I have become a big ol’ softie. My partner regularly looks over at me as we are watching sit-coms or whatever on the couch to catch me crying my big dumb eyes out because Elenor and Chidi are just MEANT TO BE goddammit. Anything having to do with father-son dynamics absolutely kills me. That scene in The West Wing where Bartlett gifts Charlie the Paul Revere knife? I’m a puddle. I can’t help it. And I don’t really want to, either, because as a man, I want to model for my son that having and expressing emotion is healthy, showing affection is healthy, sincerity is healthy. And so the giant, seemingly outsized emotions that a song like “Too Much” displays (“so be careful if you’re wanting this touch / ’cause if I love you then I love you too much”), counterintuitively, helps to keep me grounded. My emotions are all over the place, but for good reason: I have a young child, which I have heard described as like having your heart out there walking around in the world. So a few albums worth of songs that allow me to access big, Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade balloon-sized feelings in a fun, healthy way lets me channel all that energy somewhere that doesn’t look like a paunchy 30-something man crying on his couch.
Fun is, I feel, an under-appreciated quality for music to have, at least among my general cohort of Very Serious Music Nerds. As a burgeoning Very Serious Music Nerd, I had Nirvana and Pearl Jam and later Fugazi and like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and stuff helping me along in my quest of Taking Rock Music VERY Seriously. Sometime around my freshman year of college, I bought a copy of the Dismemberment Plan’s 1999 album Emergency & I, thought it was okay, lent it to a friend and almost forgot about it. Then I dropped out of school and spiralled just a little bit and when I got that CD back, its songs about disaffected 20-something alienation and breakups and acceptance grabbed me by the throat…and its music, which sounds like the nerdy suburban punks who made it decided that their unabashed love for Prince and Madonna was nothing to be ashamed of, grabbed me by the ass.
It is not like sad songs you can dance to was a brand new thing (Prince and Madonna come to mind), but the D Plan was speaking exactly my language when they paired Eric Axelson’s groovy-as-funk basslines with lyrics like “From the ages of 20 to 22 I had five friends / none of whose names I can recall.” The Dismemberment Plan taught me that it is entirely possible to be a sad weirdo AND get your swerve on.
The singer, Travis Morrison, used to do this thing at the many MANY D Plan shows I screamed and sweated my way through, which is during the extended jam they’d close with, he’d just start inserting lyrics from whatever caught his fancy that night, like whatever they’d been listening to in the van on tour. Once, it was a frankly beautiful rendition of Postal Service’s cover of “From Such Great Heights.” Another show, it would be Rihanna’s “Umbrella.” Or Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” An emphatic chorus of Hot Hot Heat’s “Bandages” made it in at one show and at another I swear he did “The Humpty Dance” nearly in its entirety.
Earlier this year, sweating and screaming my way through Carly Rae Jepsen’s set at the Tabernacle in Atlanta, I felt very much the same way I did a decade before, crammed against the monitors at a Dismemberment Plan show, and I felt as if I’d made good on the message that music had sent me: Be cool on your own time, we’re trying to dance here. That shit changed my life.
One thing that punk music did teach me was the value of the underdog in art. While on the surface it seems ludicrous to attach the label of “underdog” to someone whose song reached number 1 on the charts in fifteen countries, earned two Grammy nominations, and which, at over 10 million units sold and streamed, has been certified Diamond by the RIAA. But consider how a hit that massive might artistically hobble a songwriter. Writing about her curious status as “Queen of Everything” on the internet, NPR Music pointed out that “[i]n the eyes of the public, Jepsen’s nothing more than an underselling artist post-’Call Me Maybe.’ […] To fans, E•MO•TION is unjustly ignored by the masses, giving it an underdog quality that makes it a cause worth championing.” And indeed, a new album and a slew of meme-forward music videos, starting with 2018’s “Party for One” failed to earn a single nomination at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards. I demand justice.
Stanning pop musicians has noticeably rearranged my priorities and upended my habits in regards to music. If you could time travel back to my Very Serious Music Nerd 17 year old self and tell him that in 20 years, the Pixies reuniting and recording new albums would be far less important to me than the output of the lead singer of Destiny’s Child, I would have called you a liar and my heart may have broken a little bit and I MIGHT have cried.
“I’m glad you brought up Beyoncé, Myke,” I imagine you saying. “We’re living in a time of powerful and amazing pop singers. Among all of them, why are you ride-or-die for the ‘Call Me Maybe’ girl?”
First of all, who can know why the heart wants what it wants? But second, yes, the last couple decades have been crammed full of incredible singers — singers who got SUPER famous. So much so that I only have to refer to them by their first names: Britney, Christina, Justin, Miley, Demi, Ariana. Another thing all of those people have in common is they all got their start very young with either Disney or Nickelodeon. And as each of them has ascended in fame, we all got to watch them grow up in public, from literal children, through all the awkward terribleness of the teenage years I talked about earlier, and into adulthood. They had to do all that shit on TV and on the internet for audiences of millions. I cannot begin to imagine how fucked up that experience must have been.
And we heard it play out in and outside of their music. The women in particular have devoted a not-insignificant amount of time to reckoning with the fact of their careers. It has been at times excruciating to watch and has left a trail of broken relationships and substance abuse issues. And the listening public has barely begun to start a conversation about the harm that those massive corporations are doing and have done to the children in their employ.
I want to be clear that I am not saying that you should not listen to “Wrecking Ball” (you SHOULD, it’s bonkers good), or that these artists are in any way less than for having struggled with their myriad issues. And I’m not saying that it is just Disney and Nickelodeon who are responsible for fucking with artist’s lives (Kesha comes quickly to mind). And I’m especially not saying that Jepsen is in any way better for not having been churned through the Mickey Mouse Club. But all of that exploitation presents a lot of baggage. And that is a lot to carry when all you want to do is listen to a pop song. And considering that I am now over two thousand words into an essay which — and I cannot stress this enough — no one asked for about Carly Rae Jepsen, shutting my brain off w/r/t music is not the way my brain works. I love “Cool For The Summer,” but Jepsen is my farmer’s market free-range cruelty-free option and that means a great deal to me.
“Myke, I hate to interrupt you, but you opened this essay by talking about Michael Jackson. So to your last point, uhh…”
Friend, I hear you. I don’t want to go too far down this road, but another one of my very favorite records when I was nine was Wonderfulness, Bill Cosby’s 1966 comedy album. My relationship to a lot of stuff has changed in the ensuing decades.
OKAY. Right about this time, I think it would be refreshing to take a quick break and hang out on a dock in Finland. Meet back here in three? Cool.
One of the great things about Carly’s newest album**** is that the songs which suffer slightly for being sandwiched between such bangers as “No Drug Like Me” and “Want You In My Room” reveal themselves to be incredible songs in isolation. “The Sound,” is a good example. It comes in at track 9 on the album, where its twinkling piano makes it feel like a chill breather after the powerhouse that is its immediate predecessor “Too Much.” But here, with Tavish Crowe’s beautiful arppegiated guitar part chasing the piano around and the tap of a live snare drum, this song gets the shine it deserves.
The hook is in line with the Carly Rae Jepsen Manifesto in that it places a premium on feelings. This is, after all, the girl who entreated you to “dream about me / and all that we could do with this emotion” and the same one who wanted to “cut to the feeling.” She’s a songwriter who knows that the feeling part is what keeps Wile E. Coyote suspended in mid-air and it’s the thinking part that makes him realize he’s run straight off a damn cliff and will now plummet to his doom. And so here, she insists from the object of her affection that “love is more than telling me you want it / I don’t need the words I want the sound.” Carly is basically a creative writing professor telling you “show, don’t tell,” but, you know, for sexy times.
By now, I have been mulling over my friend Alayna’s question (which, to refresh your memory, was “OKAY WHAT IS WITH YOU AND CARLY RAE JEPSEN?” A question which my father is also starting to ask me) for two years. And trust me when I tell you it is a question that perplexed even me. But then I widened the net a little bit and framed the question as okay, what is it with you and music? Then answers began to emerge.
The first time I got excited about a record, I was six years old. My dad came home one day and told me he had something special and gave me a copy of Bad. My love of music does not have its origins in Nirvana or Slint or Mission of Burma. My love of music was born in impromptu dance parties with my cousins in our suburban Michigan basements in the 1980s. It was Michael Jackson spinning on the turntable, and a 45 of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” and Debbie Gibson and Tiffany. In short, we were listening to pop music.
Carly Rae Jepsen is not the first person to mine a rich vein of ’80s nostalgia with her sound as she does on E•MO•TION. But she showed up at exactly the right time with exactly the right message for me, over the clarion call of one of the greatest saxophone riffs ever recorded (apologies to John Coltrane). She urged us to run away with her, to assume the lead and “take [her] to the feeling,” as if this whole plot had been our idea from the start. These shimmering love stories, these dance floor manifestoes, that is where my love of music began. And she was the one who helped guide me upriver, back to its source.
* Boblo Island is an actual island in the Detroit River and once home to an amusement park which could only be reached by ferry — the Boblo Boat. I once, as a child, vomited all over that boat after riding a bunch of merry go round-type rides all day.
** Canadians got to be introduced to Carly in a nice, normal way as the third-place contestant on the TV show “Canadian Idol” where she auditioned with an original song played on an ever-so-slightly out-of-tune guitar and ALSO brushed off one judge’s crummy joke about her being “21 going on 14” with a HILARIOUS “…alright, so…”
*** I am still holding out for a Bob Pollard-style suitcase full of demos release. Carly, if you’re reading this, OPEN THE VAULTS.
**** Her newest album is Dedicated and it is very very good have you heard it yet? Because you should