Carly Rae Jepsen lights up a hookah in the video for “Now That I Found You”, the most recent release from Dedicated, her fifth studio album. What follows is what acid trips must sound like to the child of an optimist: kaleidoscopic visions of her ginger tabby and jars of milk swirl around her as she falls, delighted, into an electric blue galaxy. She wears a bodycon onesie covered in kittens, arms outstretched triumphantly. From her fingertips, she showers the interstellar tableau with glowing nebulas. Suddenly, Jepsen is jolted upright from under her sleep mask. Face pallid with a childlike shock, she remembers: her cat has run away.
Under the gloss of tight art direction with a sheen of magical realism, Jepsen is a serviceable actor, especially when embodying the urgency of teen spirit. This is, in part, because that’s her brand. As Josephine Livingstone wrote for The New Republic, “The signature Carly Rae Jepsen flavor is uncertain, shy desire: wanting to make contact with the crush, wanting to confess that you really like him, wanting to run away.” However, this wasn’t always the case: while her current success bloomed when she leaned into the earnest feelings of a teen, her earliest work suggests a young artist performing adulthood in hopes of being taken seriously.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen the pop star grow into herself by refusing to grow up. “Now That I Found You” is the latest stage in the Benjamin Buttoning of Carly Rae Jepsen.
Jepsen was 21 when she placed third on the fifth season of Canadian Idol. Her debut album, Tug of War, was released a few months shy of her 23rd birthday. At the time, like many alumni of televised singing competitions, Jepsen found herself walking a narrow tightrope, her place in the wider pop landscape relatively unclear. She was signed immediately to an indie label for her folksy, muted takes on Natalie Imbruglia, Dido, Melissa Etheridge and Feist – but she didn’t quite fit in with these artists either. Her voice was poppy, saccharine, yet her visual language felt a lot more serious.
Her first official music video for the album’s title track shows a young woman navigating a romance plagued by insecurities. As her lover leaves her flat, she shrugs off her hoodie and disappears into a flurry of costume changes, each an iteration of the woman she could be: wide black-out glasses and a starchy button-up; a simple camisole with delicate beading; an elegant black dress with Breakfast at Tiffany gloves. The video shows Jepsen trying on ideas of adulthood, played out in the muted colours of domestic life. “Don't go out with the girls tonight / I will turn to drink,” she sings, like a 50s Hollywood starlet nearing her final act, rather than a pop star who’s barely passed her teens.
A lot of Jepsen’s videos from around this era are like this: performative adulthood, from someone whose barely had the time to experience it, rather than the other way round. In “Sour Candy”, for example, we see Jepsen and duet partner Josh Ramsay on a sofa in couples counselling – again, in muted colours – while each of them shout at each other in frustration. “No we went under / The weight was too much to carry in,” she cries, over a scene that resembles a dramatised reenactment of an impending divorce, or two grown up SIMs who aren’t getting along.
It’s easy to imagine a reality in which Jepsen fell off the radar following this debut, simply because it’s happened to so many artists in her position: Where are Jordin Sparks, David Archuleta and Matt Cardle these days? Jepsen’s following Curiosity EP, however, enjoyed moderate success in her homeland, enough that Justin Bieber caught a track on the Canadian airwaves. He forwarded it to his manager, Scooter Braun, who swiftly signed Jepsen to a global deal with Schoolboy and Interscope, re-releasing what would soon become her first mega hit: “Call Me Maybe”.
“Call Me Maybe” was, in part, the beginning of Jepsen’s journey into carving her own specific niche. In the video she plays an ingenue who falls for the boy next door, stealing glances at him before perching in a pin-up pose on a car, perhaps hers, or maybe her parents – her age remains a mystery, floating somewhere between overeager teenager and earnest twenty-something. Carly catches his eye, smiles, then promptly falls off the hood, her head hitting the cement in the song’s middle-eight. The track is bright, cheeky, exuberant. She might not yet have embraced the sparkling, childlike magical realism that would come later – the video’s colours are still relatively muted – but the seeds have been planted.
The rebrand worked: Carly Rae Jepsen became an international star. Her first album on Braun’s label, 2012’s Kiss, sold more than a million copies around the world and hit the top 10 in Canada, US and UK. She embarked on a global tour, scored two Grammy nods. After that, she needed time away from songwriting to decompress, and reevaluate who she wanted to be as a musician. With her label’s approval, she took on a 12-week run as Cinderella on Broadway. And by the time she returned in 2015, there was a sense that she was stepping into the spotlight on her own terms, with her own words. “I kind of fell back into all the reasons of what it was that I loved about pop music,” she told Hrishikesh Hirway on his podcast Song Exploder, before continuing: “And [I] tried to make my mission to make a pop album that adults, hopefully, could enjoy too, and that I, as an adult, could enjoy”.
Ironically, the pop album that adults wanted was a project steeped in nostalgia, and one that celebrated the rush of feeling for feeling’s sake. The result was EMOTION, Jepsen’s fourth album, which received little fanfare on the charts but quickly built a dedicated cult following. EMOTION: Side B, the follow-up EP made up of eight tracks that didn’t make the album’s final cut, was received similarly. It also marked a new era in Jepsen’s public image: she adopted the vivid energy and melodrama of teenagehood, building a brand on earnest expression as she stood at the cusp of her thirties. “Run Away With Me”, “Gimmie Love”, “Let’s Get Lost” – the tracks on EMOTION read like notes passed furtively across a classroom, but each song was written with the gripping precision and learned nuance of someone who had lived it, loved it, and let it back out.
In the run-up to EMOTION, Jepsen released “I Really Like You”, it’s accompanying video featuring Tom Hanks lip-syncing through a sun-soaked morning in New York City where strangers acknowledge each other and dance together. Shortly afterwards arrived “Run Away With Me”, another picture of optimism, this time channelled through the fun, intimate style of an iPhone camera. Gone are the serious, greyish hues of “Tug Of War” and the tea-stained sepia of “Call Me Maybe”. Instead, these videos are light and colourful to match the uplifting, carefree tone of the songs. Rather than a youth performing adulthood, we see an adult embracing the pure exuberance of youth.
But it wasn’t until Petra Collins lent her fashion-editorial vision to “Boy Problems” that this transition fully came into being. Now, we are given a teen-goth bedroom. A glittery slumber party. A bunch of dewy faced young people (including Torraine Futurum, Barbie Ferreira, Paloma Elsesser and Tavi Gevinson) dancing while singing “I think I broke up with my boyfriend today and I don't really care.” Collins, whose work celebrates teen femininity in all its joy and strangeness, knew she wanted to bid for the track’s video when she first heard it, and urged her agent to get her the gig. She came prepared: Collins was Gevinson’s right-hand photographer for Rookie magazine, the groundbreaking bible both for young women and by young women. The result of this pairing presents the boldness of youth and girliness, but laced with a knowingly darker, cynical humour – one inspired by teen cult classics like Heathers and Jawbreaker.
When I first saw the video for “Now That I Found You” I felt breathless, like I’d had the air knocked out of me by the song’s urgent celebration of a new crush. It was exhilarating: the coy stolen glances, ambitious daydreams and fantasies expressed with an on-the-nose sincerity – these are often the first things cast to the wayside when we decide to get real and grow up. At 22, “Tug Of War”-era Jepsen left them behind, too, in search of an image that was older and more mature than her lived experiences could offer. But over the years, she found her beat by Benjamin Buttoning herself, hitting reverse and reexamining the messy, hormonal and overwrought soap operas that we drafted in our pubescent heads.
I don’t know many people who would willingly relive their teen years – there is no sum of cash that could convince me to go through mine a second time. But Jepsen continually translates those precocious loves and preternatural heartbreaks into a style rich with joy and empathy. Whether she’s consoling herself in the pink-neon club of “Your Type”, or the rolling among the soft bedroom glow of “Party For One” – Carly Rae Jepsen has crafted a very specific, youthful visual language, one that spells out emotions in all-caps.
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