In 2012, you couldn’t go five minutes without hearing “Call Me Maybe.” It dominated the charts, and it’s probably the first song you think of when you think of that year, with the possible exception of “Gangnam Style.” But while the song’s impact on pop culture was undeniable, it also left Carly Rae Jepsen with a huge problem… how to avoid the dreaded status of one-hit wonderdom.
After the incredible success of “Call Me Maybe,” Jepsen and her label attempted to capitalize by rushing out a studio album while the song was still hot. The resulting album, Kiss, received lukewarm reviews from critics, and failed to produce another pop hit. At that point, it was hard to wonder if, after one flukey mega-hit, Jepsen would simply vanish from the public view.
For two and a half years, it looked like that was exactly how things were going to go down. Then came “I Really Like You,” which featured a video filled with celebrity cameos, including Tom Hanks, and Justin Bieber, who played a big role in making “Call Me Maybe” a big hit. By releasing this song, and announcing the album E-MO-TION, which comes out Friday, Jepsen made it clear she wasn’t going down without a fight. The question was if anyone was going to be interested.
For Jepsen, the bad news has been that none of the singles released from E-MO-TION so far have made much of a dent on the charts. Despite its star-studded video, “I Really Like You” peaked at just No. 39 on the Billboard Hot 100, while no other song from the album has charted. After the massive success of “Call Me Maybe,” the mainstream market has been surprisingly reluctant to embrace any of Jepsen’s new music.
But that doesn’t mean she isn’t making an impact. Rather than striking a chord with pop audiences, E-MO-TION has been heavily embraced by critics. The album currently has an incredibly high score of 84 on Metacritic, and has been praised as one of the best pop albums of the year (some have even gone as far as to say that it’s the album Taylor Swift wanted to write with 1989). Indeed, that was Jepsen’s goal; before the album came out, its stated intent was to “stop worrying about singles and have a critically acclaimed album.” The discord between the lack of commercial success for the album’s singles and its massive critical praise seems confusing, but the explanation could actually be quite simple: The audience for Jepsen’s music has shifted. Whereas she once appealed to the crowd of pop fans who heard “Call Me Maybe” based on Bieber’s recommendation, she now carries more cache among the indie crowd, who will embrace her music regardless of how it performs on the charts.
This is not especially surprising when you look at the personnel on E-MO-TION. On the track “Warm Blood,” she collaborates with Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend, while Dev Hynes, also known as Blood Orange, co-wrote the synthy ballad “All That,” which Jepsen performed on Saturday Night Live in March. Admittedly, there are some more mainstream songwriters involved here, as well – Jacob Kasher, who previously worked with Ke$ha, co-wrote “I Really Like You” – but the presence of so many indie-friendly names suggests that Jepsen was aiming for a sound that bucked radio trends when working on this album. Within that context, the fact that E-MO-TION hasn’t had a huge mainstream presence, but has won fans elsewhere, makes perfect sense.
When Jepsen rushed out Kiss three years ago, it was an obvious attempt to strike while the iron was hot, and it couldn’t help but feel calculated. Audiences saw what was going on, and the album flopped, failing to go gold in the U.S., despite the “Call Me Maybe” single going 9x platinum. Rather than continue to chase another “Call Me Maybe,” Jepsen made the smart decision to work on developing on her own sound, and, based on the newfound critical respect she has earned, it has clearly paid off. No, Jepsen will probably never have another hit as massive as “Call Me Maybe,” but she’s also no longer trying to, and that has been the biggest catalyst for her evolution as an artist. She’s no longer tied down by her one huge hit, and now, there’s nothing she can’t do.