Carly Rae Jepsen: The Pop Star Baffling America With Her Unprecedented Normalcy

Carly Rae Jepsen timidly peers out from behind a curtain in the artwork that accompanies her single, “Run Away With Me,” a photograph whose black-and-white color scheme seems designed to endow its subject with a touch of drama.But is that really timidity, or is it strategic coyness? Is her seeming penchant for withholding a crutch, or is it a strength? And does whatever she’s hiding behind the curtain really matter?

A recent Pitchfork review of her album, E•MO•TION, suggests that it matters enough to deduct at least a few crucial tenths of a point: the crux of the 7.4 review was that an impeccable pop album like this one cannot fully work if the artist appears to audiences as opaque — or worse, a cipher. Apparently pop stars need to be accompanied by public, histrionic histories that give weight to their sometimes-weightless music. (Recall the sustained fury with which critics hashed out whether Lana Del Rey’s Fordham-attending, Elizabeth Woolridge Grant-titled past discredited what she once described as her “gangster Nancy Sinatra” identity and the music that came with it.)

It’s true that Jepsen appears to deny listeners the personalized instant gratification of thinking they’ve heard and/or witnessed a personality being wholly revealed for them — and she’d be the first person to say so. “I think there’s a flirtatious side [to me], and it’s a little read-between-the-lines and a little bit more look behind the curtains,” she tells me, perhaps even being so opaque as to invoke this image she’s already used in her promotional materials in explaining what she likes to withhold. “That’s the way I think I am in nature, and I think it probably comes out in my music.”

Hers are predominantly songs of courtship or idealized romance, and even when she’s singing about casual sex — as she allegedly is on the peppy, otherwise completely child-friendly first single off the album, “I Really Like You” — it comes in the form of very vague innuendo. Some might see that as safe, but at a time when singing about the likes of truffle butter is all but expected if you want to make it in pop and you’re not Taylor Swift, it may not be safe at all. Given the early, underwhelming stats surrounding E•MO•TION-related releases — under five million YouTube views for “Run Away With Me,” which should have been the song of the summer, and a peak at #38 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for “I Really Like You” — it really could prove dangerous.

But Jepsen asserts that to do anything else wouldn’t have been like her. And if her manager Scooter Braun’s claim in the New York Times that Jepsen’s team wanted to focus less on singles and more on a full, “critically acclaimed album” is to be believed, they seem to be achieving their goal. Outside of strange complaints about Jepsen’s supposed unknowability and the decided lack of a pop-star identity in her videos, the album has completely wooed critics.

When I speak to Jepsen, she keeps coming back to the idea that she’s “an old school romantic at heart. I think once you’re stamped with that,” she says. “You can’t lose it even if you try to deny it, even to yourself. Regarding the songs on E•MO•TION and what I felt with writing them… there is that longing, that yearning, that true blue romance, for sure.” “Old school romantic” is an unsurprising self-definition if you’ve ever heard even one gushing, sighing note of Jepsen’s music — and because of the unstoppably catchy and thus omnipresent “Call Me Maybe,” you absolutely have; you likely heard it to the point where you internally inserted a “maybe” after anyone asked you to call them (until that, too, became overplayed).

Jepsen speaks with a commingling of Mid-Atlantic propriety and adolescent slurring, like a member of Congress who’s also a teenager with a large retainer. It’s this oxymoronic, buttoned-up exuberance that overlays a great deal of E•MO•TION, which, tellingly, she wrote, “before, during, and after” playing Cinderella in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical on Broadway alongside Fran Drescher. That classic, childlike, yet corseted fantasy vision of love-at-first-sight romance isn’t dissimilar to the sparklingly earnest way Jepsen sings about romance in her music — even when she’s talking about a one-night-stand. The singer’s enthusiasm about the play, and the unbridled emotionalism of musical theater, speaks to that.

“I do remember when I first went to see Cinderella, when [original cast member] Laura Osnes was in the role, there was a moment when she and the prince started singing, ‘Do I Love You?’ and I caught myself, I almost laughed at myself because I was in complete shock and surprise that I was crying — it was just so beautiful,” she says. It was love at first sight with love at first sight. “It’s over the top, but it is emotional and it’s kind of beautiful. I think it was in that moment that I knew completely that this was something I was going to have to say ‘yes’ to if I got the opportunity.” There’s a simultaneous prudishness and unrestrained sentimentality to old-fashioned musical theater that makes a lot of Jepsen’s contemporaries cringe; Jezebel, for example, sent writers to see Cinderella and have a “dialogue” about it, which they titled, “We Sat Through Carly Rae Jepsen Starring in Cinderella on Broadway.”

Jepsen in Rodgers & Hammerstein's 'Cinderella'
Jepsen in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘Cinderella’

Even when you armor this type of emotion in the distancing mechanism of stylish ’80s artifice, as Jepsen has done on E•MO•TION, it’s a hard commodity to sell to listeners steeped in contemporary detachment. And that’s because, difficult as it is to imagine at a moment when bold sentimental statements are expected to be inflected with disillusioned irony, E•MO•TION is a completely earnest title.

The reason the album was written “before, during, and after” Cinderella is because the writing process was one that involved over 200 songs — which Jepsen began churning out on tour for her previous album, Kiss, and that saw her through a breakup and a move from Los Angeles to new York. She narrowed these compositions down to 12 tracks, all cohered by their foundation in the unrestrained sentimentality of ’80s pop. The final product features collaborations between an impressive set of producers, two of whom have become common talking points around the album because of their aptitude for dynamic ’80s revivalism: Haim producer Ariel Rechtshaid (who worked on “All That” and “When I Needed You”) and Devonté Hynes, aka Blood Orange. With different collaborators contributing to just about every song, the recording process saw the singer traveling transcontinentally.

E•MO•TION is an escapist album in every sense: Scooter Braun’s blunt statement of purpose in the Times  suggests a desire to escape the cutesy identity that initially made Jepsen appeal to younger audiences. “This album musically reflects a lot of deeper, darker sides,” the singer says. These sides are present in a more adult sound, and she asserts lyrically that they’re present without exactly divulging what they are: “I’ve got a cavern of secrets/ None of them are for you,” she intones at the beginning of “Warm Blood.”

“It wasn’t a conscious decision at the time to be young,” Jepsen says of her earlier work, and perceptions of it. “It was more that I think that the way I write pop music is a little bit less ‘come hither,’ and maybe it is a little of that old-fashioned stuff. I can listen in hindsight and understand why it comes across as young. There’s a playfulness to it, there’s a joyfulness to it, and people relate that to youthfulness.” But she says that this time, she wanted to make an album of “more maturity. And I’ll be honest,” she continues, “sometimes that is a little bit of an uphill slant, because people can peg you as being purposefully younger, and that’s never something I’ve been trying to do.”

The propositions of romance on both “Run Away With Me” and “Let’s Get Lost” are also propositions of escape. “Especially with this career, romance is something that you slip in between the cracks or you fight to get for one day, and if I get busier, it just gets even harder and my desire to be with somebody becomes almost like the need to get oxygen for a second,” she says. “‘Run Away With Me’ is exactly that. It’s making a weekend feel like a real relationship when in the back of your adult mind, you know it’s not enough. It’s not really like sitting next to them while they do laundry, and watching them brush their teeth – getting to know all of their annoying quirks, and they get to know yours. It’s a glamorized version of a prolonged date that isn’t real life. It’s a little fantasy, but it’s kind of euphoric. Those two songs both came from that desire to get away and live in that fantasy.”

The video for “Run Away With Me” is a composite of predominantly candid moments and gleefully depicts escape, with Jepsen in hotel rooms, walking through and happily dwarfed by the immensity of foreign cities. “It was me without the idea of what a pop star is supposed to be,” she says. “I knew I wanted an ’80s album but not necessarily costume-y ’80s styling. In some of those shots there’s no makeup and there’s mom jeans, so it really depends on the song and the video and my mood of the day, to be honest. It’s maybe even a fault in me that I don’t have a more defined idea of what I have to be everyday, but that kind of seems like jail for me. I like being able to reinvent myself every day.”

More often than not, it seems Jepsen prefers naturalism to the battle between epics of grotesquerie that is the post-Gaga pop music video scene. “I remember looking at treatments for ‘Run Away With Me’… and thinking they felt silly to me. I had a hard time picturing myself — like, one of the treatments was: You’re at an insane asylum and then you try to escape, and you scream, ‘Run Away With Me!’ Or, You’re on Saturn and you and this other alien boy are trying to run away. My friends and I would read them out loud and be giggling, and not in a way where we didn’t think it would be a good video for the right artist… but it just so wasn’t me. And it was so wrong; I’d be acting in this way that I don’t know that I could pull off.” She explains that, instead, she decided to hold off on making a video for the song. But then her boyfriend,  David Kalani Larkins, “was on the road with [her] and he was just shooting behind the scenes stuff for kicks because he’s a photographer.”

Sadly, this delivery of realness did not woo critics or audiences. “It has none of the starry glam that she’d need to enter the upper echelon of pop like she deserves,” said Stereogum in introducing the video. In fact, this reception might well have influenced what appears to be Scooter Braun’s revisionist framing of his intentions for the Jepsen and her album. Upon the release of “I Really Like You,” before he made his now-oft-quoted NYT claim that her team wasn’t after singles, he’d said to Billboard, “I told her that she couldn’t come out with anything unless it was on the level of ‘Call Me Maybe.’ And, now we have a new one that is on that level.”

Music writer Katherine St. Asaph seems to have some answers about the disappointing audience reception to Jepsen’s singles. She recently wrote of the singer:

The awkward female pop star is not a personality pop in 2015 can parse. Women are expected either to be den mother, empress, cyborg, and Courage Wolf in one; or self-loathing romantic who’s one drug away from sensuous, fetching collapse. Every pop star is either retrofitted to one of these models or discarded.

But if it’s so key for female pop musicians — as the Pitchfork review argues — to embody, exude, and live within a feminine archetype that fits particular listeners’ mood-based cravings, perhaps Jepsen should be lauded for embodying the notion of an undisclosed identity, one that says, “Actually, why don’t you just listen to the song I wrote?”

When asked about her visual aesthetic — or, specifically, her seemingly deliberate lack of visual stylization — the otherwise effusive and eloquent Jepsen pauses. “It’s sort of a confusing question for me, because the answer is so confusing,” she says. “The truth of it is, I have so many things that I’m attracted to, style-wise, that I don’t think I’m consciously really worried or affected by how that comes across.”

Who knows? In her personal life, Carly Rae Jepsen may be the kind of reprobate Twitter loves to explode over — but as her track “Run Away With Me” emphasizes, she’ll only “be your sinner in secret.” Maybe some select people get to experience that. Lucky them. We get to experience her pop music. Lucky us.