A great deal of ink has been spilled about Carly Rae Jepsen. Among her following — who view her 2015 sophomore album Emotion as closer to scripture than pop music — she’s something of a chosen one: an unassuming hero who unlocked her hidden potential to save the world from a life without soul-affirming bops. Her impression as an everyday person with cinematic passions makes her an easy figure to route for and a blast to overstate, and thus she simultaneously occupies the status of pop’s underdog and its rightful heir. A third-place Canadian Idol with a viral hit gone the route of the populist Robyn, she’s the most common recipient of an exasperated, “Look, she’s way better than you think she is!”
And I know what you’re thinking: Do we really need more words about Carly Rae Jepsen, especially on this website?
I understand. Emotion was a road map detailing the experience of human romantic vulnerability to an overwhelming scale, which might be unwelcome if you’re afraid to face that sort of thing. Even if you are equipped to introspect and outerbelt at that level, there hasn’t been much new to discuss, especially since she’s stubbornly refused to play anything off her hotly-anticipated follow-up (though she has pulled from the excellent B-sides collection she released in 2016) during this current summer victory lap of festival sets.
But look, over the last two days I saw Carly Rae Jepsen perform twice in a row, first Thursday night at San Francisco’s classic 500-person venue the Independent for an Outside Lands “After Dark” performance, and then Friday at 5PM, when she then acted as the festival’s spiritual Day One headliner. If the matching Emotion mood rings I own with my housemates provide any signal, there was no conceivable way I was going to walk out of these shows without hundreds of my own words to offer.
Let’s start by addressing the elephant that sat in both the room and at Golden Gate Park: Someone gave Carly Rae Jepsen a sword last week at Lollapalooza. Thus, she finally dressed the part of a traditional hero and realized online prophecies to a degree that for just a split second wiped out any negativity existing on the internet. But alas, she never wielded a blade of any sort at either of the sets I bore witness to. Not even, like, a slingshot or something. Someone did bring an inflatable sword to her show at the actual festival, but never managed to get it on stage. But that lack of narrative accessory is truly the only disappointment I can note from her performances.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: A Carly Rae Jepsen show is a uniquely nerve-surging experience. Her band is tight, deftly moving through fluid melodies and locking into grooves that strut and rustle. And Jepsen herself is a pure professional, selling these songs like a ’70s diva from the most utopian impression of the era imaginable. She’s a consummate romantic, leaning into her mic stand, flipping her hair, wagging her finger and pointing and fist bumping to the crowd. Her intonation is both conversational and spectral, adding oomph to every syllable bounced back by her audience, still and especially in San Francisco comprised predominantly of bearded men (side note: the only time I’ve ever seen the line for the men’s room larger than the women’s was at Jepsen’s Gimme Love tour stop in SF a few years back). Every belt, yelp, little affectation — they are all pure aural confections. How she pronounced “luh-ost” during the bridge of “Lets Get Lost” might be my favorite pair of syllables uttered in recorded music, and she somehow tops that live.
The sets were almost identical between her Independent show and at Outside Lands proper. Both were pristine and heart-pounding spectacles, but the latter edged ahead in my book because of these songs are just better when they can be celebrated with more people. Jepsen’s a performer that fills to the brim the settings she occupies, so when you see her in a bigger space it just feels even greater and grander. The larger crowd only amplifies her momentum, which builds from music performed with the kind of committed swagger in her goofy dance moves that comes from knowing your songs are absolutely bulletproof.
The set drew a sharp contrast to the other pop exhibitions I saw at the festival grounds on Friday. The most notable contrast was against Billie Eilish. The 16-year-old is Spotify’s de facto pop ambassador, but she carries herself like a SoundCloud rapper, wearing an oversized T-shirt and shorts and throwing her weight around in a way that seemed not at all healthy for her injured foot (“I’m in a lot of pain right now,” she admitted 15 minutes into the set). Her style of simmering sad pop is like if Lorde followed the sound of “Royals” into the era of emo-tinged trap, making her probably the most fashionable pop star you could create from scratch. Adding to that distinctly contemporary persona was her brash, vague cursing delivered in a natural Bhad Bhabie lilt. At one point in the performance she played clips from New Girl as visuals, and then later did a melodramatic ukulele cover of “Hotline Bling.” She spit on the ground between songs.
You could never imagine Carly Rae Jepsen spitting on the floor. Comparably, Jepsen is probably the least du jour pop star for this age of open-hearted apathy. She’s overly genuine, and not in a trendy “Do you want to see my scars for fun?” kind of a way, but rather embodying the sentiment of “I love you so much, and I hope that doesn’t scare you.” Where Billie Eilish hyped her crowd by asking them, “Who here is sad right now?” as though it was a badge of honor, Carly Rae Jepsen implies that we all have been at one point so we might as well dance out our dismay together. She’s a totally different generation of performer, a student of a separate school — one of sparkly sequins and flowy tassels and fluttering stage presences — which all adds up to an experience that transcends its anachronism into something timeless.
A Carly Rae Jepsen performance will make you feel far more capable of fighting cynicism from your day to day. Her open-hearted declarations of unrequited love, with the mindset that she could turn over any obstacle by believing in her desires strongly enough, sent me out of her shows basically ready to hug away all my interpersonal conflict. I wrote 6,000 words on the Weeknd a few months ago, but I couldn’t help and respond to the typically entrancing numbed-out pathos of his Friday headlining set with outcries of, “But what about love!” “I ain’t got no business catchin’ feelings,” Abel sang out to the masses. But what if he tried cutting loose to them instead?
Truthfully, the subject matter of many of those Emotion songs is actually quite sad, but the spirits are always unanimously uplifting. When Jepsen busted out “Fever,” a song about disequilibrium in a breakup, she turned it into a shout-along moment of catharsis. “First Time” is a desperate plea to make work something that has already once failed, and yet the hopeful sentiment was so universally shared as to turn the track into some type of shared moment of gratitude for the joy of having faith at all. That’s the power of a Carly Rae Jepsen show: She doesn’t try and make you feel good in spite of whatever sadness you’re carrying. Rather, she makes sadness feel yet like an actively positive sensation. Because you feel something, and that makes you even more overwhelmingly alive. Why would you rather be anything else?