Carly Rae Jepsen Dedicated

[School Boy/Interscope; 2019]

Styles: needy, haunted pop
Others: Annie, Robyn, Lorde, Sade (seriously, hear me out…)

Carly Rae Jepsen embodies a pop ideal so quaint and so counter to the perceived wisdom of being famous in 2019 that she’s often looked upon as something of a unicorn: a singer whose reputation is premised on the merits of her work rather than her brand of politics or IG-ready cool. There are structural factors at play as well: shifts in streaming and the primacy of rap, the triumph of poptimism and genre-less new stars, but none are exhaustive in explaining her unique cult of non-personality.

Jepsen is profoundly a white girl, a reality that she doesn’t outrun, plead with, nor publicly apologize for. Beyond the benefit of a doubt, Jepsen’s afforded a vast emotional latitude that isn’t circumscribed by coolness nor siloed off as anything other than mainstream (see the complete history of R&B as “urban” music). But where her white girl peers in the pop music sweepstakes (she’s too Canadian to have rivals) sour this unqualified goodwill by hectoring for attention (Katy Perry), passing their psychic complexes off as relatable (Taylor Swift), or nakedly plundering “black” aesthetics (Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea), Jepsen redeems herself by being genuinely selfless.

Instead of imposing her personality on the public, Jepsen sidelines it almost entirely. Her songwriting is rich in aesthetic and emotional signifiers but short on personal details. This blankness at the heart of her work feels like an act of generosity rather than an evasion or front. Jepsen’s best songs are feats of scale as much as they are flexes of musicality; massive tunes for her audience to project their most basic feelings onto, which she rewards in turn with the kind of fleeting rapture and resolution that only the purest pop can provide.

The title of Jepsen’s 2015 breakthrough album literally sounded out her concerns as an artist: E•MO•TION , an all-caps, millennial pink promise to honor one’s feelings as they bubble to the surface. On latest album Dedicated, her music undergoes a subtle, more mature evolution, asking what it means to honor another person’s heart while remaining true to your own.

Compared to E•MO•TION — which will be the active listening experience for many — Dedicated is a more emotionally incisive and insular album; smaller in scope, but no less polished. The muscular synths and booming drums that marked tracks like “Your Type” and “I Really Like You” have been toned down, as Jepsen locks onto calmer musical tropes and wrings them for all their worth. Tracks like opener “Julien” and “Happy Not Knowing” are built from unwavering synth-lines that gather and pop where they’d once explode, while the sparkling, minimal elements of “Real Love” and “The Sound” are held together by Jepsen’s voice.

If Dedicated is defined by a sonic motif, the way the dreamy sax on E•MO•TION elicits Pavlovian gay screaming, it’s Jepsen’s embrace of vocal science. Coined by the writer Anindya Bhattacharyya to describe the way that UK garage producers rearranged, warped, and piled on voices for heightened rhythmic and melodic effect, Jepsen employs the technique on Dedicated to more poetic ends. Where vocal science is traditionally used to incite dance floor rapture, the gasps and murmurs that buoy Dedicated suggest the buildup of potential energy and the formlessness of unnamed feelings.

The churning, cut-up vocals that intro “Now That I Found You” swell like butterflies in the pit of your stomach, as Jepsen sings the title with all of the wonder of someone who’s finally found real love. In the ecstatic, horny “Want You In My Room,” pitched-down cyborg vocals articulate Jepsen’s desire as her voice gets breathier and more consumed with feeling. But it’s employed to greatest effect on “Everything He Needs.” A sexy riff on “He Needs Me” from Harry Nilsson’s Popeye soundtrack and among the weirder songs that Jepsen has ever recorded, the chorus is bookended by helium and Ambien-pitched vocal processing that seem to reflect the spheres of Jepsen’s internal dialogue in real time: cool sexual confidence, heart-eye emoji rapture, and toe-curling ecstasy. “You know, not just physically,” Jepsen speak-sings of her lover in a progressively slower, deeper drawl, “Emotionally / Spiritually /Intellectually / Sexually / All the ways.”

At its heart, Dedicated is a concept album about neediness, the conditions for two people to have and keep love. Isabel Cole’s razor-sharp observation that “[Jepsen] writes about what lives before and lingers after love” remains apt, although in the case of Dedicated, “love” should be amended to “commitment.” Much of the album presupposes being in a relationship, but the emotional currents of each track find it either slipping out of sync or crystallizing into eternity.

Despite her adoption by hipper segments of the population, Jepsen’s neediness and insistence on framing that need in capital-P Pop disqualify her from ever really being cool. But the emotional exigencies of her work are more radical and necessary than the money-chasing cult of self-reliance that the reigning queens of pop traffic in, whose brands at their root are an aspirational kind of needlessness. These artists are embodiments of Oscar Wilde’s maxim that “Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power,” and whose self-possession in the bedroom and the boardroom is accordingly framed as a triumphant redistribution of power.

In this respect, Jepsen aligns more with artists like Amy Winehouse and Lana Del Rey, women who posit love as the fraught navigation of two psyches rather than a battle of the sexes or a lawyerly divving-up of power. Who ask “what is power if not leveraging need?” Jepsen doesn’t pursue the more frightening and masochistic implications of that question the way Del Rey or Winehouse do, and in that regard actually reminds me of Sade. The two women couldn’t be further apart sonically, but they’re similar in the impersonal way that they render desire, as a haunted, all-consuming state of being that has the equal potential of delivering romance as souring into heartbreak.

Jepsen lacks Sade’s gift for drama; she’s too wedded to the rhythms of the dance floor and the geniality of a pop star to really go for it. But the hauntedness of her work, from the Natalie O’Moore photograph that fronts Dedicated to the unknown other she sings to, is its most artistically interesting vein, suggesting that she could be a haunted synth-pop auteur à la David Sylvian if she’d really let her freak flag fly. As Max Landis’s obsessive, illuminating A Scar No One Else Can See project proves, it’s been a consistent stylistic thread throughout her work. I’ve never listened to her the same since a friend told me to pay attention to the lyrics of “Call Me Maybe”: “Before you came into my life I missed you so bad.”

Dedicated isn’t a perfect album — it’s overlong and occasionally concedes too much to chart tastes to be interesting. But by the time Jepsen takes a bow following bonus track “Party For One,” you’re reminded once again of her generosity, of all the space she’s cleared for strength and weakness, for personal epiphanies and communal release.

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