Jepsen in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘Cinderella’
Even when you armor this type of emotion in the distancing mechanism of stylish ’80s artifice, as Jepsen has done on E•MO•TION, it’s a hard commodity to sell to listeners steeped in contemporary detachment. And that’s because, difficult as it is to imagine at a moment when bold sentimental statements are expected to be inflected with disillusioned irony, E•MO•TION is a completely earnest title.
The reason the album was written “before, during, and after” Cinderella is because the writing process was one that involved over 200 songs — which Jepsen began churning out on tour for her previous album, Kiss, and that saw her through a breakup and a move from Los Angeles to new York. She narrowed these compositions down to 12 tracks, all cohered by their foundation in the unrestrained sentimentality of ’80s pop. The final product features collaborations between an impressive set of producers, two of whom have become common talking points around the album because of their aptitude for dynamic ’80s revivalism: Haim producer Ariel Rechtshaid (who worked on “All That” and “When I Needed You”) and Devonté Hynes, aka Blood Orange. With different collaborators contributing to just about every song, the recording process saw the singer traveling transcontinentally.
E•MO•TION is an escapist album in every sense: Scooter Braun’s blunt statement of purpose in the Times suggests a desire to escape the cutesy identity that initially made Jepsen appeal to younger audiences. “This album musically reflects a lot of deeper, darker sides,” the singer says. These sides are present in a more adult sound, and she asserts lyrically that they’re present without exactly divulging what they are: “I’ve got a cavern of secrets/ None of them are for you,” she intones at the beginning of “Warm Blood.”
“It wasn’t a conscious decision at the time to be young,” Jepsen says of her earlier work, and perceptions of it. “It was more that I think that the way I write pop music is a little bit less ‘come hither,’ and maybe it is a little of that old-fashioned stuff. I can listen in hindsight and understand why it comes across as young. There’s a playfulness to it, there’s a joyfulness to it, and people relate that to youthfulness.” But she says that this time, she wanted to make an album of “more maturity. And I’ll be honest,” she continues, “sometimes that is a little bit of an uphill slant, because people can peg you as being purposefully younger, and that’s never something I’ve been trying to do.”
The propositions of romance on both “Run Away With Me” and “Let’s Get Lost” are also propositions of escape. “Especially with this career, romance is something that you slip in between the cracks or you fight to get for one day, and if I get busier, it just gets even harder and my desire to be with somebody becomes almost like the need to get oxygen for a second,” she says. “‘Run Away With Me’ is exactly that. It’s making a weekend feel like a real relationship when in the back of your adult mind, you know it’s not enough. It’s not really like sitting next to them while they do laundry, and watching them brush their teeth – getting to know all of their annoying quirks, and they get to know yours. It’s a glamorized version of a prolonged date that isn’t real life. It’s a little fantasy, but it’s kind of euphoric. Those two songs both came from that desire to get away and live in that fantasy.”
The video for “Run Away With Me” is a composite of predominantly candid moments and gleefully depicts escape, with Jepsen in hotel rooms, walking through and happily dwarfed by the immensity of foreign cities. “It was me without the idea of what a pop star is supposed to be,” she says. “I knew I wanted an ’80s album but not necessarily costume-y ’80s styling. In some of those shots there’s no makeup and there’s mom jeans, so it really depends on the song and the video and my mood of the day, to be honest. It’s maybe even a fault in me that I don’t have a more defined idea of what I have to be everyday, but that kind of seems like jail for me. I like being able to reinvent myself every day.”
More often than not, it seems Jepsen prefers naturalism to the battle between epics of grotesquerie that is the post-Gaga pop music video scene. “I remember looking at treatments for ‘Run Away With Me’… and thinking they felt silly to me. I had a hard time picturing myself — like, one of the treatments was: You’re at an insane asylum and then you try to escape, and you scream, ‘Run Away With Me!’ Or, You’re on Saturn and you and this other alien boy are trying to run away. My friends and I would read them out loud and be giggling, and not in a way where we didn’t think it would be a good video for the right artist… but it just so wasn’t me. And it was so wrong; I’d be acting in this way that I don’t know that I could pull off.” She explains that, instead, she decided to hold off on making a video for the song. But then her boyfriend, David Kalani Larkins, “was on the road with [her] and he was just shooting behind the scenes stuff for kicks because he’s a photographer.”
Sadly, this delivery of realness did not woo critics or audiences. “It has none of the starry glam that she’d need to enter the upper echelon of pop like she deserves,” said Stereogum in introducing the video. In fact, this reception might well have influenced what appears to be Scooter Braun’s revisionist framing of his intentions for the Jepsen and her album. Upon the release of “I Really Like You,” before he made his now-oft-quoted NYT claim that her team wasn’t after singles, he’d said to Billboard, “I told her that she couldn’t come out with anything unless it was on the level of ‘Call Me Maybe.’ And, now we have a new one that is on that level.”
Music writer Katherine St. Asaph seems to have some answers about the disappointing audience reception to Jepsen’s singles. She recently wrote of the singer:
The awkward female pop star is not a personality pop in 2015 can parse. Women are expected either to be den mother, empress, cyborg, and Courage Wolf in one; or self-loathing romantic who’s one drug away from sensuous, fetching collapse. Every pop star is either retrofitted to one of these models or discarded.
But if it’s so key for female pop musicians — as the Pitchfork review argues — to embody, exude, and live within a feminine archetype that fits particular listeners’ mood-based cravings, perhaps Jepsen should be lauded for embodying the notion of an undisclosed identity, one that says, “Actually, why don’t you just listen to the song I wrote?”
When asked about her visual aesthetic — or, specifically, her seemingly deliberate lack of visual stylization — the otherwise effusive and eloquent Jepsen pauses. “It’s sort of a confusing question for me, because the answer is so confusing,” she says. “The truth of it is, I have so many things that I’m attracted to, style-wise, that I don’t think I’m consciously really worried or affected by how that comes across.”
Who knows? In her personal life, Carly Rae Jepsen may be the kind of reprobate Twitter loves to explode over — but as her track “Run Away With Me” emphasizes, she’ll only “be your sinner in secret.” Maybe some select people get to experience that. Lucky them. We get to experience her pop music. Lucky us.