Don’t look now, but we’re in the midst of a pretty decent pop revival. The last couple of years have seen good records by people as diverse as Madonna, Robyn and Carly Rae Jepsen, whose 2015 LP Emotion was one of the year’s best. Taylor Swift has transitioned from country star to full fledged pop star and Britney Spears is releasing new music.
But it goes deeper than just that. Pop music has always been mainstream, but it’s often maligned. Sometimes because it’s designed for mass appeal, other times for more sexist reasons; how many pop stars get written off as music for girls? But in the last couple of years, pop hooks and production has taken hold of alternative artists: Robyn worked with Royskopp, for example, while artists like Grimes, Lowell and Tegan and Sara have unabashedly worked pop elements into their music. Pop isn’t just all over the musical map, it’s largely become one of the cornerstones for the most intelligent and forward-facing music of recent memory.
And at the crossroads of pop and smarts, of performance and passion and interest and intelligence is Carly Rae Jepsen, at once both the most interesting and most fun musician making pop music right now.
Born in 1985, Jepsen rose to prominence in Canada on season five of Canadian Idol. A year later, she released her first record: Tug of War. But it wasn’t until 2011 when she had her commercial breakthrough: “Call Me Maybe,” a pop song with a hook so memorable I bet it’s in your head right now. According to a 2014 post at Neilsen SoundScan, the single sold well over 7 million digital copies. Several singles followed, although none had quite the same cultural impact.
Still, for a moment, Jepsen was posed for something huge.
In the time before and after, Jepsen was working on her next record; allegedly, she wrote something like 250 songs, which were eventually whittled down to 12, with a handful more on assorted deluxe editions. They ranged from ballads to driving pop to angular dancefloor bangers. However, all have a similar gloss: they sound like something from 30 years previous. Not in a dated way, but in the loud, bombastic way Madonna used to make. It sounded like a lot of things, but stood apart from the rest of 2015’s pack.
Emotion opens with a blaring saxophone and Jepsen thinking about running away: “I wanna go / get out outta here / I’m sick of the party,” she sings as the beat slowly builds up behind her. She’s addressing a lover, sure, but also the listener: she wants to take off when nobody’s looking (“When everyone’s sleeping,” to be specific) and have a little privacy. When the tension becomes too much, the music explodes and the timber of her voice changes as she shouts “Run away with me!” 16 times.
Throughout the record, Jepsen emotes like an experienced actor, drawing the listener into her roles.
Alternately she’s nervous and confident. Sometimes she wants to take over your thoughts and raw emotions, elsewhere she’s laying on a bed with one eye on the TV and saying no to sex. But it’s more than that. When she sings “Boy problems, who’s got ‘em, I’ve got them too,” she’s not singing about her boyfriend, but about how those problems impact her other, female friendships. By the end, she’s shouting “Everything you ever wanted, now it’s happening!” like her life depended on it.
At the same time, Jepsen’s sprinkles her sense of humour through the record.
As far back as “Call Me Maybe,” she’d been goofing off in videos, and here she continues: the lead single’s video has Tom Hanks lip syncing as he goes about his day; when the song pauses on “I really need to tell you something,” Hanks-as-Jepsen jokes about being pregnant. Meanwhile, “Boy Problems” is an ironic mix of coloured lighting, 80s-styled outfits and star wipes; it’s the photo studio from Napoleon Dynamite come to life.
Compare it to another 80s-obsessed pop star, Taylor Swift. She claimed 1989 was satire and said “If you don’t get the joke, you don’t deserve to get the joke.” For Swift, 2016’s been rough year. She went from writing songs about her exes to writing songs for them. From playing hurt over a gross Kanye West joke to being caught on camera giving him an okay.
They both write their own songs, but Jepsen’s is head-and-shoulders above Swift’s.
Her music has a clear debt to the 80s, but is also firmly of the moment. By comparison, Swift’s music comes off as overproduced and tryhard. What “Boy Problems” does nearly effortlessly, “Shake It Off” struggles to accomplish. Swift’s attempts at humour boil down to “stars are just like us”; Jepsen comes off like a goofball with a typically understated Canadian sense of humour. When she pinches the Statue of Liberty in the video for “Run Away With Me,” it’s more spontaneous than anything Swift’s done in years.
Recently, Jepsen released an EP of outtakes from Emotion, simply called Emotion: Side B. Here the 80s influences are even more on the surface. It opens with the sound of a cassette deck opening. When the crashing, almost latin groove of “First Time” kicks in, it’s like the keyboards from “Into the Groove” have dropped off their suitcases and made themselves at home. It evokes the era in a way Swift only dreamed of, blowing her entire record out of the water. And we’re just four minutes into the record.
Throughout, Jepsen’s new EP takes the premise of Emotion and goes deeper into the groove, as it were.
Indeed, on “Cry,” Jepsen deals directly with topics like toxic masculinity: “He never wants to strip down to his feelings,” she sings, “he never wants to cry.” He’s too macho to be in touch with his emotions and because he’s not being honest with himself, she can’t trust him either: “he always makes me cry.” Meanwhile, “The One” deals with sexual pressure: “You can hold me tight, if you want to,” sings Jepsen, “I don’t want to be the one.”
At the same time, it’s not hard to see why some of these weren’t included on Emotion. Although “Higher” has one of the best beats of her career, at times Jepsen really has to stretch to stand out against the music. And stylistically, songs like “Cry” are just a little too left-field from the mainstream pop of Emotion.
Still, this isn’t to disparage the EP. If anything, these songs show Jepsen taking a huge leap forward and making some of the year’s best music. It evokes an era without sounding in debt to it; it’s glossy pop that’s fun to play really loud but interesting to look at in detail. It’s the best of both worlds, really. And at just eight tracks, it’s concise enough to not overstay it’s welcome or become repetitive.
But more to the point, it pushes her to the forefront of pop music in 2016. As Swift hides from bad PR and Katy Perry works the stage at the Democratic convention, Jepsen should break past her one-hit wonder status. The timing’s right and the music’s on point. Pop this into your tape deck, you won’t regret it.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.