Side B: When cassette culture met Carly Rae Jepsen’s brand of nostalgia

Much has been written about the cassette tape’s nostalgia. But there is also something infinite about it, beyond its retro appeal.

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Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion: Side B, a collection of outtakes from her 2015 album Emotion, begins with the clicks of a cassette player. We hear the noise of slotting in a tape and pressing play, a few fuzzy seconds of music, and the sound of the tape being ejected, before the first round beats of “First Time” begin (with distinctly digital clarity).

Yes, this is a kind of second side to her album, but this imagery also suggests that Jepsen has made us, the fans, a mixtape. A note released alongside the album – which itself has a retro tangibility suggested by the paper effect, typewriter font and Jepsen’s signature in Biro  feels like a romantic anniversary gift. “All I wanted was to give back more of the feelings you all gave me,” it says. “Thank you for making the last year so incredible.”

Emotion, and Emotion: Side B have a lot in common with that iconic cassette-referencing work, Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity. “Maybe we all live life at too high a pitch, those of us who absorb emotional things all day,” Hornby writes. “And as mere consequence we can never feel merely content: we have to be unhappy, or ecstatically, head-over-heels happy, and those states are difficult to achieve within a stable, solid relationship.”

The cassette imagery matches Jepsen’s oversaturated Eighties-inspired synths, her unbridled enthusiasm (mixtape makers are lovers, of culture and each other), and her work’s tendency toward romantic storytelling.  

Like any mixtape, then, it’s possible to read a narrative working through Side B. It’s a collection of bouncy love songs, each upbeat yet imbued with an elegiac quality, but taken together in the order they tell a story of romance. We follow Jepsen from the end of a relationship (“First Time”) to the beginning of another that lifts her out of her funk (“Higher”, which proclaims, “You pulled a gem out of a mess”). Every ending is a new beginning – Side A might be over, but Side B can now begin (ashes to ashes, dust to sidechicks).

“The One” sees this relationship go up a level. “Truth is I never / Thought of us together,” Jepsen muses. “You’re just a friend of mine.” The intimacy accelerates from sexual to domestic (“While cookin’ dinner, I wear your socks and slippers”), and Jepsen frets about the commitment, insisting “It’s too much pressure”. By “Fever”, Jepsen’s too far gone for such pretence, and the tables turn. “My breath was lost when you said, ‘friends’,” she admits. “Well, that could work, but I’m still hot for ya.” It seems like some newly discovered unavailability has proved endlessly attractive, as she caves in the chorus: “You wanna break my heart? Alright / I caught your fever / I’ll be feeling it forever.” (The hot sweat of a fresh crush, expressed in evers and nevers, only really blazes when the object of our desire is unattainable.)

She’s still not clear where she stands in “Body Language”. “We only just started / Don’t say it’s the end / So call me your lover / Don’t call me your friend”, she implores. “I just think we’re overthinking it.” The last three songs on the album are more overtly preoccupied with endings. This new relationship never progresses to a good level of emotional intimacy (“Cry”), and Jepsen fantasises about running away (the bizarre satire of deadbeat dad tropes “Store”), reluctantly accepting that it’s never going to be stable (“Roses”). We’re back where we started: heartbreak.

There’s a cyclical feel to Side B that intensifies on repeated listens. In “First Time,” is Jepsen singing to the person who’s just broken her heart? Or celebrating the healing powers of a brand new romance? Jepsen seems to know that the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else. “Friend”, an equivocal word that can also mean “new lover” or “ex” in Jepsen’s lyrics, is rhymed with “end” four separate times throughout the record as relationships blossom and wilt. The lovers she addresses seem interchangeable, brushed away by “a simple change of seasons”; “a simple change of heart” (“Roses”).

Much has been written about the cassette tape’s cultural significance as an object of technostalgia, a time capsule, with its roots firmly in the past. But there’s also something infinite about it. “With its inherent noise, a cassette is a ready-made palimpsest,” as Pitchfork writer Brandon Stosuy observes. Just as every listen of a cassette inevitably leaves behind new warps in the tape, it feels as though every time Side B is played, it will collect the traces of new loves.

The vocabulary of cassettes has entered our daily ways of speaking about movement in our lives: we wish to rewind, pause and fast-forward. Flipping a cassette allows the tape to move in a never-ending circle. As Side B plays, Side A rewinds – moving forward and moving back become simultaneous and mutually inclusive. To quote High Fidelity again: “Sentimental music has this great way of taking you back somewhere at the same time that it takes you forward, so you feel nostalgic and hopeful all at the same time.” So many of Jepsen’s songs fit this description, aching with longing (for both the future and the past). Her music feels perpetually perched on a precipice – one moment away from tumbling into love or heartbreak.

The impulse to endlessly repeat the first taste of love has its parallels in the replaying of pop songs – why else did we all binge repeatedly on the sugary rush of Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” for so long? Though her sales since that single have been slower, her dedicated fanbase have written meme after meme riffing on their addictions to her work. Side B itself was intended, in Jepsen’s words, as “something to hold yah over” – a quick hit before the next new album materialises. “I can never get my fill,” Jepsen sings on “First Time”. Neither can we.

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