By the end of 2012, it was accepted as a historical fact that Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" was objectively the song of 2012. It was one of the few moments in pop music where even would-be detractors and snobs had to shrug and concede its superiority. Everyone loved that song. Everyone sang along to that song. What's more, there was something about that song's success that felt unquestionably earned — no matter the Justin Bieber-abetted machinations to place it in the center of the pop cultural dinner table, most people could hear "Call Me Maybe" and feel that the people involved in its creation were good at their jobs. Whatever work had gone into writing that exuberant, endlessly repeatable chorus had paid off; Carly Rae was a star, Scooter Braun was rich, karaoke bars would never be the same. Barely anyone bought Kiss, the rushed-into-production album the song eventually lived on, but in our streaming- and singles-dominated world, who cares?
Pop music, like any other mainstream art form, is not a meritocracy, but if it was, Jepsen's follow-up album E•MO•TION would be the biggest, most inescapable pop creation of the year. It's such a competent piece of work, every moving part not only well-oiled but possessing the kind of charisma that not even the most cunning Swedish megaproducer can create in the studio. It in fact does have a cadre of critically respected writers and producers behind it, but when you put on headphones and press play on "Run Away With Me" you're not thinking about what a great Shellback hook that is. You're wishing you could run down the streets like Jepsen in the homemade-looking music video, jumping into fountains and sharing the song's uncontainable joy with everyone in the general vicinity.
Right now, that very video is sitting at just shy of 5 million views on YouTube; for comparison, Demi Lovato, who is of a comparable level of celebrity as Jepsen (but still without a world-conquering hit like "Call Me" to her name) released her "Cool For The Summer" video a week later, and it's now at about 32 million views. I'm a fan of Lovato's; she's at Jepsen's level as far as the pure vocal ability to sell a hook, and she sells the hell out of "Cool For The Summer." But what's that 27 million disparity about? Why does Demi get to 19 on the Hot 100 (already modest for a pop song of this ambition) and Carly doesn't chart at all? Why is nobody showing up for this album?
Should the absence of a narrative matter when the music is this good?
It's mysterious, perhaps even ironic, that as our on-demand modes of consuming media become more and more microscopically tailored to the individual listener or viewer, pop music has become sneakily dependent on the artist — or, more specifically, the narrative surrounding that artist. Bluntly speaking, we don't know anything about Carly Rae Jepsen. She hasn't shared her life with us in the same way that Lovato, Rihanna, or even Beyoncé, that master of strict self-curation, has. And when it comes to selling your story as a product, all those artists are eating the dust of Taylor Swift, whose preplanned "candid" paparazzi shoots and carefully leaked gossip tidbits keep her personal saga in business even between album cycles. Like Marvel superhero movies, when a new Taylor Swift song comes out, we come to it with a certain portion of our comprehension meter already filled. Any new music is just another episode in the Taylor Show; it becomes nearly impossible to judge or experience in a vacuum.
As dominant as "Call Me Maybe" was three years ago, we don't come into E•MO•TION with that same level of precognition on a narrative level. But should the absence of a narrative matter when the music is this good? When those stop-and-freeze downbeats on "Making the Most of the Night" hit you like a hairflip? When you're able to sing along to the lovelorn chorus of "Your Type" after one listen? I'm not talking about a daring outsider musician not getting her due for her boundary-pushing vision. E•MO•TION is as poppy as pop gets; you'd be hard-pressed to call anything about it experimental. I'm talking about a pop artist showing up and doing her job: at times, even better on a technical level than Swift, who rode that same ‘80's inflected monster-hook wave to break just about every record known to man with last year's 1989.
You don't read these songs like a book, you drum them out on the steering wheel
But unlike Swift, Jepsen somehow manages to deflect the spotlight off herself, even though her expressive, persistently-kinda-hoarse voice is ever-present on the album. And that's both what makes these songs so universal, and perhaps what will keep her on the pop sidelines. Carly Rae Jepsen makes songs that are about you, not Carly Rae Jepsen. Lyrically, they're like Cosmopolitan horoscopes; evocative, yet general enough to feel like they are oh my god soooo accurate. Her writers, which include such talented people as Sia Furler and Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij, make propulsive rhythms and drum fills out of her winsome words. The Furler co-written "Making the Most of the Night" builds its chorus off the sound of the words, not their meaning ("Knowyouhadda rough time / but here I come to HIGHjack you / HIGHjack you") — but its insistent, playful seduction still comes through in the production. The verses of "Run Away With Me" and the chorus of "I Really Like You" are such perfect matches of lyrics to melody that the former are almost rendered abstract. You don't read these songs like a book, you drum them out on your steering wheel.
Pop music is made to be shared. A massive hit single is a common experience in itself, but it often succeeds because it speaks to an existing common experience: big, eternal human struggles like love, loneliness, and of course, Getting Ready to Go Out. It seems deeply counterintuitive then, that increasingly a pop star needs to ride in on a fully formed personal narrative in order for her songs to be successful. But pop music is about patterns and familiarity, both in the form of chorus refrains and familiar faces and characters. There's nothing disingenuous about E•MO•TION; at the same time, Jepsen doesn't give any of herself in it. Jepsen isn't selling her story as a product, and thus E•MO•TION remains perfectly executed, thoroughly unscalable pop.