Music

The Little Black Hole In Carly Rae Jepsen’s Golden Cup

I wanna play this for you when you’re feeling used and tired

A song is a trick to let the light in. It’s a feeling pushed outside the body, emotion compelled to become sound. We listen so we can go there together, somewhere else. I play a song for you and hope it will help you know me. Did you like it? I ask, but that’s not really what I’m asking. This song is a place — this feeling is where I live. I want to know if you will go there with me. A feeling is a place we go together. A song is a shortcut back, even when you won’t come with me anymore. I tell you I like songs about pain and desire. No one talks like that, you say. But I am not talking. I think I am singing.

E•MO•TION is Carly Rae Jepsen’s third full-length album. Those syllables are important. Say it slow like the dictionary pronunciation demands. Maybe you thought it was her second album. The “Call Me Maybe” girl? Maybe you thought it was her only album. Maybe you’ve never even thought about it that much at all. You are not good with dates and facts like that. You don’t like pop music that much. You don’t like feelings that much. E•MO•TION is her third album, yes, but the first she’s released since the hyperspeed ascension of “Call Me Maybe.” It came out exactly one year ago today.

You can crawl inside a song like it’s a place, and I guess that this must be the place, and the songs stick to us like sweat, glistening close to our skin (I remember being naked). You hear the song and I watch you move instinctively, sweetly. We are moving to the feeling together; our bodies understand how to get to this place without speaking. It was never the bar, it was never the dress, it was never even the kiss. It was always the feeling. I’m even more sure of it now that it’s gone. Put me on loop. Am I stuck in your head? Maybe our bodies are just prisms for the songs to pass through like light. Or maybe my body is singing to you. It is saying: Baby, take me to the feeling.

***

When songs off E•MO•TION began to emerge last year I was living inside of my longest heartache, the one that bled the most. It seemed the pain was lodged in my body like a smashed bullet, a sliver of anguish that would flare up if I moved the wrong way, smearing my vision with darkness. I think grief remains the most foreign of all human emotions. It must be a blessing or evolutionary design that a thousand tragedies later we remain puzzled by loss. I find it endearing that I forget what grief feels like when I’m not in it, that I’m incredulous, still, every time something ends, every time someone leaves me. Wasn’t it supposed to be eternal? Didn’t you feel that too? Where were you for me, when I needed someone?

I would say I used to listen to E•MO•TION when I was numb, but that’s not quite right. I was trying to fall out of love and finding it incredibly difficult. It does not seem like an album full of love songs would’ve been comforting during this time. Strangely, it was, even if a year later, verses like ghosts still suck the breath out of me. I physically recoil at unexpected contact with certain choruses, like burning myself on something too hot, sucking my fingers afterward. This part is you moving in the dark. That hook is when I first understood you would leave me. Her voice — there — is when I realized I didn’t care, I would stay anyway, as long as you let me.

If my connection to this record is unlikely, it is not as unlikely as the record itself. Synopsis: A one-hit-wonder puts out an entirely perfect album of diverse, brilliant songs three years after her initial hit came out — and sells next to zero copies. Or maybe these two unlikely things are exactly the same. Maybe the meaningless clack of commercial success corresponds directly to the vacuum love leaves when it’s gone. After all, success is another kind of leaving. When you’re struggling you can’t grasp the worth of that urge — to make it, to show them, to find him — how could you know, then, that the before is worth more than the after? How could you know, then, that desire is its own reward? I think E•MO•TION wouldn’t be as meaningful if we had to share it with capitalism’s steely machinery; its commercial failure is part of what makes it continue to feel intimate, ours. I think love matters more to us once we lose it.

***

What else is there, after you’ve put out one of the biggest pop songs in the world? I wonder all the time about the determination it took on Jepsen’s part to make E•MO•TION. Though Jepsen’s public demeanor belies this, it must have taken an astonishing fierceness to follow up to the winking, cupcakey sing-a-long “Call Me Maybe” with E•MO•TION. I imagine we are hearing what we almost got on “I Really Like You.” If she lost the battle they’d all sound like this. I still think that song is good, but it’s just not of the same caliber as the rest of the record. It’s not a love song. I get emotional when I think about her fighting for these songs. I start to cry. I wonder if she knew, making the album, that it was doomed from the start. I think she knew, but hoped it would somehow work out anyway–like we do with all our greatest loves. I wonder about the moment she realized. F*ck, this isn’t working. Then again, there are many ways to measure success.

For a struggling singer-songwriter, the commercial triumph of “Call Me Maybe” seems like it would’ve been a coup. But for an artist like Jepsen, I imagine the initial rush quickly dwindled to a skeletal emptiness. I imagine the desire to make songs that live and move like flesh became urgent for her, unshakeable, inescapable. I imagine her frustration, that with everything else she knew was inside of her this — this — became her calling card; the pop star equivalent of ringtone rap, all cash no value. Sometimes I think of E•MO•TION as an emblem for every creative woman I know, each and every one that the world has undersold, gaslit, and belittled. You will encounter a lot of Big Opinions about this album. It’s just her collaborators who made it good. The Dev Hynes track is great, but that’s it. Only the bonus tracks are good.

Who is she again?

Are you talking about the “Call Me Maybe” girl?

Creative women are so often saddled with a single accomplishment, a begrudged victory point before they are diminished and categorized, placed carefully on history’s shelf. Our culture continually bends over backwards to set mediocre men up for greatness, yet punishes women whenever they try to reinvent themselves. No one expected this one-hit-wonder Canadian to put out one of the best pop albums in the last twenty years. They are still trying to take it away from her. But this b*tch didn’t just come here to dance.

***

E•MO•TION is a collection of songs about bodies, how they fit together and fall apart, the places they go, how tired they get. It’s about running away and staying, it’s about moving on and pricking the same old wounds on the same old needle. Most pop songs are erected around the idea of a feeling, scaffolding on the building. E•MO•TION isn’t like that. The emotions in these songs are complicated… and sort of weird, you know, the way real human love is. That’s probably one of the reasons this album didn’t hit the radio-mush-money lizard-brain sweet spot; these are songs like bodies, they have flaws and quirks, they all move differently. That’s also what makes them lovable. You will love them, as you spend time with them, because of the freckle, birthmark, nervous tick. A song is the closest we can come to making a feeling physical, and feelings live inside of bodies. So do songs. Emotions don’t live inside our phones, no matter how close we get to these horrible, hypnotizing devices. There’s no calling on this album, no phones, save one — and it’s a message from a friend, not a lover. Leave him, she says.

***

Traditional album reviews bore the hell out of me, but every single song on this album deserves to be massaged with words. Every single minute, really, starting with the impish skronk of a saxophone solo on “Run Away With Me” and not quitting till the final crowing on “Favourite Colour.” (I’m going off the deluxe album version here, you should too.) Even the weakest track, “I Really Like You” has that confetti adoration chorus, a nod to Passion Pit.

I love the greedy, ballooning suck of “Gimmie Love,” with the inexplicable (or completely logical) baby talk spelling, like the extra “i” underlies the delicious selfishness of the song’s shy commandment. This is a wallflower demand for consenting adults; carnal knowledge in a hair-twirled bubblegum jolt. Yes, it f*cking feels good to hear sex veiled as love. Even grownups can find pleasure in euphemisms. The moony, marbled “All That” almost upstages the whole record — Dev Hynes’ll do that — but then the Cyndi Lauper-esque girl-power strut of “Boy Problems” comes on like a burst, and you almost forget anything ever came before it. This song, a balm, acknowledges without judging, finds sisterhood in our collective struggle with the men we love, and relegates that drama to second place one time.

I’ve already written extensively about my personal favorite “Making The Most Of The Night,” a song about loving someone who is still deeply wounded from their last relationship, and trumpets a now-or-never fling as healing. Gunning on night-drive moonlight and enormous Phil Collins drums, it turns a casual romantic encounter into rebound-as-medicine; an adventure led not by our wounded hero, but a rescuing woman. A fleeting moment, it argues, can eclipse the broken commitments of the past, if you time it just right. And if it can’t eclipse them, at least it can throw things into the correct light, revealing what else can gleam. It also includes the best usage of the word “hijack” in pop history, or hell, maybe ever. (I told you these songs were weird.)

Another highlight is “LA Hallucinations,” a “New York State Of Mind” for Los Angeles. By which I mean it casts the city’s gorgeous glory into view without glossing over its inherent sadness: There’s a little black hole in my golden cup. Can we sidetrack long enough from the Gregorian chant synths on the track for me to tell you about the part, 22 seconds in, where Carly just spontaneously giggles? I want to press this moment into your hand like a talisman to ward off evil spirits. It makes me want to go there, and I am going there, and that means I am leaving you. But her laugh reminds me there is joy in LA, too, and after all, what use would the golden cup be if it stayed full?

***

E•MO•TION is an album about trying to get your heart back. Or it’s about turning the spigot to let your love gush out, knowing all the while you’re going to have to wrench it closed way too soon. A good album always feels like a time capsule to me. Songs remind us that we were here; we felt this, we lived it. (Please don’t go, look real close.) More importantly, songs remind me that I survived. They remind me that I forgot the pain last time, that I will again. Grief is a puzzle we will never solve, tricked out of us only by time. But songs are a safe place to let our emotions be eternal when everything else passes. These songs prove to me that we weren’t a hallucination. They let me stay in love with you for exactly four minutes and thirteen seconds. I want to say: I will make a home for us inside this song when you don’t live in my phone anymore, when our bodies forget each other and the smile leaves your eyes. But I’m not talking.

On good days, “Favourite Colour” (Canadian, eh?) edges out “Making The Most Of The Night” as my favorite song on the record. This song is like trying to lick an ice cream cone before it melts onto your hand. This song is like when you’re making out in public, trying not to devolve into heavy petting. This song is like waking up next to someone and wanting to f*ck them before both of you can even get your eyes open. It’s like when the sky turns the color of love just before sunset. It’s like when I can feel you looking at me. It’s a trick, to let the light in. It’s a feeling, a place we go together. I’d like to play it for you, but you’re already gone. I want to say: Baby, take me to the feeling. Then leave me there alone so it can be immortalized, an insect in amber. A song is a shortcut back, even when you won’t come with me anymore. I think I am singing.

Get E•MO•TION here.

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