In Conversation with James Brubaker and Brad Efford about Carly Rae Jepsen’s Latest Album, Hanson, Robyn, and Top 40 Radio
Editor’s Note: One of the semi-regular features we want to bring our readers is a series of conversations between two writers about recent albums. For the first installment, Brad Efford and I shared some thoughts about Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, via email. We hope you enjoy. And, if you writers out there want to do one of these, get in touch. We’d love to have you.
Efford: Marfa's a strange half-town in west Texas where middle-aged art freaks, curious nameless tourists, and hip twentysomethings flock to in equal measure. Half of the street signs don't exist, making following GPS to some obscure empty kinda-art gallery almost impossible, and the presence of dusty butte-like mountains all around feels somehow both freeing and oppressive. This is a town that takes forever to get to for just about everyone who doesn't live out there in the middle of nowhere. It's a town with two bars, only one of which seems to be open at any given time, a bookstore where the books are mostly displayed on tables rather than shelved in any sort of sensical categorization, a laundromat that doubles as a cafe, and a food truck where, yes, Beyoncé once ate (and posed glamorously). It's not exactly outdated—if anything, walking through Marfa feels like taking a stroll through some place utterly out of time altogether: shuttered business, art studio, art gallery, shuttered business, windowless alt-weekly office, shuttered business, overpriced black-tie Italian restaurant, private residence, art gallery, boutique, shuttered business. A precocious child's approximation of adult life, or Wes Anderson's wet dream, in the wide-open west Texas desert.
I drove out to Marfa from Austin recently with my fiancée, a seven-hour drive that went from box stores and frequent signage in its first half to impossible stretches of endless empty two-lane highway in its second. Somewhere around Fort Stockton, the landscape starts to erase itself: taller trees shrink into tiny shrubs, the cacti lessen, even the cars, the townships, the gas stations feel like they're disappearing completely. Pumpjacks start cropping up instead, those steel drinking birds that gave the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre its signature creaking soundtrack. It's as though suddenly you're in the real Texas, the Texas of textbooks and movies and Rick Perry photo ops. And it was somewhere around here, feeling more alien than I'd felt in years, that we decided to put on Emotion.
Emotion is my favorite album of the year. I should say that upfront. Even hearing the opening siren blast the very first time I played the album in full, I was smitten. In the tradition of all my favorite contemporary pop music—Red, "Honeymoon Avenue," The 20/20 Experience, "Levels"—Emotion is both timeless and thrillingly only of its time, a paean to the synth-soaked eighties that elevates itself with each track above its contemporaries in the aughts. Listening to the thing on high volume, it's impossible to sit down, to remain still at all, and on headphones, the layers of production begin to peel away until you feel like you're Alicing down the damn rabbit hole and can't stop until you've uncovered every neon nook and cranny. I love every song, have heard them all a hundred times since mid-summer, but still I wasn't ready for the way they would mutate in the context of high Texas no man's land.
This is the longest way I've ever come around to a point masquerading as a question, but here it is: is there a place in today's pop culture landscape for Carly Rae's untethered enthusiasm? It's a question that first came to me as I drove past miles and miles (and miles...) of nothing but broken farmhouses and barbed-wire fences, blasting and joyfully shouting along to "I Really Like You." Here's a song that deals so boundlessly in positive feels and hopeful optimism, a song that would get even the crabbiest too-cool daddy-o grinning, and it's spiraling out gloriously through one of the most desolate environments around. Desolate, yes, but familiar in its desolation somehow.
Consider, if you'll humor me, the current state of our beloved American Top 40: "The Hills," one of the most despairing, haunted hit songs we've seen in a generation; "Hotline Bling," a terrific, hypnotizing song about refusing to accept someone for who they are (a theme neither particularly terrific nor hypnotic); "Wildest Dreams," my beloved Tay's uber-moody ode to regret, letting go, forgetting, looking back, etc. etc. Even the white-bread, upbeat "Stitches" is dark around its fringes, even "Lean On" (maybe especially "Lean On," really). Where is CRJ's place among this weight? Can a pure flash of strobing positivity break through the headiness? Am I just looking for reasons to explain to myself somehow why, exactly, Emotion hasn't broken the radio this year? There isn't a non-hit among its 12 songs; even 1989 (great in patches, but ultimately overrated, let's be honest here) has "How You Get the Girl" and "This Love." When should Emotion have come out? Is there ever a time when it might have fared well? Carly Rae's 29 years old—a real granny for a relatively fresh pop star. Could that be what keeps her light shining so bright, what turns her experiences into clear understanding and exuberant retelling? Or maybe Scooter Braun's just given everything to Bieber this year, and the hype machine that could have backed Emotion never got revving to begin with.
Am I making any kind of sense? How can such a good, marketable, positive record remain so untouched? If I keep sending it out into the empty desert, will it eventually fill the emptiness with love? Does anyone out there want it to?
So there it is—this album has the kind of uncynical heart and romance that isn't scandalous enough for the tweens, but a little too real for the grownups in the room. —James Brubaker
Brubaker: Those are all good questions, and maybe they can be boiled down to something cruder and more succinct—why in the ever-living-fuck is Emotion not one of the biggest album's of the year, Brad? You use words like exuberant, neon, and "strobing positivity" to describe the album—all apt words, but weirdly, bafflingly, infuriatingly, these qualities are probably the reasons that the mainstream has shied away from Ms. Jepsen's exquisite collection of pop songs. But let me back up a moment—
I came to Emotion after a summer in cars. I drove halfway across the country with my girlfriend, moving her from Los Angeles to St. Louis. In the car, we split our listening between streaming playlists and, when our phones couldn't find a signal or we were just too lazy to plug one of them in, Top 40 radio. During the ten days we were driving East, and then the month and a half that we drove around Missouri running errands and getting my girlfriend settled into her new digs, we heard a lot of popular songs—with "a lot" being relative, since we mostly heard the same fifteen songs over and over (and over and over) again. And what we heard ranged from the inspired (Tove Lo's "Talking Body," and Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood” ft. Kendrick Lamar, and The Weeknd's pair of summer jams, "The Hills" and "I Can't Feel My Face") to the fine, but gimmicky (Fifth Harmony's "Worth It"—I love the skronky sax riff, but c'mon, the song is a bit of a bore), to the enjoyable enough, but ultimately pretty safe and boring (OMI's "Cheerleader," Selena Gomez's "Good For You," and Rachel Platten's "Fight Song"), to the downright awful (I'm looking at you Andy Grammer and WALK THE MOON, for inflicting "Baby, I'm Good" and "Shut Up and Dance" on us). In that, for the most part, pretty inspiring and diverse field of pop songs, I notice two things—first, most of these songs have a lot to say about sex—the characters in Tove Lo's song "fuck for life," the asshole in the Andy Grammer song can't have another beer or he'll become the poster boy for infidelity, The Weeknd is, well, The Weeknd, and even Ms. Gomez wants to leave her "dress a mess" on her interlocutor's floor; and second, many of these songs draw on hip hop production—that nasty sax sample on "Worth It," guest spots from Kendrick Lamar on "Bad Blood" and A$AP Rocky's wildly unlikely pairing with Selena Gomez on "Good For You," and the dub-heavy production on the joyful—but ridiculously overplayed—"Cheerleader," to name a few. And that's radio—way into hip hop and sex. But not just into hip hop and sex—into hip hop and sex in a cynical, artificial sort of way. The hip hop comes in, in most of the songs (The Weeknd, excepted), in only the most surface ways possible—the guest verse, the ham-fisted sample—while the sex is kind of, well banal, the kind of sex that's perfect in songs aimed at college kids heading out for a night on the town and tweens, the kind of sex that could be a little bit dangerous, but only because it's about sex, and that, somehow, is inherently dangerous because we grew up in the suburbs and our parents were Catholic or whatever.
So where does Jepsen's Emotion fit into all of this? Well, it doesn't. Jepsen's album is earnest; it's sexy, but for people who have actually, you know, had sex, and, rather than trading heavily in the hip hop production trends of the day (there are, of course, elements of hip hop production across the album, but not much), her songs are fizzy throwbacks to eighties pop, perfect for soundtracking retro roller rink mornings. And on top of all that, Jepsen's lyrics are somehow both more wistful and more mature than most of what's on the radio. Sure, she opens the album imploring a lover to run away with her (with a little sex in the mix: "I'll be your sinner in secret") and later sings innocently about her "boy problems," but there's also a willingness, on "I Really Like You," to temper the exuberance of a new relationship by letting the possibly unreliable narrator distinguish between "love" and "like," or to find redemption through sex on "Making the Most of the Night" (“What I got you need it,” she sings, then: “making the most of the night”). Perhaps the most emblematic lyric on the album can be found in "All That," when Jepsen sings, "I'll be the magic you won't ever see." There, in that declaration of love, we see both the ecstatic romance, as well as the pragmatic maturity that, together, define Jepsen's work—in the relationship that the song describes there is, indeed, magic, but it's not smoke and mirrors and rabbits coming out of hats, it’s the sincerely felt, and quietly worked for love on which the relationships of many grown-ass adults subtly hinge.So there it is—this album has the kind of uncynical heart and romance that isn't scandalous enough for the tweens, but a little too real for the grownups in the room.
Could the problem truly be that Carly Rae Jepsen is just too good for our pop culture?
Efford: I really dig what you're saying about Carly Rae playing some serious hardball with hip-hop beatmaking, sex, darkness, and just about all else that makes Top 40 so near and dear to so many—this guy included. When I think of what you're talking about, I think primarily of what might be my favorite Emotion lyric, off album highlight "Warm Blood":
I've got a cavern of secrets / None of them are for you / Even if you wanted to keep them / Where would you find the room?
As the song's opening pair of couplets, they're exactly the sort of lines that offer up the strange, electrifying reality of adult love, of love that asks questions and challenges and is sexy in a way that connotes the word's prefix instead of something more like "sex-ish." Also: cavern of secrets.
But! But of course—of course!—in the same song, CRJ sings out, over and over, “You lift me up and catch me when I'm falling for you,” a line that's sugar-sweet and innocent and, at its base, nothing short of elementary. So, yes. Everything you're saying rings so true. Maybe this conflict is too much and not enough for culture all at once.
There's something else, though, that I think has been holding Emotion back from pop domination, and it's a trickier issue because in a way it's bigger than anyone can solve or configure. In short, I fear that three words killed Carly Rae Jepsen's career before it even could have really gotten off the ground: "Call Me Maybe."
Because being a one hit wonder has always been and always will be, in the inimitable words of Tracy Jordan, a blessing and a purse. The blessing, of course, is the hit song and all that comes with it: the brief spark of fame, the flash of money, the world stage for at least a perfect moment. The purse is worse, its effects longer-lasting and, I'd imagine, endlessly frustrating. Look at Hanson: in 1997, "Mmmbop" was inescapable, not just the song of the summer but the song of the year, maybe half-decade, maybe more. It was one of the first songs I loved (and one of my first cassingles), and I certainly wasn't the only one. Hanson would have other charting tracks off Middle of Nowhere, but nothing like their debut single, nothing even close, so much so that "Mmmbop" has eclipsed their entire career as a group.
And that's the kicker: Hanson's still around, has never broken up, in fact. And kicking further: 2010's Shout it Out doesn't just hold up to their legacy, as it may be—it demolishes it entirely. And—and!—the album's lead-off single, "Thinkin' 'Bout Somethin'" should have been a smash hit! It's a terrific throwback soul jingle—the radio loves that shit in summertime. So what the hell? Why will Hanson always be the butt of a joke 90s kids keep telling each other over and over?
It's the purse. And "Call Me Maybe" is, I really do think, Carly Rae's own little purse: a song so good, so terribly good, that it simultaneously created her career and blew it apart. It didn't help, either, that she picked "I Really Like You" as Emotion's first single—the blatant attempt to strike gold with another "CMM" was not only transparent, but misguided. I love the tune, but it's the least representative of its album's otherwise tight-knit, singular sound. "Let's Get Lost," "Your Type," "Run Away With Me"—all now singles off the record, I should add—would have been a better re-introduction for the new sound she'd concocted (and stolen and re-shaped).
What's a hit music maker to do? That debut single can make or break you—not big enough, and you fade away; too big, and you've doomed yourself. It's devastating, I suppose, but also it just makes underground rabid fanbases go rabider, burrow further underground. In some ways, it's thrilling just to be a part of it.
Brubaker: And that's a big part, for me anyway, of what makes Emotion such a fascinating album on a cultural level—it is one of the purest expressions of pop music this year, maybe of the past few years, but that purity—combined, and I think you're right, here, with a misguided rollout—somehow keeps it from breaking through. In a way, Emotion’s lukewarm sales have me thinking of another one of my favorite pop artists: Robyn. For years, I've been baffled by Robyn's inability to break through to some wider popularity, at least in the United States—Body Talk is still one of my favorite albums of the decade so far, is another ecstatic, adult set of crystalline pop songs. But somehow, despite that album's brilliance, and despite all the critical raves and the few minutes, a few years back, when "Dancing on My Own" was showing up seemingly everywhere, Robyn, like Jepsen, is somehow still stuck in the pop margins.
But you're right, Brad—there's something exciting about being excited about a pop artist outside the genre's mainstream. I'm not sure what the exciting thing is, exactly, but I suspect it's the traditional subcultural idea that this thing is somehow more yours, or ours, as it were. What I'm about to say is a bit ludicrous, but it reminds me of the way I felt when I first realized I liked Taylor Swift's music—my indie and metal and hip hop and experimental music minded friends thought I was nuts, and that made me, to borrow your word, burrow deeper into Swift's work; it made her songs feel heavier and, until I started having conversations about Tay Tay with relatives and my students, my fandom felt like it was mine—and that's how it feels to love Emotion. But identity politics aside, I know that this is a special album that somehow manages to feel both completely of the present, and a little bit nostalgic for pop's past, that blasts its raw vision of the three L's—that's love, like, and lust—all over the proverbial lens, like so much blood in a found-film slasher flick’s gorier moments, while simultaneously acknowledging the limitations of each one of those abstractions. And, as much as I enjoy burrowing down deeper with Emotion, I hope that this album finds some legs at some point down the road, even if it’s as an overlooked classic, pulled out of some dusty discount bin, if discount bins still exist, ten years from now.
That debut single can make or break you—not big enough, and you fade away; too big, and you've doomed yourself. It's devastating, I suppose, but also it just makes underground rabid fanbases go rabider, burrow further underground.
James Brubaker is the associate editor of the Collapsar and the author of Pilot Season and Liner Notes. His manuscript Black Magic Death Sphere: (Science) Fictions won the 2014 Pressgang Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southeast Missouri State University.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.