Five years ago, I started a revolution. Well, I didn’t so much “start it” as much as I caught its earliest wave. The year I had spent with Mind Equals Blown up to that point had given me the chance to write about whatever albums I figured were worth giving my time and attention to. I was days away from going away to college, so I spent the dog days of my last high school summer listening to “the ‘Call Me Maybe’ girl”, for a bit.
My review of Emotion in August 2015 was nothing to write home about. I used Pete Buttigieg generalities and poptimist trivia to say, in so many words, that Carly Rae Jepsen had put out a pretty good full-length record. Five years later, I found myself ahead of my time, a true tastemaker who single-handedly initaited the modern discourse behind our great patron saint, Carly Rae Jepsen.
“This album has enough zest to get the wheels turning on the Carly Rae Jepsen stardom train, with Jepsen’s songwriting ability shining through the abilities of her collaborators and power in making good pop music,” I wrote prophetically. “If things go well, this record may lead to bigger things in Carly Rae Jepsen’s future.”
My god, was I onto something, even if it was something a little vague. This little treatment of Emotion didn’t make Carly Rae Jepsen “the Queen of a Million Kingdoms” or give her a damn sword. Instead, it serves as a time capsule of first impressions for a record that defined my college years, and changed pop music in ways that were never inevitable. The past five years of Emotion has sent Carly Rae Jepsen on an unconventional that fans like me have experienced alongside her.
I’ve Got Worse Problems
Emotion gave Carly Rae Jepsen a bigger presence in my college experience than I could’ve expected. Being a South Asian Muslim at a liberal arts college in rural Virginia named after a Confederate general that is over 80% white and obnoxiously wealthy (thanks for the plug, financial aid) was, uh, a vibe.
Growing up in a wealthy Connecticut suburb exposed me to the nuances of mostly-rich white folks in a way that helped me fit in, but fitting in and thriving aren’t always the same thing. It felt like the challenges I faced daily enabled the comfort that so many of my white and/or wealthy friends experienced throughout college. The laughs I had, dope professors who taught me, and lifelong friends I made gave me some solace, but its hard to feel completely comfortable when white privilege, microaggressions, and implict classism weighed on me and my friends almost every day.
This constant dissonance between the ups and downs of college gave Emotion the space it needed to sit with me. What the record lacked in deep, ahem, emotional reflection, it made up for in its utility. The record combined the Top 40 dance pop of my pubescent years with a remarkable range that was simulatenously innoucous and overwhelmingly powerful.
I danced alone in my dorm room to “Run Away With Me” on a Saturday night while I decided whether to spend the night at a frat party or in my room feeling guilty about not wanting to pray five times a day. I spent a few break ups with “Your Type”, wondering what I couldn’t bring to the table. There were plenty of nights where “Let’s Get Lost” or “Gimme Love” could soundtrack my walk home, embracing the solitude of a quiet walk home with music that felt uniquely mine.
The record didn’t speak to the depth of my challenges. Instead, the songs of Emotion have been infectious enough to work their way into study sessions, radio shows, long drives home, and other experiences that defined my college years, as I grew in unknown ways that are still coming into full view. The growth I experienced with Emotion by my side made it as essential as any record I have held close to me over the past five years.
Making the Most of a Wave
Carly Rae Jepsen’s claim to fame came in an era created by Lady Gaga. Gaga’s The Fame and The Fame Monster sent her to the top of the universe, propelled by timeless pop smashes like “Poker Face’ and “Bad Romance”. Her dance pop classics made her the first new star to come out of the EDM-tinged pop that Britney Spears and Kanye West had released in 2007. The subsequent EDM boom brought some niche work to the mainstream, but mostly just realigned the direction that pop stars took for a few years.
The pop universe in the years after The Fame provided quite the soundtrack to the proms and Bar Mitzvahs of Gen Y’s last wave. Pop stalwarts like Rihanna, Usher, and The Black Eyed Peas used this boom to join Gaga in capitalizing on the sound and our newfound love of fist bumping. These changes coincided with a mainstream boom for EDM itself, but the waves of synths and drops crashed hard into the Top 40 universe.
The Pop Machine gave us dedicated electropop stars like Taio Cruz, Far East Movement, and LMFAO to convince us that shutter glasses could fix our childhood astigmatism. The same machine transformed talented forces like David Guetta, Jay Sean and Ke$ha into synth pop hit factories to help the 1% of pop music, like human dirtbag Dr. Luke, pay the bills.
“Call Me Maybe” was the perfect capstone of this late 00s/early 10s electro pop boom, even if its status came by accident. The track’s creation genesis four years after Jepsen’s run on Canadian Idol and three years after her debut full-length, the pop rock/folksy Tug of War. Jepsen and Tavish Crowe wrote the song as a folk track, but brought in Marianas Trench’s Josh Ramsey to turn it into a timeless pop smash.
The song played to all the strengths of the era that embraced it. Jepsen’s light voice played well to the bubblegum synths and disco strings rooted in the sounds that preceded the contemporary electro pop boom. Its sugar rush captured the aura of Clueless and Disney Channel pop stars, alike. Top it all off with its innocent, schoolyard crush narrative that is perfect for all ages, and you have a song that was perfectly timed and timeless at the same time.
Show Us If You Care
The pop world fell hard for the “Call Me Maybe”, but with troubling associations that typecast Jepsen for millions. Jepsen’s anonymity outside Canada convinced annoyed listeners that she was simply another cog in the Top 40 machine. Likewise, listeners associated her bubblegum themes with the immaturity and corporate roots often linked with teen pop.
Jepsen’s major labor debut, Kiss, didn’t give much room for “Call Me Maybe” haters to change their minds about Jepsen. The record leans hard into the basket of teen pop tricks that doomed any perception of nuance for Jepsen. The Kiss team featured over a dozen producers and even more writers, in addition to Jepsen. This kind of behemoth team is common in the Top 40 world, but the team looked to mass-produce the authentic recipe that made “Call Me Maybe” such a success, rather than trusting Jepsen to do so herself.
A banger like “Tonight I’m Getting Over You” exemplified these gaps. Pop demigod Max Martin wrote the track along with Jepsen and a boardroom of pop scientists. The song’s sweeping Euro synths have the bones of a European club, but its business pitch focused on American suburbanites whose only exposure to urban nightlife was the anxiety that came with effectively navigating a Forever 21 on a Friday night.
The track’s careful construction makes use of Jepsen’s solid range on top of a whooping house drop that amplifies the catharsis of its hook. A laboratory pop banger like “Tonight I’ve Getting Over You” couldn’t convince the Top 40 electorate that Jepsen was nothing more than a manufactured star. If anything, leaning into that status only made it harder for her to shake it.
Kiss didn’t try to challenge the perception that Carly Rae Jepsen was a business investment for the Top 40. “Call Me Maybe” showed that Jepsen could pull weight as a songwriter, but the core of Kiss tried to copy and paste the diabetic sugar rush of a pop smash that was as handcrafted as any unabashedly poppy Top 40 hit could be. One other smash hit (it’s always a good time!) and a few months later, Carly Rae Jepsen’s legacy had seemingly boiled down to “Call Me Maybe” lip-sync videos and a bad first pitch.
Top 40 Hallucinations
The Pop Universe wanted to use Emotion as an opportunity to redefine a one-hit wonder. Top 40 czars hoped that a few hit singles and slick marketing campaigns could keep her success flowing. However, the overfed dance pop landscape and the brand fatigue that came with Jepsen’s one-hit wonder status made it hard for anything she did to succeed on its own terms.
No one knew how hard this task would be more than Jepsen herself. While starring on Broadway to fulfill a childhood dream, she wrote a folk record as an act of rebellion. The record didn’t capture the vision that Jepsen had for herself, but it reminded herself that her success didn’t have to be defined by what “Call Me Maybe” had made for her.
“I think there is a natural rebellion when you have success in one are to completely rebel against that. I needed to get that out of my system,” she said about the folk album in 2015.
Despite her folk urges, Jepsen wanted to build a pop record, and made one on her own terms. Pop music by 2015 had moved on from the synth pop that propelled Kiss towards mainstream, but Jepsen didn’t want to abandon that pure pop flavor. Jepsen into the 70s/80s revival flame of the mid-2010s that artists like Taylor Swift and Daft Punk had latched onto in the years prior.
At its surface, Emotion doesn’t radically depart from the Kiss formula. The writing and production force on Emotion wasn’t much slimmer than the team that built Kiss. Scandanavian pop songsmiths like Peter Svensson and Mattman & Robin gave the record a welcome dose of radio-ready energy. Powerhouse producers like Rostam Batmanglij, Ariel Rechtshaid, and Greg Kurstin worked their magic on skillful album cuts. Top this grouping with diverse stalwarts like Blood Orange and Sia, and you get a large, but uniquely skilled, team to turn Jepsen’s vision for Emotion into reality.
Her lyrics weren’t afraid to acknowledge the physical and emotional pieces of adult relationships, but still relied of tropes like boy problems and really, really, really, really, really, really liking someone (I hope that he/she calls her). The album’s genesis may have relied on the Top 40 Machine that had defined her career up to that point, but Jepsen found the leeway to be the songwriter she wanted to be.
“When I was in LA [working on the new album], I was making very pure pure pop again, kind of almost Kiss,” she said. “I wasn’t feeling that. The indie album was too hot, too cold. Emotion felt like the right balance.”
The pop balanced we received speaks for itself. Jepsen creates straightforward choruses like “Boy Problems” and the title track that turn the 80s influences up in all the right places. “Run Away With Me” and “I Really Like You” are singles with anthemic choruses that are built for stadiums and festivals. Where “All That” slows things down with its sensual Blood Orange R&B vibes on point, “Your Type” gives Jepsen the chance to lament over lost love with the utmost intimacy.
Emotion being a Top 40 record by design gave it a certain staying power that allowed it to weave deep into my own story. The record allowed Jepsen to be real with herself, but didn’t force a full-on catharsis or creative 360 that could’ve made it more inherently compelling. Instead, its simple appeals took advantage of how pop music is built to be addictive. The songs stuck with me across contexts and settings, blending into the quiet growth I experienced in my life as the record aged with me.
Not Your Type
Emotion turned Carly Rae Jepsen from a one-hit wonder to a hero for many. At first, only a select few gave the “Call Me Maybe” girl a chance, creating a special club of those who could bask in the record’s glory. Instead of radio hits and sold out arenas, Jepsen held her own with Pitchfork features and mid-sized theaters. Emotion navigated two different worlds in a way that fans like me know quite well.
I grew up without a ton of reference points for how a South Asian immigrant kid like me was supposed to turn out. The kids in my hyper-white suburb seemed to understand how “culture” worked, and I felt like there was nothing I could do to truly fit in with the mostly white friends I graduated with. College wasn’t easier, where its brutal whitness and wealth made it even harder to feel “normal” without embracing the status quo.
These challenges aren’t unique to Bengali Americans, but that doesn’t make my struggles invalid. Spending time with other South Asian Americans gave me some solace, but it was often easy to latch onto the ways I differed from my peers, instead of seeking comfort in our shared stories. Combine this all with the typical challenges that come with finding yourself through the complex times of college, and you have a five years where the unknowns were often clearer than than the certainty.
Emotion found Jepsen at an unknown juncture between the world that had built her success and the one that would come to embrace her. Jepsen clearly had the songwriting chops to hold her own, but one song and one Top 40 album had sold her short for so many. She had the resources and aspirations of the Top 40 kids, but didn’t receive the same support that those stars did. Instead of being hampered by this impossible bargain, Jepsen borrowed the tools of the cool kids, and succeeded without their help.
Jepsen wanted to write a pop record that bested 1989 or anything from the 2010s electro pop boom that bred her success in the first place. She didn’t want to write an indie record that let her “raw songwriting” show, nor did she have to write a middling pop record built for radio success and nothing else. Emotion, more than anything, is the record the Jepsen wanted to build, an unapologetically pop record that was truly her own.
Emotion reminded me that I wouldn’t succeed because I copied the white kids or spat in the face of what my culture stood for. My story came not despite, but because, of the unique background that made me who I was. Jepsen’s journey over the past five years has reminded me that I do not have to be everything to everyone. I just have to be enough for myself, and the rest will fall into place.
Of course, I’m not here to say that brown guys should look for white women to validate their challenges in abstract ways. If anything, take this as a disclaimer from brown guys to not do that. Instead, brown folk should look to engage the range of powerful voices who tell our stories. My journey to understand the layers of my identity is more complicated than a single album by a Canadian Idol runner up, and taking in the perspectives of other voices to understand your own experience is critical work.
A record like Emotion is part of my story because of a theme that is more universal than anything. We all have complicated identites that shape us, and the unique qualities in our control are essential pieces to the journeys that we take. On top of that, the external circumstances that we can’t control are just as crucial to who we are, and those forces do not need to cancel each other out. If anything, our biggest success can come when we engage all sides of ourselves, letting the different pieces of ourselves come together to make something that reflects all sides of who we are.
Turning Our World to Gold
Some may try to convince you that Emotion flopped. The record sold just over 16,000 copies in United States its first week, and only 36,000 by the end of 2015. For someone who wrote a song that sold 18 million copies only three years prior, it hard to see these numbers as success. For an album with a music video starring Tom Hanks with cameos from Justin Bieber and some Vine stars to barely register with the masses, it’s easy to see Emotion as a waste of marketing dollars from the Top 40 Machine.
Of course, my groundbreaking review of the record wouldn’t be worth talking about if the past five years meant nothing. It’s hard to find anyone “in the know” who doesn’t recognize how Emotion changed the game, but none of this recognition came on day one. It took time for Jepsen to become the cult icon she is today, holding swords and earning a Vine trend worth remembering. The past five years of Emotion are as much about the collective growth Jepsen fans have experienced with the album as it is about a truly great pop record.
At a deeper layer, the past five years of Emotion capture the futility of sales, streams, and ticket sales as pure metrics for success. There are many people who would love to see Jepsen dominate the Top 40 again, but it would be easy for that success to come at the expense of why so many fans love her like we do. Caitlin White said that the record’s limited commerical success has been a crucial piece why the album meant so much to so many, even one year after its release.
“E•MO•TION wouldn’t be as meaningful if we had to share it with capitalism’s steely machinery,” she said “Its commercial failure is part of what makes it continue to feel intimate, ours.”
Emotion built thousands of true fans out of a one-hit wonder. Jepsen moved from the definition of expendable to the epitome of essential for so many. A record that stayed true to the vision of its creator has meant more to the unique groups of people who have made it their own, carving its own path for success in the process. This concept of success can extend far beyond music, and in my case, it truly has.
Growing Ten Feet Tall
My story is just one of many connections to Emotion that have given it life in the years since it first dropped. LGBTQ fans have rallied around Jepsen as a queer hero. Fans like me have defended Jepsen like a military hero returning from war against the Top 40 Machine, even giving her a damn sword to prove it.
At one level, Emotion is a one-hit wonder escaping the walls built around her. However, it means that much more to see her claw out by taking advantage of the pop tools that built the room in the first place. Jepsen’s success reminds us of the power we have to broker success, and how crucial it is to stay true ourselves when defining and pursuing our aspirations.
The five years since the record’s release have seen other artists across the sphere capture the magic that made Emotion so special. Charli XCX escaped the “Boom Clap” ecosystem to take creative risks (including one with CRJ herself) that have furthered her career and the pop landscape she runs within. After releasing her a stellar record of her own five years ago, Kacey Musgraves looked beyond the country circles that had shunned her progressive themes and unique style (along with her gender too, probably), creating an iconic record of her own in Golden Hour.
Jepsen, Charli, and Musgraves all started as hotly-touted talents within their scene. The three have gone from struggling in mainstream scenes that their artistry didn’t fully align with, to thriving as unique individuals who lean into the musical strengths that make them special. Their journeys remind us that our own success has layers, with metrics that can be just as nuanced. Popular success and artistic integrity do not have to be at odds with each other. If anything, staying true to our own vision has the power to enable our biggest successes.
The Long Way Home
Reviewing Emotion five years ago felt like an innocent enough thing to do as a slick teen who had a soft spot for “I Really Like You” and “Call Me Maybe”. Pop music has a way of being inoffensively good, but the record I discovered spoke for itself as a top notch pop music artifact. I’d like to think that my review of the record five years ago started the revolution behind it, but I was one of many who didn’t realize what I had stumbled upon until everyone else around me did. Once the weight of my discovery became real, there was no way I could turn back.
Seeing Emotion kick off my college experience made it extra special when Dedicated came out on my last day as a college student. The record and its B-sides possess many of the same strengths as Emotion, and have started to cement their own special place in my journey that may be worth talking about in four years. If Emotion (along with Side B and “Cut to the Feeling”) was a marker of my growth, then Dedicated will be a symbol of the joys that growth will give me.
I don’t know how many Bengali Americans have felt the same validation that Emotion gave to me (lmk if you’re one of them), but my story speaks to the album’s unique ubiquity. Emotion wasn’t a record built around dense social themes or initmate personal stories. Its depth came in flipping the mainstream pop machine in favor of the creator within it, rearing its head in the form of pitch perfect pop music, and an artist who fought against the grain to earn her success.
Emotion has given its listeners their own little homes, where our successes could be our own, with no one else needing to affirm it other than ourselves. The record didn’t change for me, but it was there when I needed it these past five years. Carly Rae Jepsen made it clear that the most profound albums don’t always need dense themes that speak to the soul. Sometimes, all you need is to really, really, really, really, really like the bangers that make it what it is.