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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 from the inside of it.
Brooklyn’s Rough Trade Records was a Spanish 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, all artistic.
The pint-sized pop star and Canadian hitmaker, Carly Rae Jepsen was shaking hands and posing for photos in front of the drape. Catching a glimpse of the 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 confection, and you walked back out into the concrete jungle of Williamsburg(h).
“It’s so fast,” my 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-total disappointment in 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 our arms around us for yet another photo. “That’s what I like to hear.”
Camera click. 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 me who wasn’t quite paying attention yet.
In 2012, The Guardian called “Call Me Maybe” by Canadian singer/songwriter 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 good records, she’s young, she’s likable, and she understands digital.
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, yet, standouts included the Sia-penned “Making the Most of the Night,” which is a breathy quick paced gem and “Run Away With You” presented in the first of the links above.
So… Who is responsible?
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 questions I struggled to answer on my own, and not just with CRJ. And I couldn’t really answer them without turning the lens inward first. When I covered music, I hated writing album reviews. I didn’t mind the travel, the sleeping on hotel room floors, or the late nights. 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.
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 have overstayed their welcome, but this stupid Uber is taking so damn long. Byrne’s tone is more disappointment in us, the consumer than the music industry that screwed everyone over so badly that they needed 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, so the opportunity that someone can listen to you anywhere is better than the alternative.
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.
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.
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.
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-to-minute evolution or from some vantage points, oversaturation, from fragrances to brands of tennis shoes. It seems the opposite can hold true as well, Iggy Azalea had superstardom within reach but repeated public displays of sheer ignorance left her on the outside looking in.
But 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 me 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.
It’s all quite delicate and Carly Rae Jepsen fills that space perfectly. The 30-year-old is the bridge to all of the things people our age and our parents say they miss about music.
But maybe you won’t listen because she sang that damn “Call Me Maybe.”
I think it’s time to reconsider.
As I revisit E•MO•TION again for this piece, with the incredible companion piece of E•MO•TION Side B, there’s now a 25 song solar system full of line crossing, 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 strange and wispy.
Some of the pieces I read after the third record dropped described it as “buzzworthy” and “surprising.” Her consistency is surprising only 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. There’s a chance that 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 one takes openly admitting to being a Jepson fan—it’s the guiltiest pleasure and worth every penny.
And with that, thank you, Carly Rae Jepsen.