Carly Rae Jepsen's new album E•MO•TION is out this week, and it's being recognized as one of the year's finest pop albums. In her review for The Verge, Emily Yoshida called it "perfect, narrative-free pop music"; almost everyone agrees that it's a thoroughly intelligent and mature record, a revitalization few people would've predicted when "Call Me Maybe" seemed destined for one-hit wonder immortality.
I'm excited that everyone's in love with E•MO•TION because I think it's a great album, too, but I've noticed something about its coverage: almost everyone treats Jepsen's career as having started with "Call Me Maybe" back in 2012. It's a juicy prong for any sort of piece, and if Jepsen has anything approaching a "narrative" it's the accepted first chapter, but it's not the story's real beginning. Some reviews might mention Jepsen's stint on Canada's version of American Idol — which is called Canadian Idol, naturally — in passing, but that's about it. I want to introduce you to Jepsen's first perfect song, a sparkling adult contemporary jam that dominated my mom's van and kitchen radio in 2008 and 2009 before the first note of "Call Me Maybe" hit the page. Let's listen to "Tug of War."
After finishing third on the fifth season of Canadian Idol in 2007 — curse you, Brian Melo! — Jepsen decamped to her British Columbia home to write and record demos in the hopes of securing a record deal. It worked: she signed with independent label MapleMusic in early 2008 and started working on her debut album. Tug of War came out that September, and it didn't exactly set the Canadian charts on fire: according to a 2012 Billboard cover story, it just scraped over 10,000 copies sold. But it was a genial, capable collection of folk-pop songs about young love and loss, and Jepsen sung with delicacy and emotional savvy the same way she does now. (She wrote or co-wrote every song on the record save one John Denver cover.)
Canadian radio programmers bludgeoned their listeners with "Tug of War"
The single "Tug of War" succeeded where the album failed, peaking at no. 32 on the Canadian charts and eventually going gold. I can tell you from personal experience that it felt like a much bigger hit. I was growing up in a small town without terrestrial Top 40 radio when "Tug of War" came out, so I spent a lot of time listening to our local adult contemporary station. It treated "Tug of War" the way radio stations in 2015 treat "Trap Queen" or "Cheerleader": play it early and often, and bludgeon your listeners into submission.
One part of this strategy has to do with government regulations, if you can believe it. Under the Broadcasting Act of Canada and the watchful eye of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canadian terrestrial radio stations have to play anywhere between 25 and 40 percent Canadian music. It's a measure that's supposed to help preserve Canadian culture and promote our young and rising artists. So when one of those artists — like Carly Rae c. 2008 — manages to put together a quality single, it's in stations' best interests to play it as much as possible.
Jepsen's been writing about adult behavior for almost a decade now
That was fine with me, because "Tug of War" was (and remains) wonderful. It has many of the same qualities that are earning Jepsen plaudits for E•MO•TION, albeit wrapped in less fashionable packaging: a lovely melody, a tender and weightless vocal take, a surprising frankness and maturity when it comes to romance. "Don't go out with the boys tonight / I won't sleep a wink / wonder what you're doin'," sings Jepsen. "Don't go out with the girls tonight / I will turn to drink / Wonderin' who you're screwin'." This is why criticism that infantilizes Jepsen or the work she did on Kiss drives me up the wall — she's been writing and singing about adult behavior for almost a decade now.
E•MO•TION is going to make the perfect late summer soundtrack for many people who would've been hesitant to give Jepsen the time of day three years ago. I'm glad they're going to be won over, but I hope they manage to find their way to "Tug of War" somehow. It'll give them one more Jepsen jam they find themselves surprised to love.