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Carly Rae Jepsen should be one of the biggest pop stars in the world right now. With her highly-anticipated, and already highly-regarded, new album Emotion (technically spelled E•MO•TION) coming out this week, the Vancouver-born artist is at the top of her game when it comes to songwriting and performing (Emotion contains some of the finest pop vocal performances of the year), but perhaps she’s playing an entirely different game than the rest of the mainstream pop.
In a landscape where our biggest stars are playing the parts of outspoken activists, cloying heartthrobs and/or human meme machines, Jepsen’s Plain Jane persona isn’t necessarily producing interesting fodder for the Tumblr age. But whereas her male counterparts are often perceived as “mysterious” and “enigmatic”, Jepsen’s broad hopeless romantic charm fails to find, well, a broader audience. While that may be a factor in Jepsen’s commercial appeal, her ability to write some of the best pop songs is something that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Four years ago, Carly Rae Jepsen put out Call Me Maybe, a behemoth pop anthem about pick-up jitters that carried so much momentum that critics deemed it the 2012 “Song of the Summer” even though the track came out the September before. The song’s extended longevity can be partially credited to pop star Justin Bieber’s co-sign. As one of the most influential stars at the time (he still is, though perhaps a hair less after a tumultuous period of public debauchery), Bieber’s love of the single drove his millions of followers to the song. Soon after, she signed with Bieber and manager Scooter Braun’s record label, Schoolboy Records.
While Bieber and Braun’s tireless promotion undoubtedly helped Jepsen’s star rise to meme-like levels – the only time in her career she has appeased said Tumblr crowd, though perhaps at her own expense later on being labeled as a “one-hit wonder” – Jepsen was placed in a box that she never quite fit in. Bieber’s audience skews younger than Jepsen’s 25 years on Earth (she is 29 now), but her bubbly melody became a J-14-approved single. On top of that, Jepsen’s chance at building an audience across North America and beyond was in the form of an opening slot for Bieber on his tour. That definitely helped fans, who discovered Jepsen via Bieber, get to know the star even better, but perhaps excluded her from the rest of the world even more. To the general public, she was nothing more than her megahit. What was missing was the groundwork she needed to lay out by playing smaller club gigs instead of being thrust into the spotlight in front of thousands of teens. For someone who described herself as a “hippie at heart”, becoming a pop star overnight was probably beyond her comfort zone, but an opportunity she couldn’t pass on.
Since then, her album Kiss failed to top the charts (debuting at No. 6 on the Billboard 200) and none of her follow-up singles matched the success of Call Me Maybe. While that may be enough for the general public to write her off, many missed out on the nuggets of potential hidden underneath Kiss’ synth-pop sheen. For one thing, Jepsen is a talented songwriter. Her ability to capture the complexities of love on various levels, from shy beginnings to determined endings is very much on par with fellow pop star, Taylor Swift. Sure, we’re not as privy to the details of Jepsen’s subjects, but when has that ruined our enjoyment of a Christina Aguilera or Destiny’s Child song? Face it, we’re too thirsty for insider info nowadays and we pat ourselves on the back every time we decipher a diss track or kiss-off to a particular person. We think we know these celebs so well when, really, we don’t have to in order to appreciate their art. As Jepsen sings on one of Emotion’s best tracks, Warm Blood: “I’ve got a cavern of secrets/None of them are for you.”
But back to Kiss – This Kiss and Tonight I’m Getting Over You didn’t get the love it deserved. She achieved minor success with her Owl City collab, Good Time, but by then, everything became a comparison to her main marker of success, Call Me Maybe. Instead of being the launching point for Jepsen, it has remained an anchor and a bar set impossibly high for Jepsen to meet or surpass – at least, commercially.
On Emotion, Jepsen arguably one-ups her biggest feat with 12 brand new tracks (15 if you count the three bonus tracks on the deluxe edition) that elevate her songwriting to a new level, one that still places her in the pop game but, as Braun told the New York Times in July, a place where critical acclaim is valued over chart success. “We had the biggest single in the world last time and didn’t have the biggest album,” Braun said. “This time we wanted to stop worrying about singles and focus on having a critically acclaimed album.”
Whether the public will ever believe the hype enough to pick up a copy is questionable (Emotion was put out in Japan back in June, making it highly downloadable to those who wanted to hear it), but it’s already getting boldly named one of the best pop albums of the year. And it’s true. Even if your sole reference point is Call Me Maybe, you need to check out Emotion. It’s not only Jepsen’s best work yet, it’s some of the best pop music made this year.
Sure, none of the released tracks (that’s seven and counting now, which have been released online to tease fans who have yet to hear the album) have charted well so far, but that can be chalked up to some poor marketing strategies. Putting out multiple tracks to tease fans may work with someone with millions of devoted fans like Taylor Swift did with her record-breaking 1989, but Jepsen’s fan base is admittedly smaller and tossing singles out left and right without focusing on one led to scattered results.
Plus, leading the charge with I Really Like You, an earworm but an easy target as a Call Me Maybe sequel, made Jepsen look like she was trying to put out another Call Me Maybe-type single when other tracks like the aforementioned All That, Run Away With Me or even the equally infectious Boy Problems would’ve been a strong statement without creating obvious parallels to her previous hit.
Emotion is a profound exploration of feelings of love and intimacy. Her personality can be best parsed in between the lines of her songs, while she’s begging you to “take me to the feeling” (Run Away With Me) or delivering a crushing line like “I’m not going to pretend/That I’m the type of girl you call more than a friend.” (Your Type) This is what Jepsen’s all about, the multiplicities of love, and she is damn good at it. (Fine, wanna know something about her personal life? The director of her Run Away With Me video is her boyfriend, David Kalani Larkins.)
Instead of pairing up with pop heavyweights as guest vocalists this time around, Jepsen dives into numerous collaborations in the studio with indie-pop’s biggest names, from Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid to Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij. And, yes, these big-named producers who have helped create masterful works with artists like Haim, Solange and Sky Ferreira, helped shape the ‘80s-tinged anthems on Emotion, but Jepsen is very much an active player in her own songs having helped penned the songs and have a say in the overall sounds. Together, Jepsen and these new collaborators have found a sweet spot between pop and indie enthusiasts, hopefully expanding her appeal for the first time since 2011.
Jepsen has yet to find the perfect balance of it all, between pop and indie worlds and commercial and critical success, but she does have a fantastic (and constantly evolving) portfolio of work to bring along with her to prove that she is capable of being a superstar. The least we can all do is answer to her calls and not maybe, but definitely listen to Emotion, the best pop album of 2015.