The line snaked through the record store and down the city block. It was as if someone cut a hole in a tankship and decided to sell vinyl LPs and vintage posters inside.
Brooklyn’s Rough Trade Records was an Anderson Cooper-sized eye roll bookended with exclamation points in response to the oft asked “Is the record store dead?”
Our turn was next.
The giant E•MO•TION curtain fell from the ceiling, slightly lopsided, hastily hung, all artsy.
The pint-sized pop star and Canadian hitmaker, Carly Rae Jepsen, was shaking hands and posing for photos in front of the drapes. Catching a glimpse of each interaction, it was an easy 30 seconds, max. There were no photos in landscape versus portrait or one with duckface or a “just a couple with the flash on.” No one was going to tell you that you looked great during or after.
It was an assembly line. You took your signed CD, your Baked by Melissa CRJ-themed confection, and you walked back out into the concrete jungle of Williamsburg(h).
“It’s so fast,” a friend said, appreciating the efficiency.
“It’s almost our turn. Do you know what you want to say?” I asked, eyes on Carly Rae, who with the release of her brilliant third album E•MO•TION had become my newest audio obsession-slash-larger example of total disappointment in the ears of the world.
“Hmm. You say hi and thank you, right? What can you really say in ten seconds?”
It was our turn. She greeted us with “Hi” and a friendly nod, individual handshakes, and a generous smile. I watched my friend tilt a bit to speak to the diminutive star.
Even after what had already been hours of this, she looked happy to see us.
Before it was all over, I knew what to say.
“Your music brought us together.”
Carly Rae smiled again, this time, a little differently as she put arms around us for yet another photo. “That’s what I like to hear.”
Cameraphone button pushed. Cupcakes acquired.
It’s not lost on me that over a year ago I waited in line to see a musician I think is underrated, in a place that the music industry doesn’t understand.
It was only four years ago that music critics were having a similar conversation, and it was I who wasn’t quite paying attention.
In 2012, The Guardian called “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen, the “best song of the year.” MTV Hive said about Kiss, the body of work that enveloped that sonic Frankenstein, “Kiss is the best pop album of the year, and nobody is listening.”
Therein lies the part that I cannot seem to get—Carly Rae Jepsen puts out really good records, she’s young, she’s likable and she understands her place in the digital realm.
Best of all, her music brings people together.
In 2015, on a cold November night in New York, I joined over 1,000 people in what could only be called ‘a let’s drink alcohol and sing E•MO•TION party’ that Carly Rae Jepsen just so happened to also perform at.
That’s pretty much how it went for an hour and fifteen minutes. If you haven’t heard the record, standouts include the Sia-penned “Making the Most of the Night,” which is a breathy quick paced gem and “Run Away With Me” presented in the first of the links above.
Do not be mistaken, when CRJ said: “I have a very 80s album on my hands,” she was spot on. You can hear Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Prince, intersecting with Paula Abdul, Samantha Fox, Africa, and maybe even a bit of Christopher Cross. It is the best kind of musical synergy: of the moment, dance-worthy, and rooted in the tradition of bubblegum pop–a little tease, a little taunt.
So… Who is responsible for her success, or perceived lack thereof?
Is it the label and their marketing and publicity teams, who didn’t do enough promotion?
Is it the audience who refuses to buy it, and also won’t go to a show?
Or is it all about timing?
These are the questions I struggled to answer on my own while writing this, but not just with CRJ. I couldn’t really answer them without turning the lens inward. When I wrote about music every day for a year, the thing I hated most was writing album reviews. I didn’t mind the travel, the sleeping on hotel room floors, or the late nights with bands. I didn’t even mind the egos.
It always felt shitty to diminish someone’s work, even if I knew I was telling my truth. Maybe I was young and naïve.
But that’s not Carly Rae Jepsen’s problem. It’s not a question of airplay. The accomplishments of “Call Me Maybe” alone read off as a wish list for any artist in pursuit of the holy grail of Top 40: [Read in Casey Kasem’s voice] #1 in 15 countries, 13M sales globally, the biggest-selling single of 2012, over 710M views on YouTube, nine weeks at the top of the Billboard 100.
Some may strike up “Call Me Maybe” as a fluke, simply the unpredictable intersection of pop boldness and an unexpected co-sign from another Canadian destined to dominate international waters, Justin Bieber. Those folks could not be more wrong.
A well-versed musician, who first perked ears after placing third in 2007’s Canadian Idol, Carly is the least contrived of this generation’s breed of pop stars. Unlike her contemporaries, who have found their niche pushing the boundaries of sex, drugs, rock n’ roll and TMZ, there is something delightfully secretive about her music. It’s full of discovery and flirtation. It feels good to listen to, not churned in a lab with fake doctors.
When David Byrne speaks of the digital revolution, and he does often, he takes aim at streaming applications like Spotify, Tidal, and Pandora. There’s this kind of unwinnable tug-of-war happening, in which the musician and the artist stand on opposite ends, pulling at the very cores of their soul like two lovers who know they have overstayed their welcome, but the Uber is taking so damn long. Byrne’s tone is an interesting one, it’s a disappointment in the consumer rather than the music industry that screwed everyone over so badly that they now need these platforms to survive. He also can’t believe that we don’t get it. Sure, a smaller act can flourish via digital because they’re probably not making any living at all from their music! The opportunity that someone can listen to you at all is better than the alternative.
Perhaps popularity is the barrier for entry in this new world of music? It’s nearly impossible to remember a time before Beyonce was Sasha Fierce, and the minute-by-minute evolution or from some vantage points, oversaturation by artists via fragrances or brands of tennis shoes. It seems the opposite can hold true as well… Iggy Azalea had superstardom nearly within reach, but repeated public displays of sheer ignorance left her on the outside looking in.
It was Spotify’s Discover Weekly that put the tunes off of E•MO•TION on my radar in the first place. To circle back to Byrne’s theory, he is right–my multiple and continued streams of that record didn’t do much to secure Jepsen’s financial future. But it is what made me dive headfirst into buying her album on release day, securing the wristband that allowed us to meet the lyrical maestro in person.
When Carly Rae Jepsen wrote the list of whom she wanted to work with for E•MO•TION, she pulled across genres, and it showed. Perhaps E•MO•TION was there to prove a point. If Kiss is what she could do with two months, it’s no surprise that she could put forward a masterful effort with two years’ notice.
The new, uncharted waters of performance seem made for Carly Rae Jepsen. The 30-year-old is the bridge to all of the things people our age and our parents say they miss about music.
Maybe you are not listening because she sang “Call Me Maybe.”
I think it’s time to reconsider.
As I revisit E•MO•TION again for this piece, now with the incredible companion piece of E•MO•TION Side B, and a new song of summer, “Cut to the Feeling,” there’s now a 25-song galaxy full of line crossing, longing, desperation, near deal-closing and the high and low tides of desire.
Her music isn’t a product, it’s her. She too is a bit wispy and unsure of herself.
Some of the pieces I read after her last record dropped described it as “buzzworthy” and “surprising.” But her consistency is only surprising if you, like me four years ago, were not paying attention.
What makes Carly Rae Jepsen different isn’t the timing OR the tunes, it’s the frailty that her music is wrought with. The vulnerability, the sacrifice, the humanity continues to be a central theme. She is living–we are too. There’s a chance that all of this could be wrong, that this isn’t the right person for you, that this isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime love affair. And depending on the day, she’s probably right.
It’s never a simple web that CRJ weaves.
There’s a nuanced risk involved, almost like the risk of openly admitting to being a Jepson fan/stan—it’s a guilty pleasure that’s worth every penny.
So I’ll just hurry up and say it: Thanks, CRJ.
Author Jacqueline Woodson once isolated the very act of “speaking in tangents” as a shared East Coast experience. It could be related to the festering rawness that pours out of a city that, indeed, never sleeps. Or it could be just my need to monopolize thoughts and then, conversations.
I’ve been speaking in tangents for my entire life, half-heartedly hoping it was because my mind accelerated quicker than everyone else’s and I only had so many revolutions available. It’s more likely that I had too much to share and thought I was doing the world a favor by arranging for a public demonstration.
Because isn’t spilling your brain’s contents all at once on the dinner table like a child with their first set of crayons foundational for conversation?
I am not an engineer, and I no longer identify as much of an artist. I’m almost a data scientist, on my best day. But I have a unique set of skills that ebb and flow from time to time, and so, I feel pretty much qualified for everything, and so, I do mostly everything. This is the fullest way I could ever demonstrate that your unique gifts will help you win if you embrace them and do the work.
Two months ago, with feet rooted firmly in every space and no space, I experienced Facebook’s Menlo Park campus and the world of technology in the most vulnerable way one can… With zero expectations.
Visiting Facebook was a unique moment because I was able to exist without performing; I was present without having to validate. It appealed to my artistic self because there were bodies in the room that knew me from my previously creative endeavors. It spoke to my techie side because I stood toe-to-toe with geniuses and engineers who worked on products that made people’s lives better, which stimulated their pleasure centers and in turn, delivered them thumbs up-shaped bundles of joy. Listening to those individuals speak about their work made me feel as though those kinds of wins were achievable for me too.
The entire day filled me with childlike wonder, after all, I was able to board a steel can with wings and cut through clouds like an orange rind in a pool of bourbon. Want to understand the crucial intersection of technology and design and why they’re both important? You do not have to travel to Facebook to do this, but: the technology allows you to answer emails at 36,000 feet, the design is when the seatbelt sign shuts off at your destination and it turns into Jurassic Park.
Facebook is a unicorn: a mythical billion-dollar creature of epic size and scale that we can never hope to contain. In fact, let’s just say it already—Facebook is not ours. Of course, they keep our photos, of course, they keep our stuff. We’ll be in the dirt and those key milestones and datasets will be encrusted in a vintage-looking locket dangling from the necks of Zuck’s future children.
But seriously, this company is archiving US and using US to curate it. It’s a brilliant model. How do you capture experience? Where should that live? A 0:59-second video doesn’t do it, so what comes after? When we start to really isolate the value of moments, is it the context that holds the value or the memory itself? Who prices that? How do you distribute it? All of which to say, Facebook is selling us back our own lives.
The trick is, it’s only worth the transaction if you live.
On a rainy day in Long Island many years ago, I sat in a luxurious Facebook-blue hued captain’s chair, wearing a military green Polo sweater, busted up Levi’s and camouflaged Vans slip-ons. The table was our shop’s “Last Supper” table, and it was equal parts majestic and imposing. My small Shiba Inu Brady was curled up against my back, filling the space between. It was interview day, and in my lifetime, I’ve probably interviewed over 1,000 people, so this process was not particularly daunting.
I am not an emotional hiring manager. I don’t care for bad breaks. “Do you work hard? Will you show up on time? What kind of computer do you use? What’s the last thing you made?” It all rattles out with the speed of a fully automatic M-16 with an extended clip.
It’s effective, but I am always secretly searching for a surprise.
Through our doors, a small, square-shaped figure with slumped shoulders and old jeans appeared. He was a self-taught developer who barely graduated high school and could not reach an audible volume above Milton, from Office Space. In hindsight, it was all as ridiculous a scene as one could imagine. Here I am, a rambunctious, semi-talented writer who had a penchant for getting into trouble with magazines, publicists and corporations, who drank too much and had a chip on her shoulder, but somehow still convinced a millionaire to rent me office space and other hundred-thousandaires to invest in me and my first venture.
Looking back, it all makes sense: I was an early social media adopter and newly minted entrepreneur who had legitimately no idea how to turn a profit. All I knew was I couldn’t scale doing it alone.
And he walked in.
Distressed ball cap pulled down low, smelling like a mix of Camels and motor oil, wearing either 1. the only collared shirt he owned or 2. the cleanest collared shirt he could find in time, he slunk into our newly leased fancy chairs and talked about how he built lots of stuff, how he was a failed entrepreneur who dabbled in coding and found a community online. He lamented that he hadn’t discovered computers and graphic arts sooner. He talked about how his Type 1 Diabetes had kept him frail, in and out of the hospital, and how he was so overworked at his last job that it nearly killed him. At 22. And for all that work, he wasn’t even getting health insurance.
People have a way of revealing a lot when they feel like you’re listening. And I was, intently, peering behind his uncertainty, sure I would be able to find the commonalities between us. We made things, for better or worse, and did not wait for permission. We showed up where we weren’t invited, joined communities we probably had no business in and fought for seats at tables where we should have been wait staff.
He eventually got a job as a gear head at his buddy’s garage. He stressed that while he was self-taught, he worked hard and he just wanted a chance to put his name on something… To be a part of something.
He raced cars, smoked like a chimney, and was painfully awkward.
He could not sit with clients without getting flustered.
He had no college or accelerated degrees.
He truly and madly embodied all of the “IT guy troupes.”
And I couldn’t wait to hire him.
So I did. He was the first person to teach me to use “Inspect Element” as a foundation for finding a source code. He taught me how to sit for hours looking for broken tags. He taught me how to resize an image without losing quality. He taught me about project management tools. He taught me that anything and everything can be possible on the web.
To be a voice at the table, not on the menu, at Facebook is a powerful thing that I do not know I’ll ever be able to fully actualize. Especially when pressed against the sharp contrast of how little I knew, and how truly little I deserved to know, given my shit attitude and penchant for only talking about myself, many years ago.
So as I ponder life and the tremendous fortune I have now, I cannot help but remember when a not yet fully formed man found his way to my office. And how that chance encounter set me on a path that would forever change me.
It’s can be a long way home.
Today, the world should rejoice. Friend of the site and all around awesome guy, Chris Guillebeau, released his newest book today: The Happiness of Pursuit. If you haven’t bought it, walk to the local book joint (one of my personal faves is Strand in NYC), and tell ’em “I’m tryin’ to cop that new Guillebeau joint, b.” Not only will they not understand you, every single time I’ve ever tried to pick up a book there on the first day, they’ve never had it, so you’re probably double-screwed.
Anyway, I’m reposting the first time Chris and I chatted below. It is hard to believe I knew that guy back when he was publishing his FIRST book. Time flies.
Enjoy. And congrats, Chris! (If you can, head to Brooklyn tonight and celebrate the book’s release with him.)
Enjoy my conversation with the creator of one of my favorite blogs EVER, The Art of Non-Conformity, Chris Guillebeau. Chris is a fantastic blogger and story-teller, and if you have not read his blog, you’re really denying yourself one of the best reads you’re going to have provided by the Internet. On September 7th, he will be publishing his first book (based on the same name) and he will begin his book tour in New York City, which is something I’m incredibly stoked about.
Kristina Villarini (KV): You’ve written guides online that are well-loved and incredibly insightful. What was the motivator to publish a title?
Chris Guillebeau (CG): One of my first motivations with AONC [Art of Non-Conformity] was to write a book. Over time, I realized that I greatly enjoy blogging and other means of quicker communication— but I still think there’s something special about a “real” book. I can’t think of a lot of blog posts that have changed my life, but I can think of plenty of books that did.
KV: When you began AONC, did you believe that it would be something that resonated with so many?
CG: Not at all! I started by writing about my travels. I’m a slow learner, but eventually I figured out that I’m not a great travel writer, and not everyone cares about travel. Once I started focusing more on motivations and how to change the world while doing what you want, the readership became a lot more engaged.
KV: The story of your blog began with a simple goal: to visit every country on Earth before you reach age 35. How much of your daily routine is driven by goals?
CG: Good question. I’d say that maybe 75% of my daily routine is goal-driven. I pretty much know what I want to do and what it will take to accomplish it at most times. But it’s important to say that I’ve chosen the goals—it’s not like I’ve been pushed into something I don’t want to do just for the sake of an arbitrary goal.
KV: Was there ever a time, whether during your many layovers or stays at terrible hotels, that you ever felt overwhelmed or an incredible resistance to the work you were doing? How do you keep from breaking down?
CG: Continually. I think most of us struggle with fear and insecurity to a certain degree, but we’re encouraged to put on a brave face and pretend to be fearless. I’m definitely not fearless, and often think about giving up. The difference is that I’ve learned to not make decisions out of fear, fatigue, or resistance. I’m doing something that is personally meaningful to me, and nothing worth doing is ever easy.
KV: You anticipate meeting your original goal of seeing every country, with the exception of any difficult trips (Belarus?). What is the next step in your life after you reach, what will most certainly be a milestone?
CG: It will be a milestone, certainly, but I don’t plan to stop traveling after I’ve visited every country. I appreciate travel for the sake of travel itself. After I achieve that goal, I expect I’ll keep going places, meeting people, writing and hopefully encouraging those who care enough to follow the journey.