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The Slow-Burn Pop of Carly Rae Jepsen

The Canadian pop singer's music has an enduring appeal, long after "Call Me Maybe"


Photo: Shutterstock.com

Call Me Maybe” was more than a hit, it was a phenomenon. The end result of what happens when a charming, instantly likable hit song collides with viral video behavior, Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2012 pop single was inescapable the year it hit radio. And it’s easy to see why. Songs don’t get much catchier than “Call Me Maybe,” but before long it became something more like a meme. News outlets used the title hook for headline fodder. Sitcoms used the song in publicity stunt flash mobs (remember those?). One enterprising producer used it as a mash-up with Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like A Hole” (and it works shockingly well). And if you left the house at any point between September 2011 and December 2012, you heard it. In another era when Spotify streams didn’t count as record sales, it’d be the kind of song you could retire off of, and the royalties would keep water in the pool.

And yet, Carly Rae Jepsen, despite going diamond (10 million in sales or equivalent units), isn’t quite the household name superstar that Lady Gaga or Beyoncé is. In the seven years since having the biggest pop hit in America, Carly Rae Jepsen has become something of a cult icon. She’s become a darling of indie audiences, thanks in large part to the sound of her 2015 album E-MO-TION. And it’s likely not accidental, either. The song features production by the likes of Blood Orange, The Bird and the Bee’s Greg Kurstin and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, and compared to the more EDM-leaning brickwall-production hits of Katy Perry, these songs embrace more of a classic ‘80s pop sound, slap bass, saxophone cheese and all. The songs breathe—or at least give the impression of having more space despite most likely having been compressed from hundreds of Protools tracks. And that’s surprisingly rare in the Top 40 realm. Pop music doesn’t often give you the opportunity to let something sink in. If it burns slow, then it’s unlikely to provide any sort of instant gratification. Then again, I defy anyone to say that “Run Away With Me,” a song I learned through experience is embarrassingly outside of my personal vocal range, doesn’t hit the pleasure center on first contact.

The thing about Carly Rae Jepsen, though, is that she only seems to be doubling down in that direction. With the release of new album Dedicated, Jepsen has embraced an electro-disco sound with built-in nuance and an overall late-nite vibe. There’s a smoothness to “Everything He Needs” that I probably wouldn’t have appreciated in my twenties, while “Julien,” the album’s opener and arguably its best song, teases with the idea of bombast only to settle into one of the most comfortably perfect hooks of the bunch. As a singer and a songwriter, Jepsen never embodied the 2010s pop cliché of making every night seem like the most important night on earth. Her songs are, to use another cliché phrase, more “mature” than that. They’re vulnerable, intimate. She’s often lovesick or lonely, but the stakes never feel quite as inflated. What’s on the charts is often all about hyperbole, but Jepsen is making pop for grown folks.

Jepsen also appeals to grizzled metalheads—I’ve seen it firsthand and, well, I am one. I’m not sure I can explain that one so easily—other than that Madonna and Janet Jackson were each releasing some of their best material around the same time Metallica was—but it makes sense when coupled with the Internet campaign to provide her with a sword (which happened in August of last year, it was inflatable). But maybe the appeal of Carly Rae Jepsen outside of a traditional pop music market is something much simpler. Instant gratification or not, Carly Rae Jepsen’s music is very easy to like and only grows warmer and more joyful with time.  


Carly Rae Jepsen
Humphreys Concerts by the Bay
August 8


Other Recommended Shows:

Drab Majesty (July 24, Music Box): Black clothing and a sense of dramatic grandeur are optional but recommended when attending this show, featuring one of the best dark synth-pop duos in America today.

Yves Tumor (July 26, Music Box): Way back in January I offered a suggestion that Yves Tumor, then lined up to play Coachella, make his way to San Diego for our own performance. Looks like that came true, and anyone unfamiliar with his latest album Safe in the Hands of Love should familiarize themselves with its strange, dark electronic textures to see why I’m so excited about this one.

A Tribute to Roky Erickson (July 26, Casbah): Psychedelic rock legend Roky Erickson, founding member of Austin’s 13th Floor Elevators, died earlier this year, and it seems only fitting that a super-team of the city’s garage and psych musicians play through some of his best-known songs. Members of the Loons, Drug Hunt, Wild Wild Wets are set to participate.

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