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COMMENTARY

Carly Rae Jepsen and the Kingdom of Desire

What it’s like to be in the crowd when she cuts to the feeling with a symphony orchestra

“This last song is … uhhh … well, it’s a song to tell you that I don’t just love you. I also like you.”
—Carly Rae Jepsen, before her final song of the night

Entering Canada at the New York/Ontario border, near the edge of Buffalo, a black border guard asks me if I’m good. It’s the first question he asks after taking my passport from me — not why I’m crossing into Canada, or where I’m coming from. At first I wonder if a fairly routine five-hour drive has taken that much of a toll on me before remembering that I am, in fact, not good. After the verdict in Philando Castile’s murder came down the night before, acquitting police officer Jeronimo Yanez on all charges, I didn’t sleep much.

I have routines for this feeling now — the feeling that comes with a particular set of injustices that you live a life knowing you might fall victim to. I clean my apartment, even if it doesn’t need cleaning. I put a record on my record player and let it play all the way through, even the songs I can’t tolerate. I call my people and say, “What a world, oh, what a world this is.” I do anything to avoid the endless scroll of a social media timeline that would tell me, directly, how much people I know and care for are hurting. And yet, this is how the night always ends: with me, underneath the covers, staring into an abyss of familiar haunting.

I tell the border guard that I’m good, though I’m not. I think often about the way black people respond to each other in public in the moments after it can feel like being in public itself is a daunting task. I tell the border guard that I’m good because I don’t want to assume that he’s checking in on me, even though I imagine he might be checking in on me, in the same way that the older black woman at a gas station in Cleveland seemed to check in on the group of teenage black boys who were in line ahead of me. I don’t know what side of the border this border guard calls home, or if he feels safer there than I have felt, at times, in the past 12 hours. There are cars snaking behind us, and now is, perhaps, not the time for a discussion of the interior design of our anxieties. He asks why I’m coming into Canada, and I tell him for a concert. He doesn’t ask much beyond that, hands me my passport, and tells me to stay safe.

I was coming into Canada for pop songs, which is what this is about. This is about pop songs, but beyond, it is about a search for a small mercy — another window out of some unexpected wretchedness for whatever hours your time, body, and money can afford. How to recharge yourself briefly in order to keep finding your way in a place that loves what you perform, but perhaps doesn’t like you all that much.


Onstage at Roy Thomson Hall in downtown Toronto, Carly Rae Jepsen looks nervous. There is a lot at stake here: Jepsen hasn’t headlined a full show in her home country in years, skipping over Canada entirely on Emotion’s Gimmie Love tour. There is also the looming presence of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at her back, shrinking the large stage and cutting just a small corner at the front for her to fit into. It is a homecoming with a lot on the table. After conductor Lucas Waldin introduces her — intentionally drawing out the introduction to raise the anticipation, as any good conductor would — Jepsen peeks out from behind an offstage door, walks out waving sheepishly, and in one sweeping motion the crowd rises to its feet.

The thing with any Carly Rae Jepsen show is that she can be a bit of a slow starter when taking on a full set. Not a bad starter by any means, but it seems to take her at least two songs to work the nerves out. This seems built into her artistic DNA, and perhaps it's related to her particular type of pop stardom: big enough of a star to have an active, caring, and committed fan base that is, at least for now, small enough for her to not want to let them down. There’s a difference in playing to 1,000 people and playing to 10,000 people if you traffic in the work of singular and specific emotional connection. And so, after glancing up at Waldin as the signature horn entered, Carly Rae Jepsen kicked into “Run Away with Me,” and she was home again.

To counter the point about her slow-starting tendencies, it must be said that when Jepsen is on, warmed up, and comfortable, she operates at a level of onstage confidence that is often stunning. For every moment of breathless nervousness that might take place for a fan at the start of the show, there are at least twice as many moments where you find yourself wondering if this is among the greatest shows you’ve ever seen.

After playing through a few songs, Jepsen left the stage and allowed the orchestra to play a small solo set. When she returned, still glowing in a golden dress that drank in the fractured light falling on it, she seemed renewed. Some singers can do their best work stationary — standing behind a microphone, moving an arm from time to time. Jepsen is best when she can twist the mic from its cage and make use of the space she has, even if it’s limited.

In her second set, she played a delightful and charming rendition of “Tug of War,” a single from her 2008 album of the same name, now considered somewhat of a deep cut in the post- Emotion Jepsen catalog. She invited Waldin, who claimed to “not normally be a singer,” to sing backup, and he made a show of it all, taking off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves. Later in the show, during “Let’s Get Lost,” Jepsen bounced to the edge of the stage, held both of her palms outward, and beckoned the audience to get out of their seats. It was a gesture both logical and large. To that point, even in the concert’s best moments most of us had remained seated, bouncing along in our chairs so as to not break some imagined decorum of the space. Not many of us in the audience had shown up in our Sunday best, but early on, the space and the show both seemed too magical to defile with our raucous energy. But there, at the edge of the stage, was Carly Rae Jepsen, reminding a crowd that there is no space too pure to pour dancing into. Telling everyone to make good use of the space, and the bodies that carried them to it, like any good conductor would.

“This next song is about being stuck in the friend zone. Which I … uhhh … write about a lot. So … I guess … make of that what you will.”

Carly Rae Jepsen said this before playing “Your Type,” one of Emotion’s signature songs, and one that most explicitly speaks to the larger project that is the Carly Rae Jepsen Narrative: close, but not close enough; loved, but not in love. “Your Type” is the bull’s-eye from which all other songs on Emotion echo outward. The song’s introduction was one of only a handful of words Jepsen said all night. As I found when I saw her in New York in 2016, she isn’t much for swelling, overflowing onstage banter. When she does speak, it’s often to give brief, one-line summaries of a song before playing it, as if she’s nervously pitching them to a room of strangers. It's an endearing and refreshing habit. It seems as if she knows the answers are inside the music itself, without any additional language needed to pick apart what will already be clear to those who know the feeling.

It goes without saying that the concept of the friend zone, as it is most popularly known in current discourse, is flawed at best, and entirely garbage at worst. When it is presented as an idea of punishment — something handed down by someone who might love you, but not in the way that you love them — the concept falls apart, swamped in entitlement. But “Your Type” doesn’t really sit in that particular place of platonic and romantic tension. It’s a song that, more than anything, is about Jepsen’s struggle with unworthiness — facing herself, and not the object of her romantic interests. It is more sad than scathing, more self-reflective and melancholy than bitter or resentful. It takes the trope and fashions it into a newer, better weapon.

There are many lenses through which Emotion’s central theme can be read, but the one that makes the most sense as I heard the songs from it in this patient, orchestral context was the one that I haven’t been able to shake for the past several months: that it’s an album about falling in love with a friend gradually, and all of the agonizing within. This is made plain in “Your Type,” but it can be read all over the album in more subtle ways, and in the moment, I found myself wanting to unravel this part of the story.

When an artist who normally isn’t backed by an orchestra suddenly gets backed by an orchestra, their songs can come to life in a manner that isn’t afforded by slick production or heavy guitars and backup vocalists. Onstage at Roy Thomson Hall, it was just Jepsen, staying afloat while an entire production came to life behind her. You could see the movements in each of the songs, as if there was a film being pieced together at her back. It takes a special kind of artist not to drown in that.

Speaking of film: When someone realizes they are in love with their friend onscreen, in a movie or television show, the ending is usually happy. There is a small glimpse at some interior tension, but it is of the romantic flavor — a person enjoying their brief agony before the inevitable romance commences. Platonic love is vital, essential, and perhaps the one thing left in this wretched landscape that could save us all for a little bit longer than we deserve. I love my friends even when I don’t tell them enough. I have crawled from the wreckage of enough heartbreak to know who will still be standing when I emerge and who won’t, and I hold those still standing close to me.

The distance between affections is short and often linear. The distance often hangs on circumstance — a brief moment or a song or two hands brushing against each other in a movie theater. This is, of course, not to feed into the myth that two people of attracting romantic interests can’t be friends. Rather, it's an acknowledgement of what the onscreen element of this type of friendship gets incorrect: Falling in love with someone you love deeply as a friend isn’t necessarily romantic torment … if you truly care for the person, that is. More often than not, it can be a series of value judgments cloaked in an endless longing, until it isn’t.

The music of Emotion, in one understanding of it, lives in this space. “Gimmie Love” as a grand plea for attention from someone who might have eyes elsewhere. “When I Needed You” as the internal monologue of a relationship speeding off a cliff. “Let’s Get Lost” as the ode to stretching out a night beyond what seems possible — the most potent of the album’s many motions. The idea of trying to extend an inevitable ending on a dark highway heading toward separation from someone who you might wish to be your someone. You hope for a storm that would force you to pull over, or a traffic jam. Emotion, especially heard through a gentle lens of swelling strings and gentle horns, plays out like an archive of the space between platonic and sometimes-not. A relationship with a hundred ways in, but no clear way out.


It's been said that pop music desires a body — a single, focused human form as an object of interest. Emotion fails in this, I suppose, because its primary characters are desire and distance. Want may be a machine that lurches us toward a newer, more eager want, but the idea alone, pointing at nothing specific, doesn’t sell records. This is one theory as to why Carly Rae Jepsen, despite her ability to home in on a feeling and make it flourish, isn’t the biggest pop star in the world. But I’m not really interested anymore in why Emotion didn’t sell a million copies, because I don’t care about how an album sells as much as I care about how an album lives. And if that sounds overwrought or too emotional then by all means keep your numbers, and I’ll keep my small escapes into a place a slight touch better than the actual place I’m in.

Emotion is an album that still, even more than a year after its release, makes you feel good. When Carly Rae Jepsen launches into "Boy Problems," complete with her mostly shoulders dance moves, people spill out of their seats in the front row, dancing close to the stage while she points at them and grins. When she plays the inevitable “Call Me Maybe,” which, even though I’m weary of it, sounds incredible with the string arrangement crafted to hold it, her own voice is drowned out by the teeming masses howling out each line.

It is not easy to create a feeling consistently. I’m talking about creating across an entire emotional spectrum, so vividly that it draws even the most reserved and casual fans out of their brief darkness. This is a statement of intent — an artistic and creative decision. When people talk about Carly Rae Jepsen’s music as if it just arrives as-is — or when it gets discussed as something about or meant solely for youth — it does a real disservice to the work that must go into being able to make people feel everything, all at once. Doing this requires the full investment of an audience willing to consider a type of spatial intimacy coupled with a type of emotional grandeur. That Jepsen’s music is not the kind of pop music that relentlessly desires a body means that desire itself is the body. Desire is the living thing at the end of the tunnel, waiting with open arms, and to some, I imagine that isn’t a happy ending. Wanting leading into more wanting isn’t exactly a neatly tied ribbon, but it is a certainty. I will surely wake tomorrow with a desire for something I cannot have, and even if I can have it, I will chase the idea of not being able to have it until I find something else fleeting. For all of the memes and jokes that circulate among her dedicated fans, it’s a discredit to Jepsen’s abilities to speak of the feelings she brings forth without at least imagining the idea that she knows exactly what she’s doing in her creative process. That she's figured out the simple math: once you’ve caught that which you desire, the story is less interesting. She gives us, instead, a never-ending chase where the only thing to fall in love with is the idea of falling in love.


At the end of the night, Jepsen, hand-in-hand with Waldin, took her final bows. She closed the night with an encore of “I Really Like You,” the great first single from Emotion that has, for me, somehow become so buried underneath all of the album’s other songs that I found myself struggling to keep up as she sang. The show was, by almost any measure, a triumph, as a homecoming and as an establishment of risk — the uncertain places an artist will go in the name of whatever work they believe in.

For all the talk about what she represents and what her aims are or aren’t, I won’t lose sight of the fact that Carly Rae Jepsen is a pop singer, and a good one. To hear her voice competing with less noise than it was on her previous tour was refreshing. She was, in some ways, built for this show. There is a trick about raising the intensity in your voice without raising its volume, which is Jepsen’s greatest strength as a singer. Her best moments come in the quietest spaces of the night: nearly whispering “I don’t want to work it out” over just a few strings in “When I Needed You,” or in the spare moments at the opening of “All That.” During the latter, I found myself leaning forward in my seat, and noticed a few people around me doing the same. How funny, to have someone draw you closer just so you can hear them sing about that which is far away.

It might not be this one, but there is certainly a small and brief world in which Carly Rae Jepsen is the biggest pop star there is. And everyone there loves someone they can’t have, or has someone they can’t love. And everyone is all right nonetheless, because everything is fleeting. You can’t feel everything at once, until you can. And I can’t live in that world but for a few hours here and there, before I drive into another darkness with no one else in the car to get stuck in traffic with. Before I go back to weighing whether it is better to be liked or loved, but never weighing what it might be like to be both. And in Carly Rae Jepsen’s fleeting, brilliant world, it feels like there is nothing outside that might try to steal what joy you’ve managed to accumulate, in spite of the odds.

And there, of course, is the mercy I was looking for.