When I see Carly Rae Jepsen in person for the first time, it takes a few moments before she begins to look real. Part of this is just the vertigo that accompanies seeing any celebrity in the flesh: A figure that once existed only in a mediated stream of images suddenly drops into the world as a three-dimensional being, mutable and flawed. But part of it is unique to Carly, too — to her voice and her hair and what she means to people. Carly Rae Jepsen is a meme turned into a celebrity turned into the face of a fiercely beloved album, last year’s sparkling Emotion, which failed to sustain the massive commercial heights of her 2012 breakthrough single, “Call Me Maybe,” but found a devoted following in pop fanatics.
On stage this past weekend at Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, Jepsen performed “Run Away With Me” while the screen behind her projected a 20-foot Carly running around some sunny city, inducing a kind of vertigo. But she’s really there, really singing “Run Away With Me,” really wearing her hair in that jet-black Joan Jett mullet that has become so singular and laden with meaning.
At the start of her 50-minute set, Jepsen seemed tired, out of step with the boundless energy of her albums. She struggled to hold full notes on “Run Away With Me,” but she found her groove a few songs in, smiling at the audience’s cheers. Jepsen’s never been the most powerful singer — she may not have the range, though she does have the character. But her delivery is marked with breathless enthusiasm and generous affection for whomever she happens to be singing about.
Besides “Call Me Maybe,” which launched her into a very specific kind of stardom, Carly plays exclusively from Emotion. It’s what we’re here for — the album that earned her the kind of fans who come to a festival like this — and to hear it live while the sun’s still out on a bright July day feels like falling into a cocoon of joy. But there’s more to her than joy, and in a small, subtle way, Carly acknowledges one layer to her appeal that’s been bubbling around the internet since Emotion dropped.
During “Gimmie Love,” one of Emotion’s most delicate tracks, the projections turn to black-and-white images of couples kissing. It’s as though Victorian photographs or stills from old movies have been animated: The couples move toward each other, and bright red hearts pop above their heads when they kiss. There’s a rotation of maybe seven couples that show up at the chorus, and six appear heterosexual. But one is definitely two women kissing, and it sparks cautious cheers from a fraction of the crowd whenever it rolls by.
When the “Boy Problems” video came out in April, two major observations dominated the casual discussion: One, that Carly is the only person on earth who could pull off that hairstyle, and two, the all-girl sleepover at the end of the video held something of an erotic charge.
Carly dances with half a dozen other women against a shimmering gold curtain, her halter top glinting in the studio lights. She turns her gaze to the woman to her left. They lock eyes. She turns her whole body, and they dance together.
From Madonna to Britney to Lady Gaga, female pop stars have historically opened up channels for gay men to freely express desire, to play with femininity and exuberance under the glitter-shadowed eye of a benevolent femme demigoddess. Fewer avenues exist for lesbian desire in the mainstream. In part, that’s because of the relative invisibility of lesbian romance in American culture; gay male desire has historically been seen as a failure of the birthright of masculinity, and has been more strictly pathologized than lesbian desire. A man who performs the historically feminine act of loving men is more dangerous than a woman who focuses her desire within the cloistered sphere of female companionship.
Carly Rae Jepsen’s individual identity is not the point. The point is that her music in and of itself loosens the assumption that the most natural place for a girl’s desire to fall is on a boy.
Emotion doesn’t follow the affective mechanics that govern many pop albums. Instead of doggedly pursuing desire or expunging heartbreak, Carly plays inside a kind of ecstatic insecurity. She doesn’t know that she’d be perfect with the object of her desire, she’s not sure she’s going to love anyone forever, and she can’t even promise that the sex will be great. What she knows is what she wants, and she falls over herself to invite someone else to want the same thing she does, never knowing if she’ll land on her feet.
“I want what I want — do you think that I want too much?” Carly sings at the chorus to “Gimmie Love.” What would be a declaration of unambiguous yearning in another song turns into a mid-line contradiction as she asks the object of her affections if this wanting is OK. Her desire comes rife with joy but also real danger, to the point that she likens it to a natural disaster: “When I get right next to you / I feel this heartbeat break in two / I feel the earthquake in the room and so I pray / Fall into me."
Another Emotion highlight, “Making the Most of the Night” (cowritten by Sia), paints a neon glow on the blurry line between friendship and new romance. Carly shows up to a heartbroken friend’s house offering both love and a joyride around the city on a warm night. She throws the top down on her convertible and revs past the streetlights, like a ’50s teen wooing a girlfriend with his dad’s muscle car. “I’ll run to your side when your heart is bleeding / I’m coming to get ya, to get ya, to get ya."
“Your Type” treats that same line with less ambiguity. It could be about any kind of friend zone, but its lyrics map easily onto the queer cliché of falling for, and getting rejected by, a straight friend. “Run Away With Me,” meanwhile, traces a different but equally potent gay cliché: falling in forbidden love and running far, far away from the no-good town that would keep you and your partner down. “Take me to the feeling / I’ll be your sinner in secret / When the lights go out,” Carly sings. “Every single minute / I’ll be your hero and win it / When the lights go out / Run away with me / Run away with me."
Ever since “Call Me Maybe,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s power has laid in her ability to make even the most mundane moments of desire luminous. “Call Me Maybe” turns the courtship ritual of giving out your phone number into an apex of yearning and terror, a pristine moment of truth: “Before you came into my life I missed you so bad ... I missed you so, so bad,” she sings about a person she’s just met. Queer romance can hold electricity in a similar way; its imagery hasn’t been exhausted yet by mainstream media, and even in an era of increased visibility and (supposed) acceptance, dating outside of the heteronormative form can feel like dodging danger, a secret ecstasy you achieve in spite of a world that threatens your safety and joy at every turn.
Two women kiss, 20-feet-tall and glowing, over Carly Rae Jepsen while she sings: “Gimmie love / Gimmie love, gimmie love, gimmie love, gimmie love / Gimmie touch.” Among the crowd of thousands, a few cheers of recognition crash electric through the air.