In Defense of Carly Rae Jepsen and The Power of Feminine Pop

By Meg Zulch

Courtesy of Interscope Records

Courtesy of Interscope Records

It’s common knowledge that music made by pop musicians like Carly Rae Jepsen are often overlooked as being nothing more than a guilty pleasure. Critiques and music snobs alike are known to write pop off as being less culturally valuable, and even less artful than other genres of music. And Jepsen, who once was seen as the epitome of the thick-headed bubblegum pop princess courtesy of her hit song “Call Me Maybe,” can attest to that.

With Emotion, which dropped this past June, Jepsen proves that pop is the perfect platform for conveying that very emotion which labels the project, and the importance of agency for young feminine people.

I’ve been a fan of pop since the dawn of time (aka when I discovered “...Baby One More Time” when I was five years old), and in more recent years I’ve added “boy band luvr” to my repertoire (Directioner 4 Lyf). My love for all things pop was always undeniable, but that didn’t stop me from denying it with every music-related question asked of me. “Oh, I listen to indie stuff,” I would tell those who expressed curiosity about my music taste. But really, the “indie” portion of my music collection consisted of “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” some Vampire Weekend songs, and a few Belle and Sebastian albums (hardly indie). My actual shit was blasting One Direction till my ears bled, stopping only to sample every pop musician the boys admire or have worked with. And understandably. Pop is a perfect escape and release for its listeners. And I could get on board with most of it pretty easily. Well, except Carly Rae Jepsen.

I still don’t quite understand where my initial hatred for her came from. It could have been my desperate need to retain some kind of “coolness” in an iTunes library filled with pop music. It could have been the hyperfeminine way she sounded and presented, a type of femininity I found obnoxious and a constant reminder of the fact that I didn’t fit that image. But once I let my guard down about the pop music thing (I’m pretty out and proud about my music taste now, clearly) and came to appreciate the freeing vulnerability and unapologetic femininity in some pop music as demonstrated by artists like Taylor Swift, I was ready to try Jepsen’s latest creation over the summer. And boy, was I impressed.

With Emotion, Jepsen created a beautifully constructed pop album that clearly draws inspiration from multiple members of American pop royalty, and music styles reminiscent of both 80s and 90s pop. But what’s most thrilling about the album is her unique portrayal of a human’s emotions, especially concerning love. Emotion seems to exist within the infinite realm of possibility, the moment between developing a feeling and acting on that feeling. And so Jepsen achieves writing an entire album of love songs that don’t involve a single romantic partner, with only a few exceptions, like the track “I Really Like You.” It’s empowering, hopeful, and full of promise (much like love) and a departure from other records like it.

The album begins with the rich wail of a saxophone in the opening track “Run Away With Me.” The sound alone threatens to practically sweep you off your feet, as you are completely engulfed by the song’s promise of the night ahead, as Jepsen exclaims, “Baby, take me to the feeling.” It feels incredibly romantic and full of potential, but not toward anyone in particular, making the listener wonder if it’s about a lover, the night, or herself.

What sometimes makes me hesitant about pop music is the incessant “I need a boyfriend” or “come fuck me” conversation going on in the lyrics. When I’m single or not particularly on the prowl for any sexual attention, certain pop music feels draining for me, leaving me with a peculiar feeling of emptiness. Jepsen’s album, however, fills in the empty spots with liberation and empowerment. Even though much of the songs are probably (or could be interpreted as being) about a boy, I noticed during my listening experience that it didn’t feel that way. It feels more like a series of love songs to yourself, to the night, to the future and what’s ahead. The music isn’t only more relatable that way, but also somehow gives the listener a sense of agency. Because the answer isn't a boy or a partner--it's in yourself. Now that’s the kind of pop music that I need in my life.

That doesn’t mean Jepsen shies away from sexuality either, even if she is talking more about a concept, dream or in-between moment than a full-fledged relationship or sexual encounter. In “Warm Blood,” her heartbeat and climbing blood pressure is palpable as she explains her animalistic infatuation, whispering “warm blood feels good, I can’t control it anymore.” Similarly, “I Didn’t Just Come Here To Dance” asserts Jepsen as an empowered sexual being who gets lusty cravings and confidently pursues them. However, what’s missing from her portrayal of this sexual agency is raw sexuality that can be controlled or objectified. She enjoys her sexuality without caring about or getting attached to men or societal ideals. She's just doing her. 

Emotion is one of the few pop albums that is completely about love and simultaneously having nothing to do with love, seemingly detached from the male gaze (as much as that is possible, at least). The album talks about the romance of potential, forever dangling in a dreamy space where getting enraptured by self-love and the hope of the future is more likely to happen than getting swept off your feet by some random dude. Which, hey, in a modern society and in a present-day feminist, this is definitely more positive! The album puts the focus entirely on Jepsen’s thought process, a space that is often more trustworthy than in the hands of others. And so those who are afraid of pursuing love and prefer the delicious dream of it, or the first moments of courtship, can truly revel in the validity of these moments through Emotion.

Jepsen is perfect. The album is perfect. And when I listen to it, I feel a never-ending well of light and love in myself that I sometimes forget I have. No, you don’t need a man. Yes, it’s okay if that date doesn’t work out or that person doesn’t text you back. Because, as Jepsen reminds you, it’s about your emotional journey and not necessarily the destination.