The Pure Pop Perfection Of Carly Rae Jepsen’s 'Emotion: Side B'

Molly Lambert on the exaltation of femininity and youth in Jepsen’s ‘Emotion’ leftovers

I have never felt a recognizable difference in my own maturity. I am perpetually the same indeterminate age. Birthdays are just a reminder that nothing has changed but the date. Carly Rae Jepsen is 30 years old, but according to a lot of people, she looks and sounds younger. It began in 2012, when she charted with “Call Me Maybe” and was revealed to be a seasoned 26 years old. Like the age truthers who insisted Margot Robbie was older than her stated age of 26 because of some ambiguous quality of her face, people were surprised that Carly Rae Jepsen was not younger, because of her appearance and presentation. What it means to look like an adult is an ever-shifting target, particularly in our sweatpants-friendly cultural climate.

As a person turning 33 in a couple weeks who still owns no professional-looking clothes of any sort and whose daily style consists of fuck-you flip-flops, elastic-waist shorts, and tank tops that came from pajama sets, I resent the very idea that you could possibly age out of any kind of fashion. Maybe this is a California-ism — nobody here blinks twice if you dress like The Dude, and I do. Certainly there have been times recently when I have wondered if I look less “college student pulling an all-nighter at the library” than “crazy Miss Havisham who no longer tolerates society’s rules,” but I would rather go out on the backs of a thousand Coachella hot moms than buy real pants. If Carly Rae Jepsen wore tailored suits instead of tennis skirts and saddle shoes, would people take her more seriously? No, because she makes a kind of pop music that a certain kind of person will never listen to anyway, because it reads as youthful and feminine. So why not wear the tennis skirts and saddle shoes?

Not all pop is teen pop, but there’s a tendency to associate effervescence with youth, and pop with fizz. Teens and pop go together like grenadine and Sprite. And because Carly Rae Jepsen served up sonic Shirley Temples rather than sloe gin fizzes, there was an assumption that she was a teen making music for teens. (Her association with Justin Bieber didn’t help.) But the bulk of teen pop has always been built by adult architects. When we talk about the slick TRL teen pop of the 1990s, what we are really talking about is the sound of Max Martin and other Swedish producers who were pumping lingonberry sauce into American pop, cutting the sugar with tartness.

Last year, Jepsen put out a perfect pop album called Emotion that critics loved. Emotion’s 1980s influence struck a chord with pop snobs of all stripes and seemed poised to deliver her a new base of 1989-happy Taylor Swift fans looking to expand their playlists. Canada has been a fertile zone for decades of pop — that whole "government support of the arts" thing doesn’t hurt. Justin Bieber, Drake, Tegan and Sara, The Weeknd, Grimes, and Carly Rae Jepsen all hail from the Great White North and represent a cross-section of the top ranks of pop in the last half decade. Canadian crossover pop history is storied with the likes of Shania Twain and Céline Dion, who crossed over not only from Canada to America but from their respective genres of country and Québécois pop into pop’s globalized mainstream.

There is no invisible gauntlet that you cross on your 30th birthday that turns you into an adult. But there is an unspoken rule that pop stars are done by 30 (rappers get until 35). When I think of pop stars who successfully crossed 30 and remained at the top of the game, there’s Beyoncé, Madonna, and uh, who else? Lorde — an actual teen who makes pop — has not been categorized as teen pop in the same way as Carly Rae Jepsen. It comes down to a correlation between youth, commerce, and disposability. Carly Rae Jepsen makes pure, unabashed mall pop that is delightful. Maybe indie is the new mainstream and vice versa? Her songs are universally appealing and sound designed to fill arenas, but Carly Rae is a boutique pop star who, in her very Canadian way, remains somehow provincial. She’s already gone further than expected after “Call Me Maybe.” But anyone who mistook her for a teen should have known that teens don’t make phone calls — they text. Having escaped one-hit wonderhood, any other success Jepsen has is just extra gravy on the poutine.

Emotion: Side B is a new EP of eight songs scrapped from Emotion. It’s 27 minutes of pure pop confection with no filler, a set that begins with the sound of a cassette being flipped over and wears its ’80s influences openly without veering into cartoonish nostalgic pastiche. The synths sound refreshing, and the pop songcraft is just current enough, but ultimately classic. The lyrics are always specific and a little strange, and Jepsen is one of those perfect pop vocal stylists, like Kylie Minogue, who knows exactly when to sing out and when to just coo. She’s a master of letting her voice break at just the right moment like it’s happening naturally, and who knows? Maybe it is.

Side B’s songs are bouncily propulsive — there’s not a ballad in the bunch. But it’s not all blue skies: There’s always a melancholy tinge to Jepsen’s pop. The EP is full of songs that are, on closer inspection, kiss-offs. Opener “First Time” is a “Like a Virgin” about how every new heartbreak feels just like the first time, channeling the breezy sound of Minnesota family band The Jets’ breezy hit “Crush on You.” “The One” is an ode to not being the one, and “Store” — a reworked version of a song that Jepsen cowrote for a British Columbian antismoking campaign — is the most upbeat pop anthem about leaving for a pack of cigarettes and never coming back since Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.” “First Time” is coproduced by Max Martin protégé and “... Baby One More Time” collaborator Rami Yacoub and Carl Falk, who as a team coproduced One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” and Nicki Minaj’s “Starships.” Side B, like Emotion, employs the heaviest bench of pop songwriters and producers currently working. “Higher” is produced by Greg Kurstin, who will always be “of Geggy Tah” to me.

Jepsen is part of a new breed of pop auteurs who refute the notion that pop stars are manufactured products who sing focus-grouped songs. In reality, pop stars are, like rappers and DJs, just rock stars who make music with electronic instruments. And if “Call Me Maybe” gave off innocence and chasteness with a wink (I mean, just look at the video!) there is no mistaking the Carly Rae on Side B for a wholesome child. She’s a new romantic, and songs like “Fever” and the Dev Hynes–cowritten “Body Language” are about sexual infatuation with a side of longing. “Cry” and “Roses” close out the EP with glistening chamber pop. The tremulous “Roses” recalls Madonna’s “I’ll Remember.” It could be an anime theme song, with its air of romantic gothic high drama and lyrics about roses in the garden fading to black.

Listening to Side B, it’s clear that Carly Rae Jepsen has hits on hits on hits, and that the reasons she’s still B-list (Side B–list?) are vaporous. The primary, perdurable question around Carly Rae Jepsen seems to be “Why isn’t she bigger?” What is star power other than a combination of sex appeal, talent, and, most importantly, industry money and muscle? It feels like any of the songs on Side B would be huge radio hits if recorded by Katy Perry, Selena Gomez, or Taylor Swift. Does it all go back to the original sin of releasing Emotion’s weakest and youngest-feeling song, “I Really Like You,” as the first single, with a viral-baiting, Tom Hanks–starring video that failed to win hearts or ears? Or is Carly Rae Jepsen just meant to remain in her lane — as a tastemaker cult favorite, like the North American Robyn? Swedish production duo Mattman & Robin, who coproduced “Run Away With Me” and produced “Gimmie Love” — two of Emotion’s highest highlights — were drafted to produce for Britney’s Glory. Carly Rae Jepsen might just be doing perfectly well as the indie-cool, small-theater Solange Knowles to Taylor Swift’s arena-filling Beyoncé. Maybe she’s already exactly where she needs to be.

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