The queer cult of Carly Rae Jepsen: Why we really, really, really, really, really, really like you
Six gay men pay E•MO•TIONal tribute to the underrated pop star in honour of her 33rd birthday
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Don't get me wrong: Like any warm-blooded gay man born in the 1980s, I love Carly Rae Jepsen. I unquestionably consider her 2015 album E•MO•TION the greatest pop album of this decade. I have spent countless hours explaining to straight people why it is so offensive to ever utter the sentence, "What, the 'Call Me Maybe' girl?" And my most-played song of all time on Spotify is — in a bit of a twist — "Roses" off Jepsen's 2016 EP E•MO•TION: Side B (I blame a perfectly timed breakup).
While I more than enthusiastically wish her a very happy 33rd birthday (a birthday she shares with Björk, Goldie Hawn, Amanda Lepore and Cherry Jones, suggesting today really should be a stat holigay), I do feel like in order to properly serenade her rise to a gay pop messiah (33 is your Jesus year, after all), I needed some reinforcements from the army of gay men who make my own fandom look relatively casual. So I decided to open up this week's column as a forum of sorts for a party of six rabid CRJ fans to discuss both their love for her and why exactly they feel she has become so specifically popular with our ilk. (In the wise words of the true prince of Gay Twitter Louis Virtel, "It feels like only gay men can hear the words 'Carly Rae Jepsen.'")
I only realized that Carly Rae Jepsen was a queer icon after discovering that she was not "straight famous" — that is, as central to the rest of the world as she was to me and my friends. My straight friends didn't know her music beyond "Call Me Maybe." They thought it was odd that three other homos and I would schlep to Detroit for her concert because her only Toronto show was opening for Hedley (yes, that Hedley) at the Air Canada Centre. The border agent seemed just as confused when we told him who we were crossing into the United States to see.
I didn't understand why they didn't get it. Her second album, Kiss, is fun, if not mostly fluff. But her third, E•MO•TION, is a piece of pop perfection: smart, earnest, synth-y and New Wave-y but also cutting-edge. "Your Type" is a sexy, heartbreaking jam that dares you not to you to mouth its lyrics while giving it your all on a sweaty dance floor. "Boy Problems" is a shimmering, shoulder-shimmying send-off bop whose accompanying Petra Collins video is cute and campy with that gauzy, of-the-moment aesthetic (which would later get Collins recruited to shoot campaigns for Gucci). Though the album was the subject of several breathless Pitchfork features and made countless year-end best-of lists, it still remained that album that my straight friends kept "meaning to listen to."
Perhaps it's because these are particular queer pleasures. And perhaps her relative obscurity is part of her queer appeal. Gay men love an underdog: a pop star who's struggled publicly (think Britney, Kesha) or one who they feel has been mismanaged by their label (Tinashe, Ciara). It seemed clear that Carly's management didn't seem to know how to market this post-"Call Me Maybe" version of her. The first single off of E•MO•TION, "I Really Like You," is not particularly indicative of the more experimental sound of the rest of the album, but it certainly sounds the most like "Call Me Maybe." The video mostly stars Tom Hanks, and CRJ only makes an appearance near the end (Justin Bieber shows up, too). Did her label not think she could carry her own music video? And then there was the tour with Hedley — what was the vanguard of pop music doing opening up for this aging pop-punk-turned-arena-rock band?
It's not that Carly isn't leaning into her status as queer icon. She's played Brighton Pride, turned a festival outing into a Pride performance (inviting viral video star Mark Kanemura onstage to snatch literal wigs) and sported that Joan Jett mullet. All of this earns her rainbow points. But Carly cemented her queer icon status for me with the song "I Didn't Just Come Here to Dance," a bonus track on the deluxe edition of E•MO•TION. Over a house beat, the track tells the story of CRJ going to a club with the intention of catching the eye of her crush and leaving with him. "I didn't just come here to dance, if you know what I mean," she sings. "Do you know what I mean?" I think queers, in particular, know what she means.
Daniel Laurin is a PhD student in Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto.
There's an undeniable wave of elation that rushes over me when the first few chords of "Cut to the Feeling" or "I Didn't Just Come Here to Dance" (or insert countless hits here) chime out. A sonic scintillation, a sweet aroma for the ears, a warm-and-fuzzy for the soul. My pouty mood can do a complete 180 the minute one of her delicious tracks belts out of a speaker. Over recent years, Carly Rae Jepsen has become a go-to artist that myself and an army of "Jepsies" can plug into and immediately beam a little brighter as we listen to the pop tunes she so precisely masters.
I recall seeing this 22-year-old hopeful on Canadian Idol for the first time in 2007 and recognizing that she was destined for pop royalty. As a keener production assistant on the TV franchise — where young Canadians aspired to dream as big as their American counterparts — I remember feeling as though my being there and her working her way up the ranks were somewhat cosmically connected. I was captivated with this precocious bubblegum princess who wanted nothing more than to make it big.
While her journey was cut short on season five, those who've followed any of the Idols know that it isn't the actual winners of these shows that go on to greater fame. Her fate was ironically sealed after not snatching that winning spot, as she'd go on to elevate herself even higher than past winners Kalan Porter or Melissa O'Neil. (Speaking of, where are they now?) She could now create the music she wanted to, without being forced into the music machine that future producers were obviously going to cram her into. Or, at least, that was the narrative I created for my little starlet.
Our collective dreams — visions of an ascension to stardom — came true shortly thereafter, when she was quite literally catapulted into pop paradise. "Call Me Maybe" was an insatiable earworm (snaps to Bieber and pals for making that happen), and to my and my queer friends' salivation alike, the heartthrob she lusted after in the video was as boy-obsessed as she was! Hark, the gay angels sing! She was embracing a demographic that would inevitably become her largest audience, and I couldn't have been more thrilled.
Her songs recount stories of unrequited, fleeting and misguided love — facets of life I'm sure my gay brethren can all too familiarly relate to. She also offers a sense of humility and sensitivity that we often seek out in our man crushes. I mean, what's more appropriate for a gaggle of homos than a track called "Boy Problems"?
The Carly of 2018 has seen inevitable success due, in volumes, to the management of her brand: bopping musicality combined with a sweeter-than-maple-syrup image. Anthemic choruses, sax riffs and all the synth you can handle culminate in a sound so pure in its poppiness. Her critics might say her songs all have a basic repetition, but fans would counter by saying that this familiarity is exactly why they come back each and every time and experience such a rousing, aural embrace.
Now, with multiple albums under her belt and a new record on the verge of dropping, a crowd of adoring CRJ devotees can barely contain their anticipation for a post-E•MO•TION banger. I was so keen that I put out feelers to book her for an upcoming family festival. Obviously, my darling comes with a not-surprisingly-out-of-budget price tag. And so she should! Girl has done her homework, and it's finally time to build her bubblegum queendom.
Carly, babe, if you're out there, I think it's safe to say: I really, really, really, really, really, really like you.
Tyler Shaw is an arts and culture producer.
Growing up in rural Nova Scotia as a closeted gay boy, I got used to hiding all of the "girly" music I enjoyed listening to. Britney, Christina, Mariah, the Spice Girls — girl power wasn't meant for boys. But that changed slowly over time as I became more comfortable in my own skin.
Cut to the feeling in March 2016, when I found myself crossing the border into Detroit to see Carly Slay Jepsen's Gimmie Love tour, the first of many shows I'd attend. My friend and I cryptically told the border security officer we were visiting to see a concert. When he asked who we were seeing, I bashfully responded. "The 'Call Me Maybe' girl?" he asked. I politely informed him that it was arguably the weakest of all her songs and then launched into a well-rehearsed lecture on Carly's recently released, critically acclaimed, yet undersold album and her rise in the "gay icon" ranks. He politely let me have my soapbox moment and then waved us on our way. I proudly stan for Carly! Is that what the kids are saying these days?
In hindsight, a "gay icon"? Well, maybe not yet, but she's on her way. An LGBTQ ally with lyrics that make you feel seen, heard and understood? Absolutely. In a world where pop culture craves songs about relationships and love stories, Carly's music focuses on something we can all relate to: feelings. Her songs celebrate the intimacy and primacy of those intense emotions of forbidden desires and secret crushes, known vividly by that young, closeted gay boy from rural Nova Scotia. The homages Carly pays to emotion — excitement, anticipation and the fear of impossible love — are something that young, queer Matthew needed, but couldn't find.
You don't need to act on your feelings or desires for them to matter. They still deserve a fun, bouncy, synth-pop saxophone riff with all the glitter and disco balls only Carly Slay can offer.
Matthew Poirier is a Non-Profit Policy & Communications Manager.
I remember the first time my friend Vanessa played me E•MO•TION. The timing was perfect: I had just met a guy who I was head-over-heels for, but I didn't know if he felt the same way or if anything would work out. In fact, he was leaving town in a few weeks. (Is there anything that intensifies a relationship more than giving it a time limit?) I was a true water sign in an ocean of emotion. So when my friend threw on CRJ, I dove deep.
I was in shock — this wasn't the "Call Me Maybe" bubblegum pop I was expecting. This was layered, raw and a lot more grown up. There was a bit of a bad girl in there, a lot of hurt and some great moments when her Scorpio was really showing. I was hooked! I'd dance to "All That" while falling hard for this guy, then, once he was gone, I'd weep to "Your Type." Later, when I was out and about trying to find a quick fix to heal my broken heart, "I Didn't Just Come Here to Dance" became my anthem. The album had everything I needed to take care of myself during that time. (And Carly's music would connect me with the next big love in my life shortly after that, as well, but that's too complicated to get into here.)
After countless replays of E•MO•TION, I felt like I had to share the album with the world, or at least other queers in the city. So my friend Kevin — who was also under the CRJ spell — and I decided to throw Boy Problems: A Queer Dance Party. We threw together some homemade Carly Rae cardboard cut-outs, made a poster and got some friends to DJ. That night, we filled a venue of about 100 in under an hour and had a line up down the block — turns out we weren't the only gays devouring the album.
With the release of Side B, Kevin and I threw a followup party at a bigger venue, complete with drag performances and another Carly Rae cut-out to pose with. We had an even bigger turnout (expect the next one in the new year with her next album release), and this time, Carly took notice. She re-posted Instagram photos, retweeted partygoers and even sent in a video saying that she wished she could have attended! A few months after the party, a woman came up to me and said she met her newest lover at that party. They had danced together to "Warm Blood," my favourite song, and had been inseparable ever since. That's the power of Carly.
To me, Carly Rae Jepsen brings all kinds of people together, even if only for one night. She's come so far from singing "Torn" on Canadian Idol. Carly is love, sex and tears on the dance floor. She's the Canadian Queen of Pop, Queen of Scorpios, Queen of Emotions, Queen of Swords.
Happy birthday, Carly Slay!
Brett Ashley is a reality television producer.
Practically every woman who has released a pop album in her career has ascended to the status of queer icon in some capacity, but trailing Carly Rae Jepsen's rise is something fascinating. Her concerts — or at least the ones I've been to — are filled with two distinct audiences: preteen girls who want to shout along to "I Really Like You" and queer people (mostly gay men) in their 20s and 30s who can quote every letter of every song the woman has ever released. For many people, she'll never ascend past being known as the "Call Me Maybe" girl, but for queer folks, Kiss and E•MO•TION serve as the Old and New Testament of pop music, the latter considered by some as the best pop album of the 2010s (and rightfully so).
First off, Jepsen understands the struggle. She's out here, on every album, singing about her crushes. Everything is falling apart in the world, but sometimes the most important thing in life is having "Boy Problems," wanting a boy to "Call Me Maybe" or dreaming of someone who will "Run Away with Me." It's what pop artists have done for decades, what Taylor Swift was unfairly criticized for doing in recent years (by misogynists who would rather jack off to Ryan Adams' boring covers of her pop debut) and what we'll continue to listen to for an eternity.
There's also something endlessly enchanting about existing in this world of pop pleasure: a world where our problems can be danced away, either on our own, with our friends or with the guy we met in the club who "Didn't Just Come Here to Dance." Carly Rae Jepsen has limitless joy flowing through her music, even when she's singing about heartbreak, and it's impossible not to fall hard as a queer person.
Calling Jepsen's music "queer" may be a stretch for some, but we live in a world where people embraced Lady Gaga's cheap attempt at encompassing a bevy of identities on "Born This Way," so maybe making that declaration isn't much of a stretch. After all, what's queerer than a crush you can't act on? Than having to hold in your desire? Than longing for someone you can't have? There's an absolute sincerity in the way that Jepsen sings every line of her music, which makes it easy to make fun of (cue the "Run Away with Me" meme that swept the nation — or maybe just Twitter and Tumblr), but it's hard not to find oneself enamoured with that level of earnestness.
In her music video for "Party for One" — a single that's derivative of works like Robyn's "Dancing on My Own" and Hailee Steinfeld's "Love Myself," but no less enjoyable because of it — she makes a bold declaration that we've all already known: her music is for everyone. By featuring a widely diverse range of folks dancing and embracing what others might perceive as an oddity, we have an anthem to self-love from the artist who seems to know every nook and cranny of love, from the magic of seeing a crush for the first time to the heartache that comes with the end of it. Now, if you'll excuse all my leaps into hyperbole, I'll be off to listen to some more Carly Rae Jepsen, one of the only pop stars who will forever remain "stuck in my head, stuck in my heart, stuck in my body, body."
Juan Barquin is a freelance writer and programmer for Flaming Classics.
How strange it was to be struck by this plucky theatre kid on a random episode of the fifth season of Canadian Idol that I happened to catch. How was it that she had just performed "Chuck E's in Love," Rickie Lee Jones' groovy, mostly forgotten, late-70s folk-jazz hit on primetime Canadian television? It was a deep cut by one of my all-time favourite singer-songwriters and a pretty left field choice for a 22-year-old to be singing on TV in 2007. Where did she dig that up?
The Jepsen of Idol was almost naively earnest, a bit like Amy Adams in Enchanted — a sweet-as-pie Disney princess with a clear and reedy musical theatre voice, but with a hint of cheekiness to her aw shucks-isms (her schtick was cheese, but it was cheese informed by some element of taste and sass). Was it all a showbiz act, playing to the family audiences at home, and was she actually, maybe, secretly cool? Or at least a cool nerd? Did she actually, maybe, "get it"?
Despite Canadian Idol judge Sass Jordan's assertions that Ms. Jepsen was gonna be a star, I hadn't expected to hear from her again. Flash-forward a few years down the line — after labelmate Biebs tweeted out his appreciation for the pure-pop earworm "Call Me Maybe," spawning a worldwide viral video phenomenon of spontaneous, fan-made cover versions — and she suddenly had the song of the summer. Another surprising turn — homegirl made good on the international stage. It was a squeaky clean pop confection about the first blush of infatuation, except it also had a wink built in, when you scratched its surface. The song has some interesting lyrics that invert cliché and syntax ("Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad"), and Jepsen wasn't being particularly coy about how she handed out her number to hot men ("Ripped jeans, skin was showing"). A lot was made about the very teen-pop-like sentiment of the song about being expressed by a woman in her late 20s, but I was by this point a man in my mid-30s — newly dating again after a long period of coupledom — and though I didn't immediately love the track itself, it seemed to me that unbridled enthusiasm, romantic melodrama and horniness weren't the exclusive domain of the very young, and that particular dismissal of the singer and the song's merits was bizarre.
A year or two later, I was on the New York City subway and saw posters announcing Carly Rae Jepsen starring in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella on Broadway (opposite Fran Drescher, no less). That seemed about right. She was playing the Disney princess, and she was getting work — good for her — but she also seemed, well, like a one-hit wonder on her way back down.
That is until the spring of 2015, when a new single was announced to drop. I remember thinking it was possible something great was coming. At first, "I Really Like You" (accompanied by an inexplicably uncool video featuring nice-guy square Tom Hanks) seemed like a "Call Me Maybe" 2.0, but with closer listening, it revealed itself to be a total electro-pop banger and another paean to the gushing excitement of playing the field, as told by a 30-year-old grown woman. The singer "knows this isn't love," but really likes you, and you both keep finding yourselves in undisclosed positions, late at night, watching television. Was this good? It might be good.
Jepsen soon played the track on SNL and also debuted a new cut called "All That," a lite-80s synth ballad co-produced by Blood Orange's Dev Hynes (who you might know from his work with Sky Ferriera) and Ariel Rechtshaid (Charli XCX, HAIM). This was, unambiguously, meant to be cool — and it was. I hadn't made it up. And each successive cut I heard seemed to confirm this. When a second single, the sax-heavy, Debbie Gibson-esque "Run Away with Me" was released, it was obvious I was going to be spending some real time with this record. What I didn't anticipate was that the LP, dubbed E•MO•TION, would ended up on near-constant rotation for the several months that followed.
Song after song, the record hit that perfect note, combining John Hughes-hued production with emotional, heart-on-your-sleeve sophistication, while Jepsen sang about taking chances on love and sex at the risk of landing flat on her face. They were all incredibly catchy, but also incredibly heartfelt. She had emerged as an artist and writer with a voice who, though her collaborations with a variety of producers and co-writers (Jepsen's said to have recorded as many as 200 cuts in developing the album), was finding a way to marry her love of pop idioms with the confessional approach of her folk idols. In interviews, she was smart, articulate and magnanimous, and seemed to know just what she was after, positioning herself as the author of the new downtown attitude she was displaying (i.e. Disney princess gets a loft in the city and navigates hookup culture).
At the same time, she embraced couture, trading her long, safe, girl-next-door locks for a black, Joan Jett-style fashion mullet (that has since evolved into a bleach blonde bob). While it was, perhaps, an overly daring style experiment to go along with her evolution as an artist (a comment on the YouTube page for her "Boy Problems" video read only "Hair Problems"), it demonstrated a willingness to transcend narrow definitions. She was growing up, trying new things, finding out what she liked, getting over herself and letting loose, despite a culture that would have celebrities emerge fully formed. She was someone who had always wanted to be cool and had finally figured out how to do it.
E•MO•TION's bungled rollout (it was released a month earlier in Japan than the rest of the world, likely hurting its commercial prospects, as everyone interested could download it via file-sharing sites) and the album's hip, retro-poptimism contributed to a critical consensus that it was an overlooked gem — and that with her on-point sonic references and one-off chart-topper, Carly Rae Jepsen was an underdog worth championing. I drank this Kool-Aid and was quickly subsumed in complete Jephead-edness.
I wasn't the only one: every gay I knew was whispering about the album and was gobsmacked as to why they liked it so exceedingly. When, some months later, some friends and I decided to throw a pair of queer Carly Rae dance parties, we had lineups around the block. Why was all of this resonating so profoundly with an LGBTQ audience? Of course they didn't just come to dance (if you knew what she meant) but specifically to dance to songs that made them feel something.
Who can never be sure, but it occurs to me now that her previous, more basic pop LP, Kiss, had perhaps been a semi-awkward overcorrection, a shift away from her earnest, drama-club folkiness as she tried to figure out who she could be and the type of art she would make. Maybe shaking off some of her youthful preconceptions and pretences — Carly's twink phase, if you will — was a phase she had to go through to merge integrity and fun, and get to the more fully-realized, post-E•MO•TION iteration of her career that she was now enjoying. This is relatable. It gets better and it got better for Carly Rae Jepsen.
Gay male taste often seems to overlap with that of teenage girls, perhaps because there is a willingness to indulge and celebrate a sentimentality and extra-ness that straight adult culture dismisses as juvenile. I think the key to CRJ's embrace by a queer fanbase has a lot to do with her evolution from a charming geek into someone comfortable with being self-possessed, accessible and creative on their own terms, and with carving their own niche. Revelation: you can be a kind, fully-actualized person with good taste, a rich emotional inner life and an active sex drive who also loves a killer bop — all at the same time. Carly Rae is an interesting case of an adult woman artist who embodies all of these characteristics.
It makes sense that someone who displays a romantic girlishness in the work she makes, but with adult preoccupations and perspectives, would play well with a queer audience, since this dovetails with an especially queer narrative of perpetual self-discovery. Call it Peter Pan Syndrome (or whatever the lady version of that is), but maybe there's nothing wrong with that. Maybe it just takes some people longer to get where they're going than others — or maybe they don't get there at all, and opt to go get lost in the beauty of the scenery along the way instead. And maybe that's awesome.
HBD, Carly. I (and we) really like you.