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What Separates Carly Rae Jepsen From The Pop Pack?

By following her own rules, she's carved out a unique lane in modern pop

This week, we celebrate the first anniversary of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, her third record and arguably one of the greatest pop albums in recent memory. And because she really, really, really likes us, she's dropping an album of B sides that will inevitably soundtrack our hours spent wondering why Carly Rae Jepsen isn’t a bigger pop star. Like the singer herself, Jepsen’s level of fame is fairly modest — she's not a mega-famous IRL household name like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift, nor is she necessarily trying to get there. Which is fine! Good for her. But where is she trying to get?

Jepsen's vocals, production, lyrics, and live show should all put her within range of Top 40 artists like Selena Gomez or Demi Lovato. But despite the quality of her work, she seems to be stuck somewhere in the pop underworld, earning some radio play here and there, and a healthy level of support from her 11 million Twitter followers, but without reaping headlining arena gigs or even endorsement deals bigger than Kohl’s. Maybe her destiny, instead, is to rule the world of mainstream indie: Like Florence Welch or Janelle Monáe, Jepsen may simply be honing a cult following that will eventually lead to more acting opportunities, more festival spots, and more cool collaborations.

Part of what's going on is that Carly Rae Jepsen is 30 years old — she’s a grown-ass woman, years into her career. And like singer-songwriters Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and even Celine Dion (my queen), Jepsen has used her most recent record to assert herself as such. In Emotion, she doesn’t spend time asking a guy to maybe call her (tee-hee!); instead, she urges the object of her affection to do things like run away with her, leaning into the forwardness that can come with the mania of new love. Her words aren’t timid, her voice is strong, and her intent is present — girlfriend is here to sing and make music. At no point — on her album or IRL — does she hide behind false modesty or anything other than her own identity. She embraces her own style, experiments with her hair, and speaks candidly about her aesthetic.

Amid all this, it can be hard to remember that just a few years ago, she was pitched to the world as pop's Next Big Star thanks to Justin Bieber’s blessing. Instead, she's gone left. And while a new pop star’s inability to be categorized at first might have to do with shifting genres or trends, that same artist still doing her own thing later into her career suggests the divide is her own doing. Jepsen could have parlayed the success of "Call Me Maybe" into Katy Perry levels of follow-ups post-"I Kissed a Girl" — or affixed herself permanently to Canadian Idol (in which she competed in 2007) like Kelly Clarkson did to the American equivalent. But she chose to ride the wave of her first big single more gradually, waiting three years to release Emotion, well after the majority of "Call Me Maybe" hooplah had calmed down.

If the music industry were a high school cafeteria, Jepsen’s the student who’s happy to eat alone (even though she’d be welcome at any table). She’s a Barb in an industry of Nancys, holding her own and abiding by her own set of rules that keep her nestled away from Top 40 cliques. And while it may be tempting to chalk up her uniqueness to being Canadian (as we are a special, kind people), her popularity isn’t reserved for audiences north of the border — it’s simply reserved for listeners who like her. You’re either a fan or you’re not. Jepsen is accessible, catchy, and even adult enough to avoid being labelled a guilty pleasure, which I think guarantees her a brand of longevity reserved for artists who keep their eyes on their own paper.

Jepsen has carved out a path that’s reserved only for her. Her music is interesting enough to warrant a B-side release for an album that was critically acclaimed despite relatively low sales. Her voice is good enough to land her on Broadway. Her clothes don’t hinge on trends. What she delivers is reflective of who she is, and that means her placement between Pop Star™ and (potential) indie darling makes sense. She’s not supposed to be categorizable, or to fit into an industry mold. Everything is as it should be. Because if she bended to anything but what she obviously wants to do, she wouldn’t be Carly Rae Jepsen. Which wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.