Like most people, my first exposure to Carly Rae Jepsen was her inescapable smash hit “Call Me Maybe.” At the time, it was frequently derided as obnoxious, but I secretly kind of loved it. It was catchy and fun, but it also felt different from other music on the radio, in part because of Jepsen’s personality, which comes through in the song’s title.
“Call Me” obviously makes me think of the Blondie song, which had Debbie Harry’s confidence and cool. Pop music is often about those two traits, with artists exuding swagger and needing to appear like they’re on the cutting edge. “Call Me Maybe” added that one word — “maybe” — which gave it such a different feeling from all that other music. It was a song about not being confident: “Call me… maybe?” Uncertainty and shyness are rarely traits I hear in pop, and it endeared Jepsen a lot in my mind, because within the artifice of pop music she felt like a real person.
Since “Call Me Maybe,” I’ve become more annoyed at how egotistical so much pop is. So many songs are only commentaries on the artists’ own celebrity, whether it’s addressing their “haters,” talking up their own skills, or lashing out at the media that covers them. I never quite know what I’m supposed to get out of that as a listener. Am I supposed to care that a very popular artist apparently has haters, or about how they’re living it up in NYC? Even the catchiest chorus can’t make up for not caring about the artist’s lyrics and personality.
Part of the appeal of Jepsen’s new album, Emotion, is how it avoids these self-involved pop tropes and instead focuses on the sort of lyrics that have been the bread-and-butter of pop music forever, about love, falling in love, loving love, and various other love-based things. This has been perceived by some as a flaw in Emotion — that its songs are too blank and don’t reveal enough about Jepsen herself — but in the current landscape I find it to be a strength, an antidote to the increasingly viral nature of pop. When so much pop is about branding and being a phenomenon, the focus Emotion puts on crafting actual songs gives it a humble, even admirable quality.
And it helps that the craft on Emotion is really, really, really good. Jepsen reportedly wrote a massive number of songs, working with an army of producers at several recording studios before picking out the best ones for the album. This lengthy recording process is the opposite of what was expected of her after “Call Me Maybe” blew up and she rushed out her previous album. When she was already being predicted as a one-hit wonder, the logic was that she should strike while the iron is hot, before people forgot who she was. Instead, she took her time to make sure the songs fit together and sounded the way she wanted, which is why Emotion feels like a single artistic vision despite the cavalcade of personnel attached to it.
Emotion won’t yield a “Call Me Maybe” level hit, but that isn’t the point. Jepsen’s goal was to make a pop album (yes, an album) that sounded timeless, that wasn’t the product of novelty. Given some of the gems on this album like “Run Away With Me,” it’s hard to argue that she didn’t succeed.