Four years ago, Carly Rae Jepsen inflicted "Call Me Maybe" upon the Hot 100, topping the charts for seven weeks straight. At the peak cultural saturation of "Call Me Maybe," Jepsen wasn't a star so much as a viral meme, and she quickly receded into anonymity once her lead single fell from the charts and out of pop radio rotation. At the top of 2012, Carly Rae Jepsen had eclipsed Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, and then a few weeks later she was, effectively, a nobody.
Carly Rae Jepsen has long-term admirers, however. At least three of them work here at Complex, to my surprise. I sat down with Senior Editor Foster Kamer to hear him sing Carly Rae's praises, and to have him explain the genius and appeal of this so-called one-hit-wonder who's now back in our lives with not just one, but two potential hit records, "I Really Like You" and "All That," which feature some of the most impressively romantic pop songwriting out right now. Meghan Trainor, watch your back. Taylor Swift, protect ya neck.
CHARITY: Deathmatch: Carly Rae Jepsen, or Taylor Swift?
FOSTER: If we’re talking about the two of them, even though they look almost identical...
—they don’t look identical...
—we’re talking about two entirely different people in form and function. Carly Rae Jepsen is almost 30, maybe older.
I remember being surprised by that fact when “I Really Like You” came out, and I looked her up.
She’s 29. She’s one year younger than me. Taylor Swift is like 24. [Editor's Note: She is 25.] With Taylor Swift, there’s just something inherently dishonest about her music. It’s a little more coy. When Taylor Swift is singing “Mean”—someday I’m gonna live in a big ol’ city, and you’re gonna be mean, you’re a fucking critic—Taylor Swift has such a good life, and nobody’s bullying her around, and the music critic she was writing that song about is some bullshit music critic that nobody even gives a shit about.
That’s how I feel about Taylor Swift’s music in general, and especially in terms of her singing about relationships. It’s also how I feel about Drake. They have this incredibly propagandized sense of their romantic selves, and people buy into it as if it’s sincerely “vulnerable,” when really it’s self-interested and disingenuous.
It’s disingenuous and manipulative. Totally.
The thing about Carly Rae Jepsen is, when she’s singing about the things she’s singing about, you don’t get the sense that her songs are top-loaded with that kind of emotional manipulation. She’s just making pop music for the sake of pop music. She doesn’t yield bait for the Internet to interpret, so the thrill of her music is weighted with all of those different things.
Carly Rae Jepsen represents harmlessness. She isn’t a Bad Girl or anything like that. She’s not Ariana Grande, who hates all her fans. Nothing with Carly Rae Jepsen is loaded.
when CARLY RAE JEPSEN is singing about the things she’s singing about, you don’t get the sense that her songs are top-loaded with emotional manipulation. —Foster kamer
But some of her songs, “Call Me Maybe” and “I Really Like You” in particular, are embarrassing. She’s thirsty. Her music is thirst music, and it codes as incredibly honest to me.
No matter what age you’re at, if you’ve ever been infatuated with someone, these songs are what it is. That’s where Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande get cut out of this conversation; with them you always get the sense that the stories they’re telling and the lives they’re occupying are always in the world of privilege and beauty. Carly Rae Jepsen isn’t the most beautiful of these women, and you never get the sense that she’s loaded and rich out of her mind. There’s not much context for her other than her singing a super catchy song. Knowing the context of these people lends a meta-narrative to everything they sing and do. With Carly Rae Jepsen, there’s not really a meta-context, or no one’s really interested in it. I don’t have to think of anything else when I’m listening to her music.
Even people who hear “Call Me Maybe” right now, they’re not going to be able to hear it and immediately think, “I remember what that person looks like, I know who she is.”
Did you initially take Carly Rae Jepsen seriously? A lot of people didn't, and don't. Why do you take her seriously now?
I took a side-gig where I had to work overnight with a buddy of mine. He was doing a catering gig, and I was his sous chef. We had to get up at 3 a.m. and make our way out to this auxiliary kitchen in New Jersey, where we had to cook for seven hours. From 3 in the morning to 10 in the morning. We didn’t have an iPod dock or anything, so someone just put on an FM radio, onto a pop station. “Call Me Maybe” was in heavy rotation at that point. I heard it for the first time on this FM radio station, which is fitting. I really, earnestly listened to it for the first time on this pop radio station. I heard “Call Me Maybe” six times over an eight-hour period. When I heard it in that context, I thought, “This is catchy, dumb, stupid, but it’s a totally real song! Call you maybe, indeed!”
It’s those dumb feelings of being infatuated, and I guarantee that whether you’re 12 or you’re 60 years old, that’s what infatuation is like. Carly Rae Jepsen nails those ideas really well. Later I ended up on her Spotify page, because a friend told me that other songs of hers were really dope. This wasn’t someone I necessarily trusted, but it wasn’t someone I didn’t trust. I’m talking about her album Kiss. I heard “This Kiss” and “Tonight I’m Getting Over You,” and they’re both fucking great. “This Kiss” just has a really good beat driving it; as a pop song, it’s not brilliant. There’s also something weirdly chaste about it. It’s sexy but chaste, and that’s a really old pop formula. “Tonight I’m Getting Over You” is just a really dope, explosive chorus.
Also, that song isn’t chaste at all. “Tonight I’m Getting Over You” is sexual and dangerous. At face value it’s a post-breakup song, but the songwriting is, effectively, “I’m going to go fuck someone else now.”
“I’m going to go to a club and get some dick.” That’s what “Tonight I’m Getting Over You” means. It’s not, “I fucking hate you,” it’s, “I was really sad and in love with you, and I still am in love with you, but I’m going to do whatever I can to get over you.” It’s a great love song.
There’s sexuality in Carly Rae Jepsen’s music, but it’s not writhing sexuality. Maybe some people would say that’s chaste and sanitized, but I think we’re in a moment when chaste and sanitized is a weirdly rare commodity in contemporary pop.
It was only recently, a month ago, that I listened to the rest of Kiss, the deep cuts. I haven’t kept those songs in heavy rotations, but a few of them are still stuck in my head. “Turn Me Up” and a few others. She clearly has songwriting chops. She makes these superfluous pop concepts really attractive. It’s why her songs will always be big, but never that big.
Will Carly Rae Jepsen ever be a big, banner female pop brand?
No, not without a reality show or a celebrity boyfriend. If Carly Rae Jepsen had a reality show, Kiss would still be in heavy rotation. She wouldn’t have to release new music for another three years. When Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson were on TV, Jessica Simpson’s music from that period was fucking trash. Hot garbage. But that shit stayed in rotation because of Newlyweds.
I don’t think Carly Rae Jepsen is ever going to fill stadiums. I think she could make more club anthems. I think “Tonight” is a fun club song.
But then she also has a bunch of songs that are acoustic, on top of all her pulsing, dance music singles. It’s such an odd balance. Her musical identity is weird to me in that sense.
This is why I was a bit put off by the new single, which is an old-school, middle-school slow jam.
Bootlegged Luther Vandross, essentially.
There’s something weirdly fun about that, though I can’t say the song is great. Honestly, I think Carly Rae Jepsen should just make club bangers. Ever since I put “Call Me Maybe,” “Tonight,” and “This Kiss” on my workout playlist, they have not left—and that was like two years ago. Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” is on that same playlist. I go from “Sabotage” to “Tonight I’m Getting Over You,” and it’s a dope time.
Do I think Carly Rae Jepsen is ever going to blow up? Probably not. But then, she’s made it clear that she doesn’t want to try to be Taylor Swift. Making Carly Rae Jepsen bigger than her music is just not gonna happen, which is weirdly refreshing.
She’s just a fun musician.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I’ve probably listened to those three Carly Rae singles more than I’ve listened to the latest Taylor Swift singles.
What about Meghan Trainor’s singles?
Fuck Meghan Trainor.