What Carly Rae Jepsen’s new album proves she gets right about pop

Photo courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Photo courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

Samuel G. Reece | @_samreece, Contributing Writer

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It’s been more than a few weeks since Carly Rae Jepsen released her latest album, “Dedicated.” It was unclear whether Jepsen would ever be able to recapture the heights of her last album, “Emotion,” and certain that a lesser feat would inevitably shade the first. However, Jepson exceeded expectations.

When I’ve got a lot of work to do – stuff to memorize, an essay to write, a midterm’s worth of studying to do – I often turn on a 1950s Doo-Wop playlist. It’s just enough movement, often just enough pining for a 1950s vision of driving around on a late summer’s night, and just simple enough to keep me in a good mood while simultaneously tuning it out. I can choose to listen whenever I need to, to float for a few moments on teenage angst and pining first love, nothing too serious at all. It’s just exactly what I love about pop music. By this, I mean a broad kind of American popular music: the consequenceless of pure, unchecked feeling. And, like no other pop artist today, Jepsen gets that.

Like “Emotion,” “Dedicated” is a pitch-perfect testament to its genre, a pop masterpiece that captures something illusory and fleeting, a soulful, boutique version of the Billboard charts that feels at once handcrafted and designed for popular demand. Jepsen displays a deep love for the genre she has chosen, a deep bench of influences – Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall’s 1980 musical adaptation of “Popeye,” of all things, gets a major shout-out – and eras on which she draws. Jepsen knows intimately the era of pop we live in, full of features and mass-produced hits, and comfortably decides to take a step back, relish in the bubblegum of the 1980s and evoke the feel of even earlier eras of pop history.  If “Emotion” was the sound of a long summer’s night, with songs like “Let’s Get Lost” and “Gimmie Love,” drawing on a long history of late-night torch songs about cars and dark streets, “Dedicated” is an album that explores the long arc of a relationship and ends with a decidedly Jepsen flare for independence with “Party for One.” 

In fact, “Party for One” sums up much of Jepsen’s allure, from across her discography. It’s a song that will inevitably play on the eternal cycle of the Fresh Foods playlist; not quite a hit, but perfectly recognizable and inoffensive background pop. And yet, the story it tells (“If you don’t care about me/I’ll just dance for myself”) is fundamentally Jepsen. Her songs are almost always about her. Jepsen speaks to introvert sensibilities, embracing that unfiltered pop sensibility and  always expressing her narrator’s internal anxieties and hopes. Those hopes and needs are centered on a fundamentally female experience, never shying away from female experiences and feelings. One of the best tracks on “Emotion” is “Boy Problems,” co-written by Sia; even a song seemingly about a breakup is really about a fight with a best friend (“I think I broke up with my boyfriend today, and I don’t really care/I’ve got worse problems”). A new song, “I’ll Be Your Girl,” like many of Jepsen’s love ballads, shies away from talking about the other party, and instead focuses, again and again, on Jepsen’s yearning, (“Find me here again/I’ve got nothing left, like a little protest.”) all I and Me instead of You or Him. 

“Dedicated” is an album that couldn’t be made in any year but 2019. It has a big, techno-beat driven sound, shaped very explicitly in an editing booth. Some of Jepsen’s best vocal performances are when she’s harmonizing with herself. “Dedicated” often strips down to her vocals more than “Emotion,”with a more intimate, close sound. Unlike much of the pop charts, Jepsen is very much choosing to focus on soaring, simple pop melodies that sound something closer to mid-tier 80s hits or even disco beats. It’s a deliberate callback to a post-rock, pre-hip-hop era, but it’s simultaneously modern, contemporary and 2019, in a way that makes clear it isn’t throwback. It’s an alternate vision for the genre, a choice to search for that Doo-Wop sensibility, to be intimantly and certainly capital-P Pop while being something different from the current hits. “Dedicated” proves that Jepsen seems content to be a mid-tier artist, to make music she enjoys instead of searching for top-of-the-charts glory. 

Like “Emotion” before it, I can listen to “Dedicated” on repeat. Like “Earth Angel,” “Sixteen Candles” or “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” it’s music that exists in a perfect, vanishing feeling. There’s something about good pop that disappears as soon as you listen to it, three minutes of pure feeling you’ll do a lot to recapture. Jepsen gets that and “Dedicated” proves she’s still making pop that’s different, but somehow still surely and completely pop.