Carly Rae Jepsen is the emptiest pop diva to have released an album this year, and that’s not an insult. Although critics have been accusing her of lacking a personality ever since her biggest hit, “Call Me Maybe,” exploded in 2012, this lack of a personality bestows on her certain aesthetic advantages. Even the totally pro forma Demi Lovato emanates tough attitude with her crunchy EDM beats; even the famously shallow Justin Bieber, a pop diva if ever there were one, started acting like a real adult this year, with real thoughts and real feelings and real-sounding electronic pan flutes. Only Jepsen, whose thoughts are familiar, her feelings received, her giant saxophone riff clearly the result of a concocted keyboard simulation, possesses the energy to spout irrepressible hooks and choruses one after another after another, and thus the ability to craft an album that holds together as a coherent artistic entity — specifically, her fabulous Emotion, out since August. Underestimate her anonymity and you may doom yourself to hum “I Really Like You” for all eternity.
Having placed third in Canadian Idol’s third season, Jepsen released a slight, unnoticed debut album in 2008, but she catapulted into the spotlight with “Call Me Maybe,” 2012’s most ubiquitous hit single. “Hey I just met you/and this is crazy/but here’s my number/so call me maybe”; it’s probably going through your head right now, what with her girly giggle, that enticing sugary gleam, the chorus chasing its own tail round and round. “Call Me Maybe” was so huge its success defined her forever as a one-hit wonder even though several of her follow-up singles were nearly as lucrative, and nearly as catchy — I myself am partial to “Good Time,” in which she enlists Owl City’s Adam Young to sing a ridiculously bland, feelgood, and utterly spectacular duet over the lushest, prettiest dancebeats their respective labels could buy. But when she released her second album, Kiss, later that year, she proved herself a consistent craftswoman, jumping up and down over said dancebeats nonstop from beginning to end. Where most pop divas frontload their albums with two or three knockouts before spiraling down into heartfelt balladry, ghastly schlock, and abject filler, Jepsen’s either a shrewd, talented songwriter or she’s hiring shrewd, talented song doctors, and probably both. While her songs do vary in tone and tempo, the upbeat bounce always carries on, and Emotion follows the same formula at an even higher level of craft. Even for teenpop aesthetes, there are plenty of reasons to dislike her music: 1) she’s supercheerful and superpredictable, 2) she’s deliberately bland, 3) she’s an obsessive formalist who cares only that her content match the genre conventions, 4) she has no distinctive persona. “You can listen to Carly Rae Jepsen for days and still have no idea who she is”, sneers Pitchfork’s Corban Goble. These are precisely the factors that make her a superb artist.
Few singers have ever formalized teenpop to the extent that Jepsen does. Her light, spritzy keyboards, her hyped-up drum machines, her plastic guitar, her melodies that bask in their own major-key sunshine — all are recognizable hallmarks of the genre, and all are at once mastered and hyperbolized, so that her music apotheosizes the genre while making it conscious of its own form. This isn’t just teenpop, lively electronic music over which a figurative young person sings songs about her crushes and her dates and her boy problems; this is TeenPop (and it uses AutoTune), lively electronic music over which a figurative young person (she’s thirty, which means nothing in the Sweepstakes of Eternal Youth) sings about belonging to a long line of figurative young people, an honorable tradition that her music goes out of its way to respect. This is pure, perfect, mechanized craft, identifying all the relevant genre marks and refining them until the product’s seamless surface glimmers uninterrupted by any flaw in the construction, any awkward phrase, any jarring chord progression. If she projects a persona, it’s that of an Everygirl, but Everygirl implies the realist simplicity and diaristic confession of a Taylor Swift figure, and where Swift plays her character to evoke teenage utopia, Jepsen’s utopia is not adolescence but the teenpop genre itself. Okay, concede those who favor direct, honest, earnest emotional expression, but what’s wrong with projecting a role? Why couldn’t she make such refreshingly happy, sugary, chirpy music while letting her own identity as a human being shine through? Why does she have to recite such elegant platitudes like “I’m not going to pretend/that I’m the type of girl you’d call more than a friend” and “Where were you when I needed someone” and “When the lights go out/run away with me”? Ah, but playing a more specific character would be antithetical to her artistic agenda; then we’d be focusing on her as the person we perceive her to be, highlighting neat lyrical turns of phrase and trying to decipher her message to the world. Jepsen’s gift is to accentuate the crafted, artificial aspects of her music and in the process make them more enjoyable, to make clear that sometimes flawless form is more than enough. Catching glimpses of her inner life would detract from that sudden, snappy, instant-classic feel that jolts Kiss and especially Emotion into electrifying vehicles for pop thrill.
Kicking off with the giant electrosaxophone anthem “Run Away With Me” and only getting hookier as it progresses, Emotion glides to life over waves of glossy disco sparkle. Perhaps the songs toward the middle are slightly peppier than those near the end, but such distinctions are marginal. Polishing a sound based on the confluence of high glittering keyboards and bubblefunk rhythm guitar until the total confection turns squeaky-clean, the album never lets up; it’s totally even and consistent. “Boy Problems” uses the springy rhythm guitar as a trampoline, a power net underpinning a chorus that seems to taunt you in the way it sneakily unfolds from the verse. “Making the Most of the Night” is an ebullient skyrocket, with sparks flying as the drum machine speeds up and the freshness of the melody delights her. “All That,” the requisite slow heartsong (and the only song to deviate from the album’s otherwise brisk tempo), trembles with dreamy sincerity via slapped bass and cascading keyboard whirl; you can just imagine the song playing in the background at the high school dance as nervous couples sway (also on the playlist: Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting”). But every track connects, and Emotion ends up inhabiting a sonic identity that’s unique no matter how completely it replicates a familiar genre — there’s just no mistaking her honey-tongued coo, her snazzy rollerdisco keyboards, the little tension-and-release tricks in her melodies. The one true highlight, incidentally the lead single, is a breathtaking flash of lightning as magical as “Call Me Maybe” itself. Straightahead and direct where “Call Me Maybe” jumps around on a hopscotch grid, “I Really Like You” soars from the speakers even more confidently than Jepsen’s greatest hit. It perfectly captures the feeling of dizzy infatuation, of suddenly feeling your heart throb when you least expect it, of the crush that eats you alive from the inside. Repeating the word “really” over and over, 67 times throughout the whole song — “I really really really really really really like you,” goes the chorus — the song appears tender, lightheaded, totally tongue-tied, unable to think of anything else to say. Yeah, yeah, content is ancillary with this consummate formalist. But earworms do differ. When this one gets stuck in your head, your head becomes an intimate romantic world.
Abstract and generalized though it may be, Emotion hardly qualifies as the Great Exemplary Teenpop Album the way Swift’s 1989 does — paradoxically, that would require more persona, more specific-yet-universal detail, and perhaps the inverse mixture of distance and enthusiasm. But it certainly qualifies as a great, exemplary teenpop album. Simply by sticking to craft and precision and form, Jepsen says so much more than so many rival divas who’ve made it their mission to express themselves. I really really really really really really like her.