On Emotion, Carly Rae Jepsen Does ’80s Throwbacks Even Better Than Taylor Swift

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Carly Rae Jepsen's Emotion.

About eight years ago, a guitar-wielding Michelle Trachtenberg doppelgänger walked into the audition room on the third season of Canadian Idol. Her name was Carly Rae Jepsen. “You’re 21, huh?” one of the judges asked. She nodded. “Going on … 14?” Completely ignoring this creepy yet somewhat understandable joke, she launched into a breezy original song called “Sweet Talker.” Her voice was soulful, fluttering, and a little stagy, like a girl playing the lead role in a (likely very boring) musical about the life of a young Norah Jones. She won the judges over, and their verdict was unanimous: You’re going to Toronto! The Canadian version of Paula Abdul had a big prediction for Carly Rae Jepsen: “I think you’re an absolute, total, bona fide star.”

This prophesy turned out to be both true and false. After finishing third on Idol and toiling away in the Canadian music scene for a few years (runnin’ through the 6 with her woes, as it were), Jepsen did indeed catapult into superstardom with her unavoidable, bubblegum-glommed smash “Call Me Maybe.” If you hate this song, you are probably the sort of person who has recently frowned at a puppy. “Call Me Maybe” was as transcendent as it gets: World-uniting, mood-improving, warm-and-fuzzy pop. (I contend that its genius was all in the chorus’s strings — a gilded, heavenly frame placed around an everyday moment of infatuation.) “Call Me Maybe” was a throwback to romance and delayed gratification at a time when every other month brings a magazine story declaring those things dead; it was a halcyon memory of the days when people actually talked to each other on the phone. But at the same time, it was a distinct product of the viral age. “Call Me Maybe”’s fairy godfather was none other than Twitter’s second-most-popular user, Justin Bieber, who likely took to promoting this song by an unknown fellow countrywoman out of some kind of deep and dutiful national pride. The track only really took off after he and some famous friends made a webcam video ecstatically lip-syncing it — causing countless other teens to do exactly the same thing. Like the “Single Ladies” dance or the Harlem Shake, “Call Me Maybe” was as much a meme as it was a hit song. (In retrospect, this supercut of 75 different people singing it feels more definitive than the song’s official music video.) The song was much bigger than Carly Rae Jepsen — which, for Jepsen herself, proved to be its great blessing and its great curse. Her 2012 record Kiss suffered for coming out in a cultural moment when, largely thanks to iTunes, the Single had once again become much more important than the Album. According to Billboard, “Call Me Maybe” was downloaded 7.6 million times, but Kiss only sold a measly 292,000 copies.

And that’s a shame, because it was really good — a slick, smart, and unabashedly sugary collection of jewel-toned synth-pop gems. Jepsen’s new one, the rapturous, hook-filled Emotion, is even better, but without an obvious contender for “Call Me Maybe Pt. II,” I fear that even fewer people will hear it. In a world obsessed with outlandish, easily tweetable cults of personality, Jepsen’s Achilles' heel is that she just seems really … normal. There’s something reassuringly craftsmanlike about her music; she pours all her energy into the song itself, and seems to have little interest in using it to create some sort of persona or “personal brand” the way her contemporaries do. It’s a shame that this is seen as a strike against her, but what can you do. Emotion shares its sleek, Miami Vice–Instagram-filter vibe with Taylor Swift’s blockbuster 1989, and in some ways, it commits more fully to the aesthetic they both share. I would go so far as to say that Emotion is a better album than 1989, but because Jepsen is not currently staging an ornate, supermodel-studded parade in her own honor and calling it a world tour, it will sell millions and millions fewer copies than 1989. Unfair? Sure, but them’s the breaks of the pop game in 2015.

Regardless, that awkwardly punctuated title does not lie: What Jepsen is reveling in here is all-caps E-MO-TION, as big and churning as tidal waves. The opening, sax-kissed song “Run Away With Me” is one of the best — at once toweringly anthemic and light as a feather. Other highlights include the yearning, Robyn-esque “Your Type,” millennial–Debbie Gibson “Boy Problems,” and the sultry ballad “All That” (still one of my favorite singles of the year), which producers Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid slow to a boldly glacial tempo, thus creating a song that should, by law, be played during every future teen movie’s prom scene.   

And though it’s a bit of an outlier on an otherwise peppy and up-tempo record, “All That” might be the song most telling of Jepsen’s possible life after Emotion. Hynes’ production credit offers her a certain kind of underground “cred,” but I’d also argue that Jepsen was already accruing some of that on her own. In the weeks since it’s leaked, Emotion has been championed by critics, discerning music snobs, and anybody else who likes rooting for a well-deserving underdog. (A few months ago, I interviewed the controversial, avant-garde, British electro-collective PC Music, and I asked them who was their favorite current mainstream pop star. They all replied, almost in unison, “Carly Rae Jepsen!”) In a summer when Taylor Swift backlash is kicking up online, Jepsen has become the natural alternative to our more ubiquitous and self-important pop stars — it is, refreshingly, near impossible to imagine Carly Rae Jepsen starting a Twitter beef with anybody. If that kind of restraint is bad news for her Q score, then so be it — Emotion, in its most genuinely transcendent moments, could care less about what’s happening back on the ground. Maybe bona fide stardom was just something banal and predictable Jepsen had to get out of the way early, freeing her up for a future of bolder aesthetic choices, unexpected left turns, and a joyful freedom from the pop game’s stuffy rules.