Music

Queen of the Nonpopular Pop Stars

Carly Rae Jepsen may never have another hit. For some of us, that’s perfect.

Carly Rae Jepsen in an all-denim outfit on a boat in a harbor.
Carly Rae Jepsen in Marina del Rey, California, on Saturday.
Rich Fury/Getty Images for Spotify

Dear Carly Rae Jepsen,

In the terms of your fans’ favorite Instagram tag, what sort of “queen” does your new album Dedicated make you? To name a few, perhaps queen of sighs and shouts; queen of in-love-with-love songs; queen of blending ’70s Moroder with ’80s synths, ’90s house, and 2019 virality; queen of always writing 200 tracks when 20 would suffice—or, as the BBC called you this week, queen of overthinking; and, once and forever, queen of hapless pop stars? As one of your not quite legions of devoted admirers, I would more gently coronate you a queen of what I’ll call Beta Pop. And upon that rock, let us build your citadel.

You’re not the only monarch on this misfit island, of course. A loyal subject would have to name Robyn the Queen Mother of a genre founded on the contradiction of making what seems to the naked ear to be pop music but with rare exceptions is not notably popular by the conventional, Alpha measurements of the pop charts. Among your sisters in that court (it is mostly a matriarchy) are the highly varied likes of Charli XCX, Haim, Lorde, Solange, Janelle Monáe, Sky Ferreira, St. Vincent, Hayley Kiyoko, Grimes, Sophie, the aptly named Christine and the Queens, and sometimes Sia. Yet, Carly Rae, you stand out because your music is less blatantly auteurish, experimental, or intellectual. You are queen of more mundane transfigurations. You (or perhaps your associate and onetime manager Scooter Braun, or record label A&R jocks) sometimes seem to signal you might prefer to join the Alpha pack over in the Chartlands.* But when you do stretch out to grab the crown, you tend to trip on the hem of your gown—and land someplace less predictable.

Ever since the now-ancient days of your 2011 pop-chart palace coup with “Call Me Maybe,” you have seemed like a queen of taking bad advice. But all your wrong moves have a way of turning out somehow right. You rushed out 2012’s Kiss, a companion album that inevitably couldn’t measure up, when even people who recognized you in public were likely to shout your hit’s name, not knowing your own. Then you bided your time by playing Cinderella on Broadway, the perfect sidestep for a pop-biz peasant from the distant realms of British Columbia who’d been transformed into a princess by the magic of a perfect single—only to poof back into a common “one-hit wonder” when the chimes of overexposure struck.

And when you returned at last in 2015, it was with Emotion, one of that year’s most exhilarating albums for critics and anyone else who was listening—but that audience was limited by a notoriously confusing album rollout. That included appointing as your first single “I Really Like You,” which in its girlish guilelessness came off like an effort to have a “Call Me Maybe, Part 2”—even using a celebrity-cameo video like the homemade one Justin Bieber used to help get you into the limelight, except this time slickly and with Tom Hanks as the boldfaced name in question. Carly Rae, I love the unhip absurdity of that as much as you must have. But most of Emotion was more grown-up and savvy, however much it surged with the romanticism that remains your calling card. Those mixed messages prompted some observers to credit producers such as Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid for your album’s enchantments, even though you kept testifying to your lead songwriting role (which was true on “Maybe” too). The mainstream began to characterize you as a kind of easily replaced guest vocalist. That underestimation was abetted by your petite frame and narrow vocal timbre, which along with the playful naïveté of “Call Me Maybe” prompted much of the world to imagine you as barely post-adolescent, when by Emotion you were 29.

Yet, Emotion ultimately did establish you as a cult figure among the non-pop-pop faithful. It will stand in our geeky tribe’s canon until mountains turn to sand. But then there are things that are harder to shift blame for, like the fact that when you had another single that trembled with seismic potential, 2017’s “Cut to the Feeling,” a Robyn-worthy roar of pop energy, you declined to cut short a (midheartbreak) Italian vacation to come home and promote it. You then turned out a goofy, behind-the-scenes clip rather than a proper pop video that would have helped viewers cut to, you know, the feeling.

More recently, the first single released from Dedicated, back in November, was “Party for One”—admittedly a brain parasite of a song, and with a winking wanking subtext, in the tradition of your idol Cyndi Lauper. Still, it’s the one from this album that most closely follows the musical template of “Call Me Maybe.” That metronomic 4/4, pizzicato-style opening is practically a quotation.

Carly Rae, who made that call? You could have turned heads instead with the lonely disco strains of “Julien,” a track more in keeping with today’s pretty-and-downbeat chart trends, but you released that one only in late April. Or you might have put out the sexy, Jack Antonoff–produced “Want You in My Room,” which (complete with some Daft Punk–style vocoder action that, six years after “Get Lucky,” qualifies as yearning for better times) might have dispelled some of the virginal-flirt associations that still linger round your name. I want to hear the whole leftover album’s worth of Antonoff collaborations you’ve mentioned, but perhaps you worried about being overshadowed by a male producer again. (The many collaborators’ names on these tracks are mainly lower-profile ones.) I could go on: Why not release “Feels Right,” your best-ever duet—let us never speak of the abysmal Owl City—with Asa Taccone of the new-to-me band Electric Guest, whose voice provides a punchy counterpoint to your nimbler one, on a track that also strobes with the pulse of LGBTQ disco anthems from Donna Summer to Sylvester to (especially with the “Ray of Light”–esque “And it feeeeeels” chorus) Madonna.

But enough of your supposed missteps, because all these apparent mistakes strike me more like destiny. Let me speak first as a fellow Canadian and ex-theater kid: It’s clear in retrospect that having a hit placed you in the wrong game, even a hit so in synch with Canadian insecurity that its key word was maybe. In a recent GQ interview, you quoted an ex-boyfriend as saying that being big in Japan (as you are, with your anime-esque looks and modest demeanor) might be the ideal level of pop prominence for you: You can get the cash and adoration on temporary leaves, while maintaining some anonymity in your private life. So what seems to an outsider like your repeated self-sabotage might be a conscious or unconscious method of self-preservation—a sanctuary for the unvarnished charm you showed, for instance, chatting over quiche and pasta with U.K. sidelong–pop star Jessie Ware and her chef mum on their Table Manners podcast earlier this month.

Meanwhile, though, the music world itself has changed. When Emotion came out in 2015, you had the bad luck to be eclipsed by Taylor Swift’s 1989 and the Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness as albums that more strategically and less effusively evoked 1980s pop potency. Looking back, we can also see 2015 as the year that a wheel began to turn, as hip-hop/R&B radio dominance and streaming rates began to overtake the kind of chart pop that had ruled the previous half-decade, nearly killing it. (Though Ariana Grande and the Jonas Brothers have given pop a new lease lately.) Dedicated does not try to catch up to the streaming-tailored minimalism of 2019, the sound of “Sad!” SoundCloud rap, Post Malone, and Billie Eilish. As I read it, you chose instead to stick by us excess-loving Pop Betas.

Your recent Pitchfork interview about your musical roots reveals how little of a pop person you were to begin with. You were raised on Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and a large helping of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. When you did fall for the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” you were out of the loop enough that you had to sing the chorus to the record-store clerk to get directed to the appropriate shelves. You were torn between worlds as a child of two divergent households, as you’ve often described it, compelled to adapt and struggle to please parallel pairs of quasi-parents from day to day, which seems exactly the training to be a Beta Pop artist. That this split runs so deep inside you helps explain why LGBTQ audiences cluster around you, as they do around almost the whole list of non-pop-pop icons. And critics, too—whatever our sexualities and gender identities, sensitive writer types tend to share that alienation from the dominant culture and that yearning for some kind of refuge.

There was a time when this was more pernicious. The Beta Pop of a previous generation was “power pop,” meaning indie-ish rock that sounded something like mid-’60s Beatles, Beach Boys, or the Who—music that obeyed bygone popular rules, as rebukes to prog, disco, hardcore, etc. Devotees fooled themselves that there was some natural law by which these songs (by bands like Big Star, the Shoes, the Nerves, Jellyfish, to a degree the Replacements, etc.), boasting the best-crafted guitar riffs, infectious melodies, clever lyrics, etc., by rights “should” be topping the charts—regardless of whether they connected with the cultural moment or with audiences beyond obsessive record-collector dudes.

Today’s anti-pop-pop fanciers can sometimes fall into the same trap of mistaking our collective tastes for objective fact and acting outraged that you don’t outsell Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Cardi B combined. But at least our set makes for better bedfellows. Today’s Beta Pop finds introverts, queers, people of color, and pop eclecticists making common cause around our underachieving anthems of choice. While you’ve never quite mustered the fierce autonomy Robyn manifests, CRJ, I find hints of it on Dedicated cuts such as “Real Love,” a true Carly Rae manifesto, or in the flamboyant eccentricity of building “Everything He Needs” on Shelley Duvall’s rendition of Harry Nilsson’s “He Needs Me” in the 1980 Robert Altman Popeye movie musical (kudos on the deep theater-nerd flex). Still, Carly Rae, you’re 33 now, so please go all the way, reclaim your folkie beginnings and make the hornier-Sarah-McLachlan–meets–hornier-Sondheim album I hear poking its head around the corners here. Don’t worry, we won’t abandon you if you deviate from the gospel of all bops all the time.

Or damn, maybe we will. I wish I could be sure. One of the laws of motion of Beta Pop is that the audience creates the artist as much as the other way around. There will be listeners disappointed that Dedicated is a few notches more chill than Emotion, and they’ll make certain you hear about it. This is the downside of the intimacy of being not a verified pop star but more of a cult flop star. I think of the online campaign to give you a sword, which in real life amounted to fans passing you a plastic toy on stage. If the same idea had come up around Beyoncé, who would dare not to give her a real metal sword, with a blade that could slay all her foes? But to you, CRJ, we gift a floppy fake, as if to tell you to have fun but not to hurt anybody. Especially not us.

This week I belatedly discovered the Saturday Night Live parody advertisement “Wells for Boys,” which makes me feel as seen as any novel or film ever has. It stars a very sensitive little boy who, the announcer assures us, someday will live a rewarding creative life, but right now is just sitting in the backyard to “wait for adulthood” while tracing his fingers through and finding his reflection in the waters of a miniature plastic well. As his mother (played by Emma Stone) shouts at another kid who’s good at playing with guns and otherwise being a textbook boy, “Everything is for you! This one thing is for him!” Carly Rae, you make us Betas feel that way, whatever our sexualities (as the sketch says, “that’s just part of it”). It’s as if you had that kid in mind when you sang the opening lines of “Call Me Maybe”: “I threw a wish in the well/ Don’t ask me, I’ll never tell.”

Pop culture can incorporate as many superheroes and spaceships and swords as it pleases, but it will always rewrite the script to suit its competitive mode of triumph and conquest. Your kind of pop can color outside those boundaries, despite your imperfections and because of them. (That’s its own kind of privilege, of course, but for today, let’s not spoil it.) The reason your fans delight in declaring you the queen of random things is that the whole concept of pop royalty is exposed in its ridiculousness when it’s bestowed on the utterly unimperious you. This record is probably just a midpoint between your Emotion phase and where you’ll ultimately go. But its dedication to your Beta tribe is worn on its sleeve, and for that we thank you from the bottoms of our hypersensitive little hearts.

The cover of Dedicated.
School Boy

Dedicated

By Carly Rae Jepsen. School Boy.

Correction, May 19, 2019: This article originally misidentified Scooter Braun as Carly Rae Jepsen’s manager. While the two are still associated, Braun is no longer her manager.