REVIEW:The cult of Carly Rae Jepsen

ARMY OF ME - The Philippine Star

If, like me, you’ve spent most of the last 365 days still listening to “E•MO•TION,” the news that Carly Rae Jepsen has released eight more songs to mark her third album’s one-year anniversary must have felt like a warm hug.

”E•MO•TION Side B,” as Jepsen notes on her website, was her way of giving back “more of the feelings you gave me.” More crucially, she hinted at more music to come (“new album on the way”) and this collection was “something to hold yah over till then.”

I met the Canadian pop star in Malaysia about this same time last year. In the rather narrow window of time I was in her presence — first at the hotel gym by accident; next, inches away from her at an interview; and finally as I watched her entertain a park full of eager kids — it became clear that NPR was right in branding her a smart musician. Most of our conversation never made it to print, but her answers then offered glimpses as to how she has amassed a cult-like following despite lackluster album sales.

There was no denying the ubiquity of 2012’s Call Me Maybe, a song that put Jepsen on the map. She admitted to feeling pressured to write something soon after, but she also said that it was never about wanting to achieve that level of success. To her, Call Me Maybe was a beautiful surprise, something akin to all the stars aligning. “With a song that big, you can’t take credit for that. It’s just luck and timing and all those graces coming together.”

In hindsight, Jepsen said that the second album “Kiss” was rushed to follow up Call Me Maybe; while she worked with great producers, the results were not quite what she had in mind. So with the next one, it was important for her to be able to take her time between projects and figure out what to do. “I learned a lot about the rules of writing for pop and when it’s critical to break them. That’s when it feels better, too,” she told me in 2015.

Mission Statements

She knew what she wanted when it came to recording “E•MO•TION.” “I had mission statements, but it wasn’t as particular as ‘I want to sound like that.’ It was like, ‘I want this album to be something that feels authentic.’” Jepsen was firm about not seeking to recreate her monster hit single, but at the same time she wanted to still create pop music that she loves.

“I sort of went to the opposite of it, where I rebelled from the idea so extremely that I made an indie-folk album that no one will ever hear and that didn’t feel right either,” she revealed. “I love pop music and I’m not ashamed to say it. I wanted to make pop music that had heart to it. That’s why I looked to the ‘80s because that’s an era where they had passion and yearning and longing and all those things that make up a good song.”

And indeed, her winsome grafting of ’80s-era effervescence and 21st century-production flourishes on “E•MO•TION” and “E•MO•TION Side B” — one that has turned her into an indie darling — comes from a good place. “I grew up in a household where my parents were very much listening to James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen and I just sort of followed suit,” she revealed. “Everything changed when I discovered the Spice Girls later on and I fell in love with the joy of pop music. I think that’s something that’s never gone away.”

Of the 200-plus tunes she composed immediately after “Kiss,” which weren’t all intended for the succeeding album, Jepsen said that they were songs that you wrote while figuring out what you wanted to do.

“I got my first breakthrough when I hit upon a song called Emotion with some of my buddies in New York. That’s what seemed like such a fitting title for the album. It was the first spark that gave me that ‘aha’ moment, that this is the type of thing I want to do: ‘80s emotional pop.” Anything in the vein of “Prince, a little bit of Cyndi Lauper, and early Madonna” — that’s kind of the world she’d like to live in. (True enough, her rendering of Emotion at that concert in Malaysia was a cherished moment I have since recounted to friends who weren’t there.)

Stronger Skills

Though her pop songwriting skills have become stronger and she is now flanked by Dev Hynes, Ariel Rechtstaid, Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij and the Cardigans’ Peter Svensson — producers who have been responsible for many of the indie pop crossover tracks of recent years — Jepsen once again failed to capitalize on the groundswell of popularity. “E•MO•TION” was released months after the world had heard most of it. As a result, it didn’t even top 17,000 in sales during its first week in the US. It was certified gold in Japan, but even that is deemed underperforming in today’s global pop arena.

On the other hand, that it’s a commercial flop isn’t such a bad thing. I believe “E•MO•TION” wouldn’t have been as meaningful had it been as huge as Adele’s last record. Its relative obscurity, as many fans have perhaps realized, is what makes it continue to feel like it’s all ours, not the world’s. “E•MO•TION Side B” is more of this secret handshake.

Even before dropping her surprise mini album, Jepsen had already been aware that the music industry was in flux and that traditional ways of creating revenue were being challenged. “It’s a transitional phase and I think the appreciation for music is never going to go away. I think there will be new avenues to figuring out how to still make a living that’s comfortable. It will all balance out in the end,” she said.

In terms of her popularity among indie blogs and hardened music critics, Jepsen said she felt guilty to admit it means to her more than it probably should. “My mother says never to believe anything bad about yourself or anything good about yourself because then you’ll believe when the opposite is written as well. I think she’s very right. I try not to feed off that or go search myself (online) too often.”

As Jepsen made clear, she would rather be more of an artist than a celebrity and earn the respect of like-minded individuals. “These are my songs and these are my babies and for people to acknowledge them and say something positive in writers’ circles, that means everything to me.”

Sales figures be damned. This is what Carly Rae Jepsen has become: a cult favorite who just happens to be responsible for one of the biggest singles of all time.


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