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Rachel Vorona Cote | Longreads | February 2020 | 12 minutes (3,333 words)
Every now and then, in one of her music videos or during a heady, live performance, singer Carly Rae Jepsen will close her eyes, raise her hands above her head, and sway her hips. It’s not choreographed, or at least it doesn’t appear to be. Instead of crisp synchronicity, Jepsen opts for fluid, extemporaneous groove. She is singing to us and moving with us — until those fleeting moments between verses or at song’s end, when she seems to have retreated, not out of reach, but rather into a full-bodied state of emotive receptivity. In this brimful pause, she is both steward and beneficiary, theorist and pupil, basking in the superabundant, prismatic feelings her music elicits.
It might not seem especially illuminating to say that Jepsen’s pop repertoire lays bare the complexity of human emotions. All music does this, although with varying degrees of nuance and success, and one could say the same about every other art form, too. But over the course of Jepsen’s 12-year career, her evocation of big tricky feelings has shifted into something of an intentional artistic inquiry. She is fascinated by the vast, labyrinthine topic of human sentiment, so much so that she organized her 2015 album — the aptly titled Emotion — around it, although her exploration is by no means circumscribed to that particular release. From the time she released her first album, the oft-forgotten Tug of War, in 2008, Jepsen’s music has thrummed with idiosyncrasies. She expresses the extraordinary and the tragic within the day-to-day, whether her premise is unrequited love for someone she knew would never be interested in her (“Your Type”), toying with an illicit sexual fling (“This Kiss”), or solicitude about her emotional intensity and its impact on her relationship (“Too Much”). Any event, especially a romantic one, holds the possibility for maximalist sentiment: Jepsen roams these vistas of the heart, shepherding those of us whose thick, cumbersome emotions render us lonely and overwhelmed.
Her attention to the vibrancy of our inner lives and to the barbed pleasure of sentimental intemperance has lately become more explicit. Over the course of her 2019 press circuit for Dedicated, her fourth studio album, Jepsen positioned herself as a spokesperson for those of us living in fear that we are, to quote the album’s fourth single, “Too Much.” In an interview with Time she said, “I think it’s very cool to be uncool and just shamelessly feel it all.” As she told GQ, “A lot of music can shy away and almost want to be a little too cool”). A woman after my own heart, she claims that crying in public is “underrated.” And she testifies both to her creative interest in emotional extremes as well as to her tendency to live inside them. “I am not naturally a subtle person,” she explained to The Fader, “and I feel like romantically that’s a tricky thing to find the right kind of bullfighter who can not be scared of that. It’s been a lesson in my life to look for the person who can do that rather than trying to make myself small.”
When I saw Jepsen live in July 2019, she introduced “Too Much” by protesting the term’s premise: She had wondered, she told the audience, whether it was possible for a person to be fundamentally excessive. Her defiant conclusion: It was not. I am a Jepsen fan par excellence, which is to say, a stridently earnest millennial who has finite patience for understatement or irony. Unsurprisingly, I responded with shrieks of glee, my porous little heart swelling to its saturation point. To riff on one of Jepsen’s lyrics, there’s no drug like resonance.
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I discovered the 34-year-old Canadian singer the way many of us fans did. In 2012, her single “Call Me Maybe” was practically atmospheric (the song was released in September 2011 but gained exponentially more traction after Justin Bieber praised it on Twitter during the winter holidays). It lived on music mixes, on the lips of humming passersby, and on social media, where people, often women, quoted the lyrics to one another in a celebration of mutual obsession. The song also took up real estate inside my head. I was seduced by its assertive, disco-esque strings and Jepsen’s quippy lyrics about meeting someone and immediately tumbling into infatuation. I also detected something personally familiar: self-conscious equivocations — “I just met you, and this is crazy,” “Call me, maybe” — threaded into a rapturous ode to lust’s attendant thrills and anxieties. Not only does the song articulate the second-guessing often inherent to intense personalities, it reiterates that ambivalence by centering it in the chorus. Jepsen never surmounts the pestering worry that she is acting too impulsively. Anxiety coexists with the determination to abide her amorous inclinations, and it is, to some extent, the point. Lust can be utterly inconvenient, just as romantic gestures can be terrifying, but regardless, sometimes we ought to pursue both.
“Call Me Maybe” was a cultural juggernaut, and yet Jepsen’s corresponding 2012 album, Kiss, did not land with the consequence one might have anticipated. For my part, I bopped along to the album’s singles when they reared their heads, but I wasn’t compelled to investigate the rest of her catalogue. Mostly, I returned to “Call Me Maybe” and hoped Jepsen would reemerge with a new album that elaborated on the single’s effervescent melody and intuitive songwriting. Three years later, I was rewarded far beyond my hopes.
In 2015, Jepsen released Emotion, and because she reportedly wrote more than 200 songs for the album, she had ample material to spare. She delivered Emotion Side B in 2016, comprised of eight tracks cut from the original record. What she gestures to on Kiss — the yen of immense, undiluted feeling — becomes the embodiment of luxurious inquiry on Emotion, united with a lush sound reminiscent of the ’80s pop culture movement known as New Romantic, albeit with an injection of fizz and wonder.
In spite of Emotion’s artistic triumph, it is not the sort of pop album designed for colossal, mainstream palatability. Jepsen’s inclinations, both rhetorical and sonic, are more intimate. Although the “I” in her music is not strictly autobiographical, its specific, meditative quality always gives the impression that we, her listeners, are wandering inside her head, and for many, this experience was revelatory. Responses to the album were passionate, bringing about both critical praise and enthusiasm within niche demographics. The album’s title underscores one of the broadest and most unifying human phenomena, and sure enough, swaths of listeners — often comprised of earnest, bookish women and queer people — found themselves in Jepsen’s songs of love and ambivalence.
What’s more, people wanted to think about Emotion, to talk and write about it. Clearly, I am not immune. Since the album’s release, I always want to get nerdy about Carly Rae Jepsen. I still marvel at the way she writes not only about emotion, but also, more particularly, the chase for it. “Take me to the feeling,” she sings in “Run Away With Me,” positioning her objective as both plot point and circumstance. (Kiss’s “Drive” offers a similar formulation with the lyrics, “I just want to drive you to love.”) Sometimes, when I’m splitting hairs, I think that Jepsen’s music is about affect rather than emotion, that is, a concentration of feeling that hasn’t yet been organized into language. Her 2017 single “Cut to the Feeling,” which she has situated in “the era of Emotion,” especially persuaded me of this belief. It’s an ostentatious glitter bomb of a song gesturing to feral passion only describable as a series of acts: “I wanna cut through the clouds, break the ceiling / I wanna dance on the roof, you and me alone / I wanna cut to the feeling, oh yeah.” Like the gnawing bond shared by Wuthering Heights’s characters Catherine and Heathcliff, there’s no name for the sublime, combustive physiology Jepsen desires, but she is no less ravenous because of its elusiveness.
In seemingly equal measure, Jepsen is dazzled by emotion’s potential and by the experience of it. After all, there is what we feel, what we long to feel, and what we think we could feel under the right circumstances, and the latter two scenarios are imbued with raw desire and anticipation. On Emotion’s title track, Jepsen entreats her lover to imagine the possibilities in their mutual attraction: “In your fantasy, dream about me / And all that we could do with this emotion.” There is an inherent optimism to Jepsen’s music underpinned by her insistence that emotions, particularly romantic emotions, are always sites of discovery.
And yet, while both Emotion and Emotion Side B celebrate the promise in oceanic feeling, they also acknowledge the abiding conflicts. In “Cry,” Jepsen chronicles the agony of loving someone who withholds his emotion, instead of sharing in vulnerable intimacy. The lyrics sketch a character who leans into conventionally bridled masculinity — what she calls a “king of the castle” — and who will not, or cannot, shed his stoicism: “He never wants to strip down to his feelings / He never wants to kiss and close his eyes / He never wants to cry.” The song keeps a sprightly beat, and it’s warm with Jepsen’s empathetic longing: She wants to be close to her beau, a desire no less acute than it is impossible. Anticipating loss as the outcome, she is already in mourning.
Sometimes, however, Emotion traces fissures not in a troubled existing romance, but rather in one’s own self-regard. The repetition in the pre-chorus of “Your Type” — “But I still love you, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I love you / I didn’t mean to say what I said” — evinces her anxiety over this runaway, unreciprocated affection. To possess labile boundaries, and to experience the world in its most vivid colors, can sometimes seem a liability, especially when we seek common ground with someone who recoils from self-expression, or when, in the case of “Your Type,” it would be infinitely more comfortable not to be in love.
* * *
Purity of intentions can be thorny to decipher, but in many ways I’m a basic template for my demographic of white, sensitive, mid-30s middle class women. I ardently champion cultural artifacts that might comprise a starter kit for somebody like me: Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets; Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s wry yet tender comedy Fleabag; pop music that stirs in me a twinned desire to both dance and cry. Before Carly Rae Jepsen, I turned exclusively to Swedish pop star Robyn for this purpose. Because, while I would like to fancy myself unique, and to regard full-throated, emotionally excessive pop music as especially tailored to my disposition, it’s simply not. For generations, we’ve craved music that seeps into our tear ducts as well as into our hips. Singers like Jepsen and Robyn amp up that emotionality, rendering it evermore explicitly the point, rather than a commonplace effect. As the world persists in its cruelty, we seek the multi-vectored catharsis that comes from soaking in our heartache while sweating our way to transcendence.
I interpret Jepsen’s music as one manifestation of the genre I have taken to calling Emotionally Excessive Pop, epitomized at the start of the decade by Robyn’s Body Talk. The 2010 album both revealed and nourished an emotional impulse woven into my veins but never previously articulated. So often — too often, for my taste — music encourages us to dance in joy or triumph. Its energy bubbles up from reservoirs of positive feeling. But the most strident necessity for physical abandon accompanies helpless heartache; it’s then that I need to move, to force pain and loneliness into competition with my hastening heartbeat. When I first heard “Dancing On My Own” it was revelatory — and an unexpected relief. The tenor of Robyn’s music seemed to rhyme with my own, often contradictory instincts, so much so that the experience of it struck me as indulgence.
But of course, I was immediately greedy for more of the same. Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” didn’t suffice, exactly, but in 2014, pop singer and songwriter Tove Lo released her debut album Queen of the Clouds, featuring the mesmerizingly woeful single “Habits.” Like Robyn, Lo is Swedish, and she names Robyn as a musical influence, although her sound is more grisly, more wildly libidinous (in 2014, Rolling Stone called her “Sweden’s darkest pop export”). If Robyn, Lo, and Jepsen comprise my trinity of emotional excess pop stars, Lo supplies a sonic haven for the soul’s grimmest nights. Unsurprisingly, Jepsen also considers Robyn a creative inspiration, and since Jepsen released Emotion, roughly nine months after Lo’s Queen of the Clouds, her dreamy, disco-ball-bright albums have become a site of succor in times of barbed joy, existential bafflement, and tangled, vinous desire.
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In May 2019, six months before dropping Dedicated, Jepsen tantalized us with its first single, “Party for One.” A defiant address to the lover who deserted her, the song champions autonomous gratification in the wake of romantic rejection, and it does not foreclose more masturbatory interpretations. The track suggests what the rest of the album confirms: Wherever her creative inclinations might lead her — Dedicated masterfully wields distinct disco overtones — Jepsen had not retreated from Emotion’s thematic territory. Instead, she wears it like a cloak. And yet, she reflects upon the daunting complexity of human feelings without relinquishing her confidence in love. As Kevin Nguyen writes in his GQ profile of Jepsen, published the same month as her album release, “Carly Rae Jepsen is someone who genuinely believes love is the most important thing in the whole world. She writes songs about her e•mo•tions,” stylizing the word as it appears on the 2015 album cover, “about how unwieldy they are, and then wields them in hundreds and hundreds of pop songs.” It makes a certain sense — the singer and songwriter who trades in “unwieldy” emotions follows an inherently intemperate artistic process, producing a glut of material for each record. She must revel in the pleasure of her own affective excesses before she sets about whittling the album into a tidy package.
However, the music is always a lavish wellspring, and on Dedicated, Jepsen celebrates her capacity for unreserve, intertwining it with her erotic sensibilities. “No Drug Like Me” pulsates like an echo, as if Jepsen’s voice floats inside a warm, incense-suffused cave, beckoning from every nook and cranny: “And if you make me feel in love, then I’ll blossom for you / If you make me open up, I’ll tell only the truth.” She is issuing her paramour an invitation, rendering her vulnerability a site of temptation. “[The song] … is a promise I made to love in general,” Jepsen said in a statement. “That when the good stuff lands my way I’ll always try to be vulnerable and brave and show all of myself.”
It’s a vow to emphasize, especially when the full thrust of one’s emotions seem perilous, like water coaxing its way across a rickety dam until, finally, all at once, it cracks the boards and rushes through. Jepsen oscillates between the exhilaration that comes of leaning into big, crackling feelings, and the fear that in so doing she will alienate herself. This tension imbues “Too Much,” which, one critic called “practically a mission statement.” The song is a declaration of sorts, an assertion of “too muchness.” At the same time, it acknowledges the disquietude trickling through her yearning for earnest, unchecked self-representation. She demands that her lover bear witness to her excesses, admonishing, “So be careful if you’re wanting this touch / ‘Cause if I love you, then I love you too much.” But amidst these bolder insistences comes a tremulous query, repeated with a slight, gentle halter. “Is this too,” she sings, “is this too / Is this too much?” wondering, it seems, whether her disclosure is an act of sabotage. After all, those of us who fret over our too muchness tend to experience it as a paradox. For Jepsen, it’s not too much to live in a way that is, for her and for so many of us, most authentic. But “Too Much” also responds to a cultural climate that has long been insidiously stigmatizing and constrictive. From the Victorian hysteria diagnoses, when 19th-century doctors pathologized women’s perceived emotional intemperance, until the present day, patriarchy cannot countenance a woman whose inner life runs the gamut.
While stylishly uncomplicated, the music video for “Too Much” seizes on the song’s ambivalence. Jepsen is joined by a slew of dancers dressed to look identical to her. Figured here as a multiplicity of selves, her too muchness veers from coherence to tumult. At first the Carlys join in a simple dance, moving in unison, but by the latter half, they are engaged in a rollicking food fight. It’s not vicious, exactly — the Carlys are often laughing as they demolish a table of cakes — but it calls to mind the experience of a passionate, sometimes tempestuous interiority: Exuberance and conflict tend to chase each other. Toward the conclusion of the video, Jepsen stands before a series of mirror fragments, each held by a Carly — it’s a well-traveled metaphor, but also a serviceable one that gestures to the queasy fissures of identity endemic to living in the world. Too muchness, after all, is not some rare disease, nor a stagnant trait, like blue eyes or long legs. It surges and it abates, in unremitting conversation with our inhabited environments.
“Too Much” is not necessarily my favorite Jepsen music video, although it fills me with tenderness; I’m a sucker for art that advocates self-kindness without being maudlin. But above all, I love “Now That I’ve Found You,” which is perhaps predictable because it exemplifies Jepsen’s popstar persona as the emotionally maximalist cat lady who is simultaneously sexy and quirky in the most winsome ways. The video and, by extension, Jepsen’s brand, seem to have been chiseled to appeal to those of us who dwell in topsy-turvy feeling. Immoderate in its every aspect, Jepsen frolics through an apartment that looks like a supersized Polly Pocket, collecting dozens of cat companions and donning coquettish, gauzy nightgowns. It’s almost campy. Jepsen seems to believe in her schtick, and she delights in surpassing practical boundaries, particularly when that means getting stoned on catnip and drifting through a feline-filled phantasmagoria dressed for the occasion in a flamboyant cat-themed unitard.
Still, it can be disconcerting to witness a celebrity ossifying their selfhood into a marketable brand, even though that’s precisely their job. The product placement in Jepsen’s videos is sometimes totally bananas — in “Party For One” it’s almost distracting — but then, she is far from the first to fund her work through sponsorship. Frankly, if we must exist within such a relentlessly commercial economic structure, then I’m glad companies invest in Jepsen. Together with its other attendant complications, feeling too much can trigger self-delusion. To be emotionally intemperate does not negate the pervasive, granular performance common to everyday life; it does not necessarily render me more genuine, though that is what I aspire to be. The layers of Jepsen’s performance are more discernible because, in her penchant for superabundance, she calls attention to them. Of course she does, because fame is itself a production. I can no more question the legitimacy of Jepsen branding herself as introspective chic than I can overlook my own motives for publishing an essay on a pop star whose music I admire.
And yet, not everything is whetted with strategy and blueprints. Not everything Jepsen does is for the rest of us. Sometimes her eyes close and a slight smile plays on her lips as she dances in a spontaneous undulation. I recall bopping along in the crush of the audience at that 2019 performance, watching her glide and prance, thinking to myself, “She looks so happy.” Was it, perhaps, too much? I hope that it was, in the most exquisite way.
Rachel Vorona Cote is the author of Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today. A past contributor at Jezebel, she has written for the New Republic, Pitchfork, Catapult, Hazlitt, Rolling Stone, the Poetry Foundation, Buzzfeed, and Literary Hub.
Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross