Watching Carly Rae Jepsen play E•MO•TION live is an hour-long clinic in vulnerability. It is a public display of affection, for the artist more than anyone in the audience. Jepsen is the most honest pop musician working, and for this, she may never be a star. But to dismiss her as a one-hit wonder is unfair: E•MO•TION, with its 1980s nostalgia and hazy shine, was never asking for hits. I have been in rooms where one-hit wonders have played, the ones who had a big single and spent an entire lifetime chasing another one. This is not Carly Rae Jepsen’s room. When I see her play a sold-out show at New York's Terminal 5, no one is suffering through all the other songs in order to get to the one they heard on the radio. By the time Jepsen plays “Call Me Maybe” at the end of the night, it feels like it doesn’t fit — like a sweet dessert after we're already full.
Intimacy is generally not something that a concertgoer can opt out of at Terminal 5. A difficult venue to navigate, with limited quality views of the stage, the room quickly becomes a mass of bodies funneling to the same few spots before spending hours jostling for space. Drinks are spilled on pants, elbows are pressed into the soft spaces on other bodies — by accident at first, and then perhaps with a little more purpose. Everyone apologizes for their manipulation of space before settling into discomfort, pushed into a wall or the back of a stranger. It is, perhaps counterintuitively, the perfect venue for Jepsen to play through E•MO•TION. The feeling barrels toward you as the lights go down and the signature saxophone part from “Run Away With Me” blankets the eager crowd: Anything is possible. Even in a city that makes you feel small, there is someone waiting to fall in love with you.
Some will say that Jepsen's appeal is that she seems like she could be one of your friends — someone who you could sit down with and truly open up to, someone who will laugh honestly at your jokes and sit through your Netflix marathons. She is often packaged this way: Carly Rae Jepsen, your friend with boy problems and big dreams. Your friend with two dance moves at her disposal, milking them so energetically to every beat that it becomes endearing, until there is no such thing as a “bad dancer” or a “good dancer,” just a set of unchained limbs answering a higher calling.
All of this seems really great on the surface — a pop musician only an arm’s reach away. E•MO•TION has been critically adored, despite disappointing sales totals. None of its songs has lit the Billboard charts on fire. It occurs to me that maybe no one actually wants a pop star who could be their friend. It erases the boundary of spectacle. That's what keeps so many of us drinking from the pop music well: the star who stops a room when they walk in, someone we can’t access, in a life that looks nothing like ours. E•MO•TION is too honest an album to pretend to be interested in spectacle. With her band behind her, Jepsen gets through three songs before speaking to the audience. When she finally speaks, it’s a rushed sentence or two before she launches into another song. In a white blazer and a head of messy dark hair, she looks like a modern artist’s vision of Pat Benatar, somehow both awkward and entirely at ease. Some musicians don’t carry on much interaction with their audience because they have no interest in it. With Jepsen, you get the sense that she is just so excited to play these songs that nothing else matters. She is the person handing you a gift at Christmas, tearing into the wrapping paper before you can start to, with an eagerness that says, “I made this gift for you, for all of you. And I want you to have it, while there’s still time to enjoy it.” It is hard for me to imagine anyone wanting an actual friend this close to them, asking them to feel everything.
From a metaphorical standpoint, one of the worst things we do is compare love to war. We do this in times of actual war, without a thought about what it actually means. Mothers bury their children while a pop musician calls the bedroom a war zone and romance a field of battle — as if there is a graveyard for heartbreak alone. We’ve run out of ways to weaponize sadness, and so it becomes an actual weapon. A buffet of sad and bitter songs rains down from the pop charts for years, keeping us tethered to whatever sadness we could dress ourselves in when nothing else fit. Jepsen is trying to unlock the hard door, the one with all of the other feelings behind it. It’s evident tonight, as she bounces along the stage, smiling while pulling off her two dance moves to every note of every song; as she abandons her blazer for a sleeveless tee, and then a cape, only for a song, before throwing it to the side; as her voice trembles with nervous excitement before bringing out Dev Hynes to play “All That” with her, both of them basking in the audience's voracious response.
This is the difficult work: convincing a room full of people to set their sadness aside and, for a night, bring out whatever joy remains underneath; in a world where there is so much grief to be had, leading the people to water and letting them drink from your cupped hands. Inside Terminal 5, under the spell of Carly Rae Jepsen, love is simply love. It is not war. It is not something you are thrown into and forced to survive. It is something you experience, and if you’re lucky enough, time slows down. It is not as fashionable as our precious American anguish, our feelings that eclipse all else. But, then again, there is a time to throw all else aside and see if maybe dancing will bring us back to life, packed so tightly in a room of strangers that everyone becomes one whole body, shaking free whatever is holding it down.
Sometime around the third song of Jepsen’s set, I started to notice the people kissing. One couple first, and then another, and then another. This continued for the remainder of the show. I never looked long, usually just a glance after nearby movement caught my eye. A couple directly in front of me, occupying the same small bit of wall that I was forced to occupy, began kissing each other passionately during “Warm Blood,” while Jepsen held the microphone stand with both hands and whispered “I would throw in the towel for you, boy / 'Cause you lift me up and catch me when I'm falling for you” into the mic. The couple pushed back into me, one of them stepping on my shoes. They broke their embrace long enough for one of them to mouth the words “Sorry, dude” to me.
I smiled and gave an understanding nod that was not seen, as they were already falling back into each other. I considered how often there is shame attached to loving anyone publicly. The shame, of course, comes on a sliding scale, depending on who you are and whom you love. How often I hear people complain about things like engagement photos, couples being tender with each other in public, or someone who can’t stop talking about someone they love. How often I first think of who may be watching before I lean in to give my wife a really good kiss in a crowded store. Here, that shame falls to dust. It is something beyond the smoke that lingers above our heads that does this — turning a person’s face to the face of someone they love, and kissing the way we do in our homes, with the curtains drawn.