It's a weird time to be Carly Rae Jepsen.
Make no mistake, it's a very good time to be her, too. She's about to embark on her first tour since going from "the girl who sang 'Call Me Maybe'" to career pop star on the strength of her pretty-much-perfect third album, Emotion. Save for that season when even your grandmother could complete the line "so here's my number…," she's never been more visible than right now.
But the opportunities afforded her lately have been—to borrow her enunciation—a little craaaaaaazy. A month ago, she got to live out her musical-theater dreams in front of the entire country, playing Frenchy in Fox's Grease: Live. In February, she sang a Christine McVie song at an all-star Fleetwood Mac tribute concert. She's on the soundtrack for the new Sims game, gibbering in nonsensical Simlish. Craziest of all, she recorded a new version of the Full House theme for the upcoming Netflix reboot, almost justifying the show's existence on its own. (Almost.) Four years ago, Jepsen created a unifying cultural monolith. Now, it's like she's skipping backward through time, asserting herself into pop-culture milestones of the past like a bubbly, Canadian Forrest Gump. (Oh yeah, she also danced with Tom Hanks in one of her recent videos.)
"It's fairly surreal, still. I think I squealed like my old 9-year-old self when I heard that Full House was an option," she says over the phone, ever chipper even while shivering through an apparently frigid day in New York City. "But that's what keeps this career so fresh and exciting for me. None of it has totally sunk in as real life."
For someone whose future, for a minute there, seemed like it was going to be restricted to appearing on Now That's What I Call the Late Aughts! compilations, Jepsen has achieved a kind of omnipresence. But here's what's truly weird about Jepsen's current moment: In the sheer commercial terms that are still used to measure success in the mainstream pop world, everything she's done since "Call Me Maybe" has been a disappointment.
Kiss, the 2012 album Interscope rushed out after that single went supernova, has sold only about 300,000 copies. For comparison, the debut album from Meghan Trainor, the singer whose "All About That Bass" grated its way into the zeitgeist in 2014, went platinum less than a year after release. When word got out that Jepsen was working on her follow-up with Pitchfork-approved producers such as Ariel Rechtshaid and Dev Hynes, critics eagerly awaited the results. Released last August, Emotion was hailed as a major artistic leap, a confirmation of her promise and one of the best pure pop albums of the decade. So far, it's on pace to sell worse than its predecessor.
It's a testament to how much those around Jepsen believe in her talent that she hasn't yet been driven upstate and abandoned at the Home for Underperforming Major Label Prospects. If you believe the press quotes from those with the most investment in her career, this is all by design, anyway—a means of getting her out of the shadow of her biggest hit and moving toward something richer and more lasting, without any pressure to produce another smash.
But it's left Jepsen in a curious position. As she prepares to go on the road, it's unclear exactly how big she actually is, and who is going to be in her audience. Tweens? Bearded music writers, present company included? At a recent show in Dallas, a reviewer described the crowd as "a demographically peculiar blend of gay men…and families with small children." He also noted that attendance was slight enough for the venue to close off the balcony.
For Jepsen's part, none of this stuff—sales figures, audience demographics—is anything she cares to devote much time worrying about.
"I just wanted to make music that I loved and wanted to share," she says. "To be honest, I probably never pay enough attention to how anything is doing sales-wise, and I'm in a lucky enough place where that's not my motivation."
Of course, that's what one might expect her to tell a journalist. But with her, it's easy to believe. In the modern pop battle royale, where everyone is expected to have a well-defined public identity, Jepsen has positioned herself as "the Normal One"—which is to say, she's basically opted out of the game altogether. She's never had a Twitter beef, has yet to date anyone gossip blogs would care about, and based on her Instagram, her only "squad" is her scruffy, anonymous backing band. If she really were concerned with how well Emotion was going to chart, she probably would've lobbed a couple pre-release subtweets at Selena Gomez, or dumped her cinematographer boyfriend for one of the 5 Seconds of Summer dudes.
Instead, Jepsen gambled that a big-budget pop album in the social-media age could rise or fall on the music alone. In the short term, it may have derailed any chance of her headlining stadiums or playing halftime at the Super Bowl. But Emotion is undeniably the work of an artist who is going to be around awhile.
On her previous album—which she now regards with some detachment—that wasn't entirely obvious, the confectionary genius of "Call Me Maybe" notwithstanding. Jepsen got knocked for coming across as too naive for her age, and the pervasive sugar-disco production didn't help. With Emotion, Jepsen has matured with, well, maturity. Getting famous at 26 allowed her to skip over the phase of asserting adulthood through aggressive sexuality, expressing instead a realization that hits everyone upon entering their 30s: that all those feelings we thought we left behind in our teenage years are never really going away. She crushes hard ("All That"), dreams of romantic escape ("Run Away With Me"), dumps one guy ("Boy Problems") while beating herself up over another ("Your Type"), and details the specific distinction between love and "really, really, really, really, really, really like" ("I Really Like You"). But the emotions could never be confused for high school, even if Jepsen's voice remains wide-eyed and preternaturally youthful.
Similarly, while her sound might be more "hip" this time out, that doesn't mean "darker" nor "grittier," only that the colors have changed shades. If Kiss had the palette of a mall candy store, Emotion glows neon. Unabashedly '80s in character, the synths strobe and throb, the bass slaps and pops, a saxophone cries out through the night. It's as if Debbie Gibson had the cachet to persuade peak Prince to get in the studio with her, and tooled every song to drill directly into the part of the brain that stores pure, unfiltered pleasure.
That it didn't sell is perhaps a referendum on the contemporary pop landscape, where consumers demand towering personalities to obsess over, not relate to. But while it's temporarily put Jepsen in flux—transitioning from Canadian Idol to cult idol, playing for gay men who know exactly what she means when she sings, "I didn't just come here to dance," while little kids wait for the song about the phone number—defaulting on her commercial expectations may ultimately prove liberating.
Going forward, she's expressed a desire for her music to get "even weirder"; she describes the stuff she's been working on lately as like "ABBA meets Feist." Her destiny, it would seem, is closer to that of Robyn—another artist who scored a huge international hit, then retracted to a critical favorite making unusual, exciting records—than someone like Taylor Swift, who must project "Tay Tay" at all times if she wishes to maintain her superstar status. That might betray the younger Carly, who used to lead imaginary parades down her childhood street and dream of performing on the biggest stages. But it suits the 30-year-old Carly much better.
"Who I've turned out to be, as I've gotten older, is more understated and a little less attention-seeking," she says. "I've realized I do like some privacy to my life, and I do like to have friendships based off nothing to do with my career. And I do like to be able to be a little bit of a mystery when it comes to who I am. Because I don't think any of us are just one thing. To have to pigeonhole yourself to pretend to be would be exhausting, at least for me."
SEE IT: Carly Rae Jepsen plays Wonder Ballroom, 128 NE Russell St., with Cardiknox and Fairground Saints, on Tuesday, March 1. 8 pm. $27.50 advance, $29.50 day of show. All ages.