On Sunday, I woke up with two alternating songs stuck in my head: “Happy Not Knowing” and “The Sound.” Both come from Carly Rae Jepsen’s fourth album, Dedicated, which dropped Friday and was the topic of an argument I’d been having in my head for much of the weekend. I could recognize the album’s bouquet of charms and its nominal creator’s seeming ability to conduct earworms as easily as someone wearing a wool sweater in the winter does electricity. The hooks, they are undeniable. But beyond the ability to manipulate the listener’s ears into feeling like stomachs on a rollercoaster, I wondered, was Dedicated actually good? Is there a way to ferret out legitimate quality from visceral positive response, particularly when that response is shared with a larger group, and does it even matter anyway? Candy is good, but it is also junk… but is it even, if it’s especially good candy?
This is an age-old question about pop music that the philosophy of poptimism—more or less the standard among contemporary music critics—would suggest we’ve moved on from. Poptimism preaches that pop, in all of its constructed excess and dubious expressive sincerity, has value. Pop is important. If pop feels good, it is good. I believe all of these things, more or less, but there’s something about Jepsen that never really did it for me. This is of more concern to me than the average not-my-thing thing because Jepsen rather blatantly embodies the ethics of pop so purely as to be something of a classicist when situated in contemporary culture. Her music’s craft supersedes its effect, which in pop is generally regarded as inextricable—Jepsen’s pop music is not generally popular on a large scale, but she inspires such goodwill among her devoted following, the net appreciation is probably the same as what it would be if she were consistently feeding an audience of millions of casual listeners.
What she inspires is impressive, and, to me, baffling. I’ve struggled to find her there there and she hasn’t seemed particularly concerned about leading me to it. I have never independently discovered what makes her distinct, and I’ve never been much convinced by the rhapsodies of her I read in reviews. It certainly isn’t her voice, which is of the innocuous gets-the-trick-done variety (she’s no virtuoso, but at least she’s generally convincing). So it must be... something else. The full package, the it factor, the je ne sais quoi that’s breaking up in the transmission from her lips to my ears. Without getting so specific as to seem ill-willed toward my peers, many of whose work I generally admire, critics applaud her for expressing herself exuberantly, which is what pop artists do. You read things about the size of her emotions on tape, as if every other recording artist up to this point has been muttering politely. People praise her probing of relational nuances and their attendant specific feelings, as if before her there were just two feelings—LOVE and HATE—expressed via similar-sounding grunts. Paid thinkers deconstruct her deconstruction of love—the way she herself dissects and lays out its parts, piece by piece, song by song—as if such a remove isn’t inherent in the very act of verbalizing a emotion one has (hypothetically) had, as if being hooked on a feeling is a radical concept.
The RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Aquaria gave a quote to Rolling Stone for its recent Jepsen profile that I thought was ultimately withering praise: “She talks about real-people things, but it doesn’t come across forced or too metaphorical. It’s unapologetically pop music, without trying to call it something else.” It’s good pop music because… it’s pop music. Excessively plain pop music with the modicum of self-awareness required to serve its stated function. Zzzzzzzz.
I do not wish to interfere with anyone’s good time or suggest that poptimism is harmful or incorrect, but I do think that taste (which critics are paid to have) must have some sort of boundaries via structure and that when all pop is considered exemplary by virtue of it being pop, that which purports to be critical thinking is missing the critical component. So much of the writing I have read through the years, and binged in advance of writing this, assumes that we’re all on board with Jepsen’s greatness (after having been seduced by her titanic 2012 smash “Call Me Maybe”), and just here to congregate and testify. Beyond not quite seeing things this way myself, despite having all the working parts to appreciate pop for pop’s sake or so my track record suggests, I resent these fundamental assumptions of interest (especially when they’re further refined to be specific to identity, as in the assumption that as a gay white man, I’ve surely adopted Carly Rae Jepsen as my lord and savior).
And forget about turning to the Twitter stans for guidance on Jepsen’s singular appeal; unabashed devotion has rendered them less articulate to the outsider. They chatter in their own language. Stans in general behave like doting cat owners whose adoration may originate in a parasite contracted by handling their beloved’s shit (in the case of the cat owners, I mean actual feces; with pop stars, I mean deep cuts that no one else cares about). After all, when we discuss the pop songs that really work, we talk about them like contagion. They are infectious, most impressive when they’ve infiltrated us, refuse to leave, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Waking up with two Jepsen songs in my head was a sign of infection. They’re good songs, I think. On an album packed with milliseconds that feel momentous, none is as heart-stopping to me as when Jepsen purrs, “But…” into the void when all other sound drops out just before the chorus of “Happy Not Knowing.” I have no analysis for the appeal of the intonation, it just caresses my ear in a way that is pleasurable. “The Sound” has this decelerated disco chug to it; it moves as if to approximate aurally the drag on a body running into the wind. Dedicated’s “Automatically in Love” also shares this lowered-BPM style, an aesthetic I have loved for years. There is something, however, sterile about Jepsen’s approach to it. Typically slowed-down disco has either a sleaze factor (Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” Sarah Dash’s “Low Down Dirty Rhythm”) or some other kind of grit (Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat,” Donna McGhee’s “It Ain’t No Big Thing”). Jepsen’s groove is less organic—it merely sounds like someone just turned down her formerly frenetic drum machine and the glide is as icy as Inner City’s slow-mo techno ballad “Power of Passion.”
To my ear, Dedicated marks a sonic upgrade for Jepsen. This album’s songs are often more sparse and less brickwalled than those on 2015's Emotion, which makes my ears hurt less. Refreshing. “Feels Right” manages to work in a swing beat without sounding like swing of the classic or new jack varieties. Inventive. The 3/4 pounding of “I’ll Be Your Girl” more sputters than waltzes. Novel. There’s a reedy squeak in Jepsen’s voice as she duets with a saxophone in “Feels Right.” Thematic.
It’s engaging, but superficially so, because Jepsen rarely says anything interesting, despite her supporters’ insistence that her survey of the design of human emotions has resulted in some sort of revolutionary cartography. Her imagery tends to lack specificity: “We had a moment, we had a summertime/Asked me to leave with you, but I could never decide/I’ve been so torn up, I’ve been so out of it/I’m forever haunted by our time,” goes Dedicated’s opener “Julien.” She is prone to padding for the sake of meter (“Everything He Needs”: “He’s strong, not one to settle down/You know he’s that guy”). She approaches sex like someone who’s only experienced it through romcoms (“I want you in my room/On the bed, on the floor/I want you in my room/I don’t care anymore/I wanna do bad things to you”). The lines with enough specificity to qualify as exemplary in this context (like when she insists, “Love is more than telling me you want it,” or tries to dismiss burgeoning infatuation with, “I’m sure it’s nothing but some heartburn, baby”) are few and far between. Jepsen presents herself as someone who is sated by generalities—the “right words” referred to in “Right Words Wrong Time” come from her object of desire’s declaration that they know what they need and that they’re ready for her. She indeed doesn’t come across as forced or metaphorical, but it seems like a little more effort would have gone a long poetic way.
Jepsen recently described herself to Jezebel as “very out of the loop” in terms of contemporary sounds, but certainly her pack producers are paying attention. Dedicated has its idiosyncrasies, yes, but it’s not quite sui generis. Much of what’s here is reminiscent and conversant with contemporary pop, both of the popular and cult forms. With its murmurs, reggaeton-lite beat (knock, kn-knock-knock), and probing subject matter, “Too Much” plays like a retread of Taylor Swift’s “Delicate” (compare Swift’s “Is it cool that I said all that?” with Jepsen’s “Is this too much?”). “Real Love” has the same sort of interlocking vocal samples post-chorus as Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s “This Is What You Came For.” “For Sure” dons Niki & the Dove’s tribal posturing and nu-AC ambient synths that dawn like little suns. “Right Words Wrong Time” has a mourning pizzicato framework similar to Julia Michaels’s “Issues.”
I highlight these to lightly question Jepsen’s own understanding of her music’s place (and thus her overall mastery of her career as an entity), not to denigrate the referenced songs, which are all good-to-great and business as usual. Pop plunders. Look at Elvis Presley. Look at Madonna. True and sustained innovation is so rare that when it’s able to also appeal to masses—as in cases like Kate Bush, Prince, and Timbaland, even though all sported their very obvious influences and contexts—it feels like a miracle. People talk about Jepsen as though she, too, is a miracle, but I think she is just a worker. I don’t have it in me to muster enthusiasm for competence.
And yet, I barely stopped listening to Dedicated all weekend. When I did—at the gym, at a show—I was still thinking about it. While working out on Saturday, the Jets’s 1986 hit “Crush On You” shuffled into my ears via this playlist of songs that I more or less always want to hear that I’ve been assembling for years. It’s a song I’ve been loving for most of my life, one that is as simple in its sentiment and as ebullient as that of Carly Rae Jepsen’s most praised work. Why is loving that song so easy, and Jepsen so hard for me? Part of it must be nostalgia. You could argue that the Jets etched out a much more coherent lyrical narrative than Jepsen tends to (“Crush on You” is as much about having the crush as the news of the crush spreading and reaching its source). The production percolates in a way that just isn’t in fashion in these rapid-boil times—it’s a fizz in the local waters of Minneapolis. Also, it strikes me that writing a song such as this is much harder today, 33 years after the Jets made this a hit. By now, it’s all been said. Jepsen has written about having crushes dozens if not hundreds of times at this point (she tends to cut hundreds of songs for her albums before whittling them down) and never once, to my knowledge has spelled it out as easily as the Jets: “I’ve got a crush on you.” If Jepsen’s reality is mundane, it is exponentially mundane by her telling, and especially by necessity.
I thought about her too Saturday night when I watched this ambient band from Philadelphia, Hotel Neon, play a small gallery in Greenpoint. Their amorphous music is generally not separated into neatly quantized bars—time stretches out, drones bleed into each other, overlapping and then fading before you even realize they’re gone. While their methods are distinct—they have two guitarists and another sort of sound manipulator who works some sort of instrument or instruments on a screen—people have been making music like mist for decades. I just happen to enjoy their specific method, the tones they hit, the textures they stack. And what’s more, I can’t explain their appeal to me much beyond that of a vicarious sense of satisfying calm. And that is precisely why I like that band. Writing about music, explaining to the best of my abilities why I think something is good or worthy of attention, can be so challenging that it is a refreshing alternative to tune in and just listen quietly. Just to appreciate is enough. Part of my ability to do this with ambient is it doesn’t beg a structuralist reading in the same way that pop—with all of its contexts and traditions and personas and personnel—does.
But I do think that to listen to music in this way is perhaps the purest. And maybe that’s exactly what many of Jepsen’s fans are doing, attempts at demystifying explanations be damned. Unless you’re at some kind of conference or just have a critic’s DNA, intellectualizing appeal and living in the moment are at odds. Certainly, people’s inability to explain Jepsen’s appeal in a way that I find personally satisfying is not her fault—or if it is, it’s because she’s doing her job. She’s taking all the stuff—mundane and already-done as much of it is—and translating it into something otherwise indescribable. The only way to really understand it is to experience it. “I’ll do anything to get to the rush,” Jepsen sings in “Too Much.” It seems that she shares that with her fans.
But I struggle with just letting go and taking Jepsen on her own terms, loving her for what she is. Turning that part of my brain off with pop music seems too easy. I have to make it matter, or it just becomes this sort of bombarding force that lulls me into passivity. I can’t give it exactly what it wants and remain my individual self. I just can’t rest on, “…’cause she’s good” even if there are occasions—more than a few on Dedicated—for which that explanation is ultimately sufficient (in the absence of a scientific analysis of exactly why each of Jepsen’s melodies work so well on the ears).
I seemed to have reached an impasse of reluctant submission, of unquestioning acceptance and enjoyment of someone who is simultaneously remarkable and banal. And then, I read this tweet:
And boom, I got it.
Finally, an explanation of Jepsen’s appeal that doesn’t involve some sort of contortion of reason, invention, or over-complication. An actual interfacing with whom she is and an embrace of her music because of, and not despite, that. A way of actual engagement, not passive acceptance. Of course, this approach involves worshipping a queen for her basicness, which I couldn’t deign to do. My appreciation of Carly Rae Jepsen remains sporadic and from afar (Dedicated’s playability after 20 or so listens has already started to wear off, though I imagine I will keep “Happy Not Knowing” and “I’ll Be Your Girl” in rotation). But this reading of her “project,” tongue-in-cheek as it may be, soothes me with its clear-eyed reason: If every state of being contains a hierarchy of mastery, it follows that one could be exemplary at being basic (especially when viewed through the funhouse mirrors of pop culture). This is what makes Carly Rae Jepsen special, and the inherent contradiction only makes this thesis more plausibly human. How refreshing it is to see a spade be called a spade, an emotion expressed simply and straightforwardly so that it dovetails well with Carly Rae Jepsen’s own ethos.