The Week In Pop

Carly Rae Jepsen’s Joyous Low-Stakes Rom-Com Continues Unfettered

The television landscape in this era of Peak TV comprises many overlapping tiers and ecosystems. Within this moment of seemingly infinite choice, there are genres — dramas, comedies, talk shows, reality shows — but more importantly, there are target audiences. The style, subject, and stars of a program are not meaningless, but the more important questions are: Who’s watching? Where are they watching it? And are they buzzing about it online afterward? It’s why you might expect shows as theoretically disparate as The Good Doctor and Young Sheldon on the same DVR, and why viewers of Curb Your Enthusiasm probably also enjoyed Mad Men. It’s why some viewers are content with network primetime and why HBO was able to attract a certain type of viewer with the tagline, “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” It’s about the perception of prestige.

This hierarchy also exists within the music industry, a world that has always been far more expansive than Peak TV’s endless sprawl. As with TV, genre seems to matter less than which class of listener you’re appealing to. As with TV, much of the delineation is driven by critical acclaim, and certain kinds of work tend to receive a larger share of attention from tastemakers. But occasionally an exception comes bursting through the noise, and even in a time when critics and other self-appointed gatekeepers of cool are likelier than ever to take pop music seriously, Carly Rae Jepsen qualifies as a major exception. With Dedicated Side B, a new 12-song set released last Friday, she’s once again deserving of hosannas.

Jepsen, the Canadian pop singer who enjoyed a massive worldwide smash with “Call Me Maybe” in 2012, once seemed destined to become a one-hit wonder. Maybe for most people, that’s exactly what she is; “Call Me Maybe” is still the only Jepsen song you can be certain any random stranger will know, despite her Owl City collab “Good Time” also hitting the top 10. Yet with 2015’s E•MO•TION, Jepsen launched into a new career phase.

Musically, it wasn’t much of a pivot. She continued to specialize in sparkling, heart-on-sleeve pop music that could theoretically thrive on Top 40 radio, except it thrived in an entirely different context: Jepsen vanished from the radio and instead became a critically beloved cult favorite. E•MO•TION was a mainstay on year-end lists — this site ranked it all the way up at #3, below Grimes and Kendrick Lamar but above Vince Staples, Sufjan Stevens, and everyone else. The following summer, Jepsen played Pitchfork Music Festival, essentially opening for indie rock bands Beach House and Broken Social Scene.

Even coming off a decade when indie went pop and pop went indie, Jepsen represents an outlier among prestige pop stars in that her records don’t bear any of the usual earmarks of prestige. She’s not a massive superstar like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift, for whom each new release expands a vast mythology. She’s not an experimental auteur like Grimes or FKA twigs. She exemplifies neither the endless onscreen/offscreen drama of Sky Ferreira and Lana Del Rey nor the hipster club-queen edge of Robyn and Charli XCX. Her music is not decidedly artsy. There’s nothing grandiose about it. It’s just one impeccable pop song after another performed by an eminently likable singer.

The low-stakes pleasure is a big part of Jepsen’s appeal. Even as she has transitioned from singles artist to album artist, her songs have continued to be self-contained stories, not chapters in some larger narrative. She has managed to avoid scandal and has kept the twists and turns of her personal life to herself. Even when her songs are inspired by her own experiences, you never get the sense they’re supposed to function as commentary on her life, crammed with subtext to be mined out by stans like Lost fanatics deciphering Easter eggs or The Sopranos viewers debating what happened in the final scene. That kind of hypermodern pop stardom has its allure, but it can be exhausting — whereas freedom from the weight of extracurricular baggage makes Jepsen’s songs soar higher. It’s just really good pop music, the kind that can tingle your spine and amplify your emotions four minutes at a time.

It’s not that Jepsen has no persona — quite the opposite, in fact. She’s a distinctive presence with a carefully honed aesthetic, and she’s been laying claim to her lane ever since E•MO•TION popped off. In her music, she often comes off like a plucky sitcom protagonist whose depth is often underestimated because of her optimistic outlook and fundamentally cheery demeanor. Think The Mary Tyler Moore Show rebooted for millennials or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt without the traumatic backstory. Or maybe, given the standalone quality of each track, she’s less like one character than an actress who specializes in a certain type of role, like Audrey Hepburn or Meg Ryan hopping from one romantic comedy to the next, forever tracing the path from stomach-fluttering flirtation to euphoric romance to crushing heartbreak to post-breakup resilience.

The soundtrack for these exploits usually hearkens back to the 1980s, a time when the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson were pioneering the larger-than-life imperial pop stardom of today but most singers were just trying to cut as many fire singles as they could. On E•MO•TION, Jepsen teamed with a mix of mainstream hit-makers (Shellback, Greg Kurstin, Sia, Peter Svensson) and indie-adjacent cool kids (Dev Hynes, Rostam, Ariel Rechtshaid, Haim) to carve out a bespoke alternate history of that moment, a brighter alternative to the pervasive glamorous gloom of the influential Drive soundtrack. From that opening saxophone blare on “Run Away With Me” onward, Jepsen has been running wild through a pristine synthetic wonderland, becoming an icon of effervescence along the way.

But what happens when the breath of fresh air starts to go stale? In sound and substance, Jepsen’s releases since E•MO•TION have adhered strictly to her personal brand. First came 2016’s Emotion: Side B, a set of solid outtakes that understandably did not deliver the same glimmering rush as the tracks that ended up on the album. The towering 2017 one-off “Cut To The Feeling” lived up to its title, but a proper follow-up was still two years off. And when Dedicated finally arrived last year, it was… fine? The album did not lack for highlights, particularly in its opening stretch, yet in sum it felt forced and underwhelming, like the work of people who were very intentionally trying to recapture the lightning that had coursed through E•MO•TION. Her core fan base remained delighted, but Carly Rae Jepsen now sounded like she was doing a bit.

Perhaps Dedicated Side B benefits from the absence of all that pressure. These 12 tracks are once again leftovers from Jepsen’s album sessions, a pool of material supposedly more than 200 songs deep. Yet track for track they’re at least as good as the original Dedicated offerings, if not better, and they hang together much more naturally. When you’ve spent almost half a decade choosing between dozens upon dozens of songs, your judgment can become clouded. We must now consider the possibility that Jepsen simply chose the wrong songs last year because this collection of outtakes is easily her most satisfying release since E•MO•TION.

Right away, the Jack Antonoff collab “This Love Isn’t Crazy” finds liftoff; it sounds like hearts swirling around Jepsen’s head until they blur into neon glow of the dance floor. The plea for transparency “Window” is even better — a bass-popping, finger-snapping midtempo bop crafted with Vulfpeck’s Theo Katzman and relative unknown Tyler Andrew Duncan. The fizzy “Felt This Way” somehow manages to be crisp and soft-focus all at once, and then its sister song “Stay Away” explodes back from the mirage in bright, bold colors. Both Dev Hynes and Warren Oak Felder of Pop & Oak had a hand in the strutting, squelching “This Is What They Say,” while Ariel Rechtshaid and Chiddy Bang (the rapper who once flipped MGMT’s “Kids” into a novelty hit) molded “Heartbeat” into one of Jepsen’s prettiest, most resonant ballads, one that lets her conjure her signature vulnerability: “And I don’t wanna tell you/ Anything about me/ ‘Cause everything about you/ Is speeding up my heartbeat.”

The second half is nearly as rewarding. Jepsen plays around with rock sounds on the bass-grooving “Summer Love” and the frantically upbeat “Let’s Sort The Whole Thing Out.” She taps into one of her most exciting lyrical modes on the synth banger “Solo,” counseling a friend to get over themselves and enjoy life: “So what? You’re not in love!” On the other hand, the loose, airy, Noonie Bao-assisted closer “Now I Don’t Hate California Anymore” shows Jepsen can widen her lane to make room for feelings less extreme than rapture and irrepressible perseverance. Turns out there’s room for versatility even if you aren’t building out your catalog into an extended universe.

Ironically, only the inert “Fake Mona Lisa” hits like counterfeit CRJ. Meanwhile the ballad that seems least obviously like a Carly Rae Jepsen song could work as this project’s mission statement. Antonoff’s band Bleachers is featured on “Comeback,” and melodically it sounds like something he might have originally pitched to Taylor Swift for Lover — that is, when it isn’t borrowing heavily from Donna Lewis’ timeless “I Love You Always Forever.” Yet the lyrics sum up the way Dedicated Side B steps back from the prior album’s “Carly Rae Jepsen” routine. “I was thinking ’bout making a comeback, back to me,” she sings on an early chorus. Later that line morphs a bit: “I was thinking that maybe you’ll come back, back to me.” I was thinking the same thing. It’s unlikely many of her fans tuned out in the first place, but it’s time for those of us who were losing interest in the Carly Rae Jepsen show to tune back in.

CREDIT: Prince William/Getty Images

CHART WATCH

Future’s High Off Life debuts atop the Billboard 200 this week, becoming his seventh #1 album. Billboard reports that the LP moved 153,000 equivalent album units, mostly via streaming; only 16,000 of those units derive from actual sales, and many of those bundled the album with other merchandise. Nonetheless, it surpasses DS2’s 151,000-unit opening frame to become Future’s biggest debut ever.

Entering at #2 with a career-best 99,000 units and 14,000 in sales is Polo G’s The G.O.A.T.. The totals surpass both the chart peak (#6) and first-week units (38,000) of last year’s Die A Legend. After Lil Baby, Drake, DaBaby, Lil Uzi Vert, the Weeknd, and Post Malone comes Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit’s Reunions at #9. It’s technically the album’s second week on the charts because Isbell put it on sale a week early through indie retailers. Now that it’s widely available, it accrued 35,000 units, up from 7,000 last week. Last week’s #1, Nav’s Good Intentions, rounds out the top 10.

Due to Memorial Day, the Hot 100 singles chart top 10 won’t be revealed until Tuesday. We’ll update this section when the info goes public.

UPDATE: As promised, here’s the rundown on the Hot 100. We have a new #1! After peaking at #2 two weeks ago, Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé’s “Savage” has surged from #5 to the top of the chart, becoming Megan Thee Stallion’s first #1 hit and Beyoncé’s seventh. As Billboard reports, Beyoncé becomes the second artist to top the chart in the 2000s, 2010s, and 2020s following Mariah Carey — and if you count her 1999 #1 with Destiny’s Child, she joins Carey is the only artist to hit #1 in four separate decades.

Two recent former #1s are next, Doja Cat and Nicki Minaj’s “Say So” remix at #2 and the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” at #3. DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar” climbs to a new #4 peak, surpassing the #6-peaking “Suge” to become DaBaby’s highest-charting song ever. Drake has #5 and #6 on lockdown with “Toosie Slide” and the Future collab “Life Is Good.” The rest of the top 10: Roddy Ricch’s “The Box,” Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now,” Justin Bieber and Quavo’s “Intentions,” and Post Malone’s “Circles,” spending its record 38th week in the top 10. Notably, last week’s #1 song, “Stuck With U” by Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber, is out of the top 10 entirely, as is “Gooba” by their adversary 6ix9ine.

POP FIVE

Lady Gaga & Ariana Grande – “Rain On Me”
“I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive” is a hell of a hook, the production is a Eurodance tidal wave, and you can feel the genuine bond between resilient Italian queens Gaga and Ari. This is just about perfect.

Deadmau5 & The Neptunes – “Pomegranate”
Really surprised Pharrell didn’t put his own name on this — the potential to be a summer hit seems high, especially given the way this calls back to his work with Daft Punk.

The Weeknd – “In Your Eyes (Remix)” (Feat. Doja Cat)
Before Doja Cat’s online scandal blew up, my thoughts on this track were as follows: “I really think Abel could have gotten ‘In Your Eyes’ to #1 with a “Blinding Lights”-style radio push, but if he must stoop to the remix game, it’s interesting to hear how much Doja Cat’s presence steps this one out of his world and into hers.” Now my thoughts are: This is like when the Weeknd had to disavow H&M! And is there a chance all this negative attention might perversely work in this song’s favor?

Tove Lo – “sadder, badder, cooler”
Tove Lo really is sadder, badder, and cooler than your average pop star, isn’t she?

Ellie Goulding – “Power”
Seems like Ellie Goulding songs don’t really blow up anymore, but this one should.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • On 6/6 YouTube’s virtual commencement Dear Class Of 2020 will be headlined by Barack and Michelle Obama and feature appearances by Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, BTS, Maluma, Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat, and more. [YouTube]
  • Sam Smith shared a cover of Coldplay’s “Fix You.” [YouTube]
  • Country star Morgan Wallen was arrested for public intoxication after being kicked out of Kid Rock’s bar. [Tennessean]
  • Calvin Harris says his heart stopped in 2014. [Billboard]
  • Megan Fox stars in rumored boyfriend Machine Gun Kelly’s “Bloody Valentine” video. [YouTube]
  • Finneas is searching for the guy who stole packages off his porch along with his doorbell camera. [Billboard]
  • Clean Bandit and Anne-Marie did a socially distant “Rockabye” for International Nurses Day. [YouTube]
  • BTS’ Suga released a new mixtape under his Agust D alias. [NME]
  • Titus Burgess released a new future-pop song called “Dance M.F.” [Rolling Stone]
  • Marshmello made quarantine treats with TikTok star Charli D’Amelio. [YouTube]
  • Doja Cat sang “Say So” from home for Radio 1’s Big Weekend. [YouTube]
  • Cardi B got a huge new floral tattoo. [Instagram]
  • Sheryl Crow, Florida Georgia Line, Lady Antebellum, Thomas Rhett, and Brantley Gilbert were among the Big Machine Label Group artists who sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” from home for NBC’s Indy 500 Special: Back Home Again. [YouTube]

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