Photo by Matthew Welch
If Carly Rae Jepsen proved one thing in 2015, it was that she could offer so much more than the one hit single that made her an international viral sensation. Her third album, E•MO•TION, was one of the year’s best pop albums and convinced everyone who heard it that “Call Me Maybe” was merely just a stepping stone to a brilliant future. No other mainstream pop album in 2015 received as much approval from critics—a fact that became all the more clear when the year-end lists arrived. You can argue that it was a year where critical darlings like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé failed to release anything to compete. But compared to heavyweights like Adele, Justin Bieber and Lana Del Rey, who did offer a challenge, it was E•MO•TION that wowed the critics, not 25, Purpose or Honeymoon.
Still, E•MO•TION was a monumental commercial flop. It doesn’t feel good to say that, but the numbers do not lie: the album debuted at #16 in the U.S., selling only 16,513 copies—30,000 fewer than 2012’s Kiss. Even in her home country, the album failed to have any impact, debuting at #8. Canada often prides itself on supporting homegrown talent, yet that wasn’t the case at all with E•MO•TION. So what went wrong?
Everything seemed to be in place when Jepsen resurfaced in February with her “comeback” single, the irresistible “I Really Like You.” To help her secure an all-important second hit, she once again had the support of Justin Bieber (who helped catapult “Call Me Maybe”) and the most improbable celebrity cameo in the song’s video by Tom Hanks. “I Really Like You” became a viral hit for Jepsen, pleasing both critics and fans, but it didn’t quite set the charts afire, peaking at #39 on Billboard’s Hot 100. That song and its catchy refrain had a momentary hold on the public’s consciousness, be it through memes, hashtags, or expressing approval for the song (“Yeah, you could say I really, really, really like it.”) This was all on the back of some major televised appearances: Good Morning America, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and a red hot guest spot on Saturday Night Live. After performing the Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid-assisted “All That” on SNL, it was immediately released as a second track from the forthcoming album. Then came softly-pushed single releases for “Emotion,” “Run Away With Me,” “Your Type,” “Warm Blood” and “Making the Most of the Night,” all before E•MO•TION hit stores in North America. If your math is rusty, that is seven of the album’s 12 tracks dropped before release date. When the album finally arrived on August 21, it had already been available for two months after leaking online thanks to an early release in Japan on June 24—the original North American release date.
Many questions come to mind. Why such a long roll out between “I Really Like You” and the North American release date? Why drop the album early in Japan when it will inevitably leak online in those two months? Why so many singles? And why share them all before the album? Most puzzling of all is why wasn’t there a proper world tour, or even just a 40-date North American tour booked to support E•MO•TION? Instead, she’s performed sporadically all over the world—Japan, South Africa, Philippines, the UK—without even playing one show in her home country. When Jepsen does finally take a stage in Canada this April, it won’t be headlining her own shows but opening up for wannabe pop-punks Hedley on their cross-country arena tour.
Photo by Matthew Welch
Of course, this doesn’t answer the most obvious question: Why isn’t Carly Rae Jepsen the biggest pop star of 2015? E•MO•TION is every bit as good as Taylor Swift’s 1989. It too went deep into ’80s synth-pop worship with a more inclusive, deeper respect for the genre’s history: the Jam & Lewis-branded R&B slow jam of “All That,” the galvanizing Cyndi Lauper-style affirmation on “When I Needed You,” the sax-blaring cry for love in “Run Away With Me”—these are big 80s songs replicated with the utmost precision. Like 1989, E•MO•TION was conceived with a crack team of pop’s finest songwriters and producers like Dev Hynes (Solange, Sky Ferreira), Ariel Rechtshaid (Haim, Adele), Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij (Charli XCX), Mattman & Robin (Taylor Swift, Tove Lo), the Cardigans’ Peter Svensson (The Weeknd, Ariana Grande) and Shellback (One Direction, three-quarters of Taylor Swift’s 1989). And yet, E•MO•TION fell by the wayside almost as soon as it saw the light of day.
As the press was more than happy to point out in virtually every piece written about E•MO•TION this year, the name Carly Rae Jepsen is mostly tied to one song. And that song was released four years ago, meaning to some people “Call Me Maybe” is already worthy of gracing “retro” playlists. As artists like Icona Pop and Foster the People have also learned, we really like to chew up and spit out new artists like they’re a wad of bubblegum. There’s no denying Jepsen has a strong fan base, and one that eagerly awaited E•MO•TION. But it’s plain to see the millions of people that bought “Call Me Maybe” have been reduced to just thousands. She failed to follow that song up with another hit, and iTunes shoppers moved on to the next chart-topper. Jepsen’s biggest audience proved to be the same indie-minded community that took in and nurtured previous mainstream rejects like Robyn and Solange. E•MO•TION received ample love and respect from the majority of indie-favouring music sites, and even Jepsen herself admitted to Noisey that she not only balanced pop and alternative on the album, but she “made an entirely different ‘indie’ album that I don’t know what we’ll do with.” Maybe being marketed as a leftfield-leaning pop artist in the vein of Robyn is what Carly Rae Jepsen should be striving for. She’s already won over those fans with E•MO•TION, and without the pressure to release music that can sell millions, she can focus more on evolving as an artist and, most importantly, trying to decide what kind of artist she wants to be. Because right now it’s a little unclear.
As it’s consistently pointed out in the press, Jepsen is now 30 years old. That’s not such a big deal—Katy Perry is a year older—but where age becomes a problem for Jepsen is in how she doesn’t always act hers. When “Call Me Maybe” came out, many assumed she was yet another fresh-faced singer stuck in teenager love (as the video so vividly depicted), when in fact, she was in her mid-to-late 20s. E•MO•TION obviously shows signs of maturation, but also an inability to shake this Peter Pan complex. Both “Boy Problems” (“who’s got ’em?”) and “I Really Like You” feel more like they were written for someone half her age. And although I enjoy those reminders of being young and in love, it certainly comes off as a little unnatural. Though if Madonna can do it for 20-plus years, why can’t Carly?
Jepsen doesn’t try to make bold statements with her music; her songs simply celebrate the joys and hardships of falling in love. Unlike a lot of pop singers, she hasn’t publicly declared herself a feminist. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t one. As she pointed out to Broadly earlier this year, “Feminism doesn't mean you're not allowed to be in love.” I’d say it’s more an act of being a subtle individual, like she is with most things, as opposed to being detached from the conversation. Instead of empowering anthems, E•MO•TION provides some necessary escapism, where love is the answer to everything. And who doesn’t need a little escape from all of the serious shit going on in the world? In doing such, she is simply following a blueprint laid out by predecessors like Kylie Minogue and Britney Spears, two wildly successful artists who almost strictly stuck to a pop format that concentrated more on love than anything. And Jepsen is doing it without the sexual overtones, an important factor that makes her rather unique.
What some people tend to forget about Carly Rae Jepsen is that she’s as genuine as it gets in an industry known for its disingenuousness. She hails from Mission, a relatively small city in British Columbia, and grew up performing musical theatre, studying music in college, and busked on the street. She competed in and nearly won Canadian Idol, then hone her songwriting skills as a folk-pop artist and released her debut album, Tug of War, through an indie label. She’s a modest Canadian who probably says “sorry” more often than she should, and generously explains what a “loonie” and “toonie” is to anyone visiting the country. She is an artist who doesn’t use a persona. And after her career took a bit of a nosedive once the allure of “Call Me Maybe” wore off, she chose resilience over desperation. She played Cinderella on Broadway because it was a dream of hers, and then made the album she wanted to make with the people she wanted to make it with. She also stuck to her image, for better or worse, and refused to embrace a more sexual persona to try and sell her music (which is something Demi Lovato can no longer say).
So what’s the fix? Maybe E•MO•TION will get a second chance in 2016 with a proper tour, or a feature on some soundtrack, or from all of the praise it’s received from year-end lists. Or maybe nothing will happen and it will be forgotten by the masses and eventually earn a cult following over time. Chances are though, E•MO•TION will never truly get the respect it deserves, and earn a spot on underrated lists alongside everything Ciara has ever done. Smaller communities like “indie” music lovers and the LGBTQ tend to appreciate and seek out left-of-centre pop without any concern of its commercial performance. And so maybe it’s just a matter of refocusing her sights on those markets and ditching mainstream aspirations entirely. Because Carly Rae Jepsen shouldn’t change a thing (except maybe turning down offers like this). E•MO•TION demonstrated that she knows the right songwriters and producers to work with in order to make the best possible music she can. And as long as that’s all she cares about, the future of her Jepseners should be an exciting one.
Cam Lindsay is a writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.