At one point during a party my senior year of high school, I took a break from talking to my friends and stood alone at the kitchen counter. Things were starting to die down—lights lower, music quieter—and looking around at my classmates, all I could see were exchanges of physical contact, little manifestations of warmth and intimacy: palms on the smalls of backs, arms around shoulders, one hand pulling another upstairs. The marble countertop pressed cold against my skin. I’d felt bored or detached at high school parties before, but this surge of loneliness was not as common. Lost in thought, my eyes glazed over, and as I stared at the floor, the sounds of my surroundings faded out, replaced by the strange, swooning, Celtic-like saxophone riff that opens Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away with Me.”
Jepsen’s career path has been fairly unpredictable. She began as a contestant on “Canadian Idol,” subsequently releasing a folk-pop album to moderate success. Late in 2011, however, a saccharine, starry-eyed confection titled “Call Me Maybe” came into the world. Infiltrating the mainstream in the spring of 2012, the song catapulted the singer to stratospheric heights of fame and stuck like a wad of bubblegum to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for the entire summer. It was embraced by the public and critics alike. “Billboard” deemed its infectious chorus the best of the 21st century, while other publications called it “pop music’s savior.” But the subsequent album failed to compare in sales, and Jepsen soon slipped from public consciousness, assuming the title of one-hit wonder. She returned in 2015, however, with E•MO•TION, a lush synth-pop record that, despite failing to match the commercial success of “Maybe,” cemented her critical-darling status and garnered her a considerable cult following.
For pseudointellectuals seeking to distinguish themselves through the innovative concept of criticizing pop music, Jepsen—a young female artist with a high-pitched, hyper-feminine voice who sings primarily about matters of the heart over accessibly euphonious melodies and electronic production—is like catnip. Critical reception, however, speaks for itself: E•MO•TION received a higher Metacritic score than last year’s Album of the Year (Adele’s 25). Even 2016’s E•MO•TION: Side B, an eight-song EP of rejects from its 2015 parent album, was featured on end-of-year best lists from Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Stereogum, among others.
In a pop landscape where even Taylor Swift has supposedly killed off her soft side, opting for a dark, vindictive, Regina-George-as-Disney-villain persona, Jepsen’s unabashed romanticism is almost refreshing. Her heart is glued to her sleeve; she boils emotions down to their essences and broadcasts them in vivid color. She has a knack in particular for encapsulating the frenzied, fluttering exhilaration of limerence: the breathless early phases of a crush, when merely looking at someone turns cheeks scarlet and knocks confidence down like a stack of blocks. This is the primary sentiment behind “Maybe” as well as “I Really Like You,” the lead single of E•MO•TION.
While the latter could be considered an attempt to recreate the success of “Maybe,” it feels more like a fine-tuning of the original. Jepsen is more self-aware here, the tongue-in-cheek repetition of “really” in the chorus speaking to the knowing juvenility of the emotions behind it, and producer Peter Svensson marries her giddily fervid lyrics and sticky-sweet melodies with shimmering synths and a pounding ’80s drum, creating what feels (and sounds) like perfectly engineered pop: powder-puff pink with a glossy neon edge.
Despite their effervescent charm, though, these two singles fail to showcase the emotional depth found elsewhere in Jepsen’s discography. E•MO•TION, in particular, is rich in more mature sentiment, as is the case with album opener, “Run Away With Me.” A fervent plea for escape, the song captures the mind of a romantic in all its dreamy desperation, rising from whispers of longing in the verses to the blaring ardor of the chorus, a heart bursting open to reveal its urgent desires: “Baby, take me to the feeling / I’ll be your sinner in secret / When the lights go out / Run away with me, run away with me.” The entire album bleeds with palpable atmosphere, from the moody desire of “Warm Blood” to the warm, blissful glow of “Favourite Colour.”
“Your Type,” another standout, throbs with the ache of unrequited feelings. A pulsing synth forms the base for the verse, and the notes of the melody fall into each other in accordance with the quiet heartbreak of the lyrics.
“I used to be in love with you / You used to be the first thing on my mind / I know I’m just a friend to you / that I will never get to call you mine.” The “used to” in these opening lines is meant to be met with skepticism, a response validated by the vulnerable truth expressed in the chorus: “I’d break all the rules for you / Break my heart and start again / I’m not the type of girl you’d call more than a friend.”
Jepsen’s music rarely depicts actual love, rather exploring moments in between hopeless longing, the bliss of a crush’s beginnings, or the desire for love in general. Rarely are the emotions of her music depicted as requited—even her bounciest tracks contain darker undercurrents, such as in the second verse of “Call Me Maybe”: “You took your time with the call / I took no time with the fall / You gave me nothing at all / But still, you’re in my way.” The image presented here is not one of mutual interest but rather a one-sided obsession, a longing for the uninterested.
In high school, I was infatuated with the idea of love (and still am today), eager to experience its highs and lows, but due to my non-heterosexual orientation and consequently nonexistent dating pool, I never got to. It’s a familiar narrative, and one typical of the queer community. Jepsen (whose cult following is in large part made up of gay men) embodies this narrative in her songs. The romanticized image of escape in “Run Away with Me” spoke to my exact desires as I stood at that kitchen counter, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spend a few late-night drives my junior year listening to “Your Type” and wallowing in self-pity about the boy who’d meet up with me in secret but wouldn’t look my way in the halls. Aside from writing near-perfect melodies, pithy lyrics, and euphoric hooks, Carly Rae Jepsen serves as the voice of the romantics, even when relationships aren’t within their reach.
Fritz Spofford can be reached at email@example.com.