Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”—the most digitally downloaded song in history—has long graduated from being 2013’s “Song of the Summer” to becoming a pop culture artifact. Carly Rae Jepsen, however, is far from a household name. The public’s perception of her still has less to do with any artistic talent that she might have and more to do with her friendship with Justin Bieber, her brief stint on “Canadian Idol,” and the countless lip-syncs and covers set to her music done by sports teams, schools and even Cookie Monster.
Legitimizing Jepsen as a real pop star is the raison d’être of her third studio album, E*MO*TION. Jepsen accomplishes this difficult task with class, rising to the occasion sonically, aesthetically and lyrically. This time around, there are no gimmicky cameos from Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber, or Owl City (although Academy Award winner Tom Hanks stars in the “I Really Like You” music video). The cutesy but often overbearing and cloying eccentricities that permeated Jepsen’s previous album, Kiss, have crystallized into a concrete style that Jepsen owns.
Every song on E*MO*TION is about love. Katy Perry’s magnum opus Teenage Dream is undoubtedly an influence here. Unlike Perry, who explored rawness and bliss in the context of teenage love, Jepsen throws the essence of Perry’s sugary daydream into a real world where love isn’t so simple as California sun and cotton candy. Emotion is a fluid construct. Every song has a different metaphor for what emotion is — it’s a color or it’s a destination or it’s XYZ.
On the gorgeous opener “Run Away With Me,” emotion is a destination Jepsen runs to, pleading, “Take me to the feeling!” On the last track “Favorite Color,” emotions are a “kaleidoscope” of colors—à la Taylor Swift’s “Red”—that inspires Jepsen to chant “Paint me up!”
The sonic glue that holds together E*MO*TION’s 15 disparate tracks is an 80s-saturated sound crafted by a roster of seasoned producers. Changes in sound mirror shifts in emotion: siren saxophones sound like lust come to life in “Run Away With Me” (produced by Shellback; Taylor Swift’s 1989); punchy percussion reinforces Jepsen’s desperate oversharing in “I Really Like You” (produced by Peter Svensson; the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face”); glossy textures underscore the ultimatum of “Gimme Love” (produced by Mattman & Robin; Tove Lo’s Queen of the Clouds). Of course, an 80s sound lends itself well to danceable tracks such as “Warm Blood,” “Making the Most of the Night” and the aptly titled “I Didn’t Just Come to Here to Dance.” The atmosphere is stylish, but skews nostalgic—something like what you’d hear in a modern day John Hughes film.
In a recent interview with NPR, Jepsen told a reporter that she “didn’t want to make another ‘Call Me Maybe,’” and that the success of the song left her “feeling a little frightened.” Her apprehensions about fame show on the album. While Jepsen’s song-writing is crisp, in contrast to stars like Kanye West, Lady GaGa or Rihanna, whose songs are extensions of their highly publicized lives, you can listen to all of E*MO*TION and fail to learn anything concrete about Jepsen as a person.
Oddly enough, it’s Jepsen’s anonymity and the album’s general vagueness that allows E*MO*TION to succeed as one-size-fits-all pop music. On the titular track Jepsen croons: “In your fantasy, dream about me, and all that we could do with this emotion.” There is no effort to qualify what kind of emotion she’s experiencing, how it is experienced, and to what end—and there doesn’t need to be. Emotions are complicated, contradictory, and discursive and Jepsen’s understanding of this fact elevates E*MO*TION from a simple pop album to an ethnography of humanity’s most visceral and important experiences.