From teen pop sensation to hipsters’ darling: Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion

How the singer made the unusual transition from the VMAs to intimate Islington gigs.

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“We won’t sing alone, we just won’t, we’ll stop.” At a surprisingly small venue in north London, Carly Rae Jepsen is teasing the crowd. “Are you in for a sing-a-long?” Everyone knows what song is coming next, and we know all the words. Of course we’re in.

Jepsen’s most popular single, “Call Me Maybe”, was designed to be sung along to: short, bright and joyful, with memorable lyrics and an indefatigable hook. Its success was at least in part thanks to a lip sync video of Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and co dancing and singing to the track, which instantly went viral. Purchased more than 18 million times worldwide, with more than 750 million YouTube views, “Call Me Maybe” was the biggest song of 2012, and remains the bestselling digital single of all time. To borrow a line from Mean Girls, everyone in the English-speaking world knows that song.

Where can you go when you’ve already peaked? This, Jepsen admits, was the “ginormous elephant in the room” in early talks for her current album, Emotion. “At the beginning, whether I want to admit it or not, there was a very real pressure of having a song that was that big of a gift,” she told Rookie. “Whenever I walked in it was like, ‘How are we gonna top “Call Me Maybe”?’ I was like, ‘Stop saying that!’” Instead, she aimed for a different kind of success. “We had the biggest single in the world last time and didn’t have the biggest album,” her manager, and an executive producer on Emotion, Scooter Braun, told the New York Times. “This time we wanted to stop worrying about singles and focus on having a critically acclaimed album.” Unlike her last album, Kiss, Jepsen rejected pre-written songs in order to focus on writing (and co-writing) her own. She brought in a selection of artists she liked (who, perhaps coincidentally, have also received the kind of critical attention she was after), finding Dev Hynes (via Solange’s “Losing You”) and Ariel Rechtshaid (via Sky Ferreira).

It worked: critics with indie credibility adored the album. Pitchfork called it “as solid and spotless a pop album as you’re likely to hear this year”, while Drowned in Sound’s Sammy Maine wrote, “it makes me feel alive.” Pretty Much Amazing’s Peter Tabakis similarly matched the tone of the record with his own “unbridled enthusiasm”: “Carly Rae Jepsen’s new album is terrific – like really, really, really, really, really,” he wrote. “Emotion is so good, it’s formed sky-high expectations out of thin air.”

But Emotion works because it is tonally and generically related to Jepsen’s previous work (vibrant, earnest, sugary pop), not in spite of it. “I Really Like You”, the lead single and most popular track on the album, intentionally bridges the gap between “Call Me Maybe” and the new record. (Justin Bieber even makes a guest appearance lip-syncing in the official video.) Jepsen intentionally surrounded herself with musicians who worked well within the “Swedish-style structure”, helping her to reign in and simplify her more “rambling” approach to songwriting. The result is a string of sonically unified songs that each push at the boundaries of their shared framework and synth-y, Eighties aesthetic in different ways. Each track is individual, but the “Favorite Color” lyric “We blend into my favourite colour / bright baby blue” could easily apply to the album’s overall synthesis.

It is a record that unashamedly basks in the glow of its own technicolour drama, and makes this the unifying force of the album as a whole. Whether she’s singing about lust, joy, heartbreak or anger, Jepsen’s songs have feelings about feelings, and happily indulge in the act of recreating them in their purest form. On title track “Emotion”, she distils the desire to be desired into a single shot: “Drink tequila for me babe / Let it hit you cool and hot”. “I Really Like You” revels in not just the excitement of a new crush, but the anxiety: “Do you want me? Do you want me too? / Oh, did I say too much? I’m so in my head.” The irresistibly bouncy “Boy Problems” isn’t just a carefree anthem about sexual relationships, but examines the problems of dumping all your bad feelings on your best friend without consideration. Lyrically, the album sits neatly alongside the online community of girls overanalysing their emotions, turning them into Etsy jewellery and Tumblr art.

Despite its critical success, Emotion commercially flopped, selling 16,000 copies in its first week, about a third of the sales of its predecessor, Kiss. Perhaps that’s why the singer of one of the most popular songs in recent memory ended up at Islington’s Town Hall on a Monday night in December, playing to a modest crowd of less than 800 people. While the New York Times referred to “her many tween, Bieber-oriented fans,” to my eyes there were few actual teenagers in the crowd (Jepsen’s audience seemed mostly comprised of media types in their twenties and thirties). But as Jepsen sincerely belted out one perfect pop song after another in a cloud of candy-coloured light, the atmosphere was perfectly teenage. Delighting in their emotions, everyone sang along: and not just to “Call Me Maybe”.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.