call me maybe
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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.