Excerpt: 'Centring the Crush: The Ephemeral Joy of Carly Rae Jepsen' by Stephen Pham

Image courtesy of Vevo.

“I wish I was gay so I could like… Kelly Ray Jetson?” said my girlfriend Lauren, rubbing her fingers against her dark buzzed undercut. We were driving past Helen’s Pavlova Palace in Yagoona, red and white lightbox sign illuminating the baby pink storefront, where a couple of weeks ago the owner kicked out a hijabi for asking if the food was halal. I was playing Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Favourite Colour’ from 2015’s E•MO•TION. To a bass drum thumping like a heartbeat, Jepsen sang in a restrained voice, as if to herself:

Slow down now
Breathing heavy, when it’s just a kiss
This is getting kinda out of my hands
Out of my hands

I glanced at the passenger seat to see Lauren with eyebrows furrowed and mouth ajar, like she was trying to figure out if I was being ironic or not. Behind her bubblegum blue hair, a Lancer with heavily tinted windows sped up. Its exhaust was so loud I felt the vibrations in my gooch. The matte black body was covered in red decals that said things like, ‘Thug Life’, ‘All Eyez on Me’, and ‘Westside’. Lauren asked if she could change the music. Why would I have put it on if I wanted her to change it? I was balls deep into my obsession with Carly Rae Jepsen, and this song captured being on the cusp of falling in love perfectly. The verses were meditative and opened up into a chorus swirling in the warmth of a relationship where physical and emotional intimacy have merged. Maybe this was all too corny for Lauren, but she was a Libra Sun with Venus in Scorpio and I a Leo Sun conjunct Venus. We were supposed to be hot for corny. Once she texted me out of the blue: “Remember when you said you thought I was magic?” That was months after I’d said it. I had hoped hearing ‘Favourite Colour’ together now would let her know that I was still trying, even after the disastrous hangs we’d just had with my mate Lenny at Orange Grove Maccas. Soon as Lenny had mentioned that her mum was Sri Lankan, Lauren’s eyes widened. “I’m Anglo–Indian! Portuguese too, but my Indian comes out around other curries,” she said, wobbling her head. Lenny said, “So double coloniser then,” dark circles under her eyes shifting as she sipped on her strawberry thickshake. I winced and messaged her an apology after.

Lauren took the phone from the cup-holder. Her acrylic nails clicked against the screen. The music changed to a guitar that sounded like it was being tuned up and down as it was being played. I asked what it was. She said it was Mac Demarco. I told her I’d read earlier in the week that he filmed his mate masturbating in front of sixteenyear- olds at a party. “Poor Mac,” she said. “His mate is so badly behaved.”

I didn’t get why she had a soft spot for him. The goofy gap-toothed cunt looked and dressed like Chucky with a dad hat. As I found out in a deep-dive on her Instagram some months later, though, he was her type. Before and after me, she dated sloppy white boys. On 26th January 2016 she posted a selfie in a backyard, an inflatable pool on the yellowing grass. She was in the foreground with a closed mouth smile hiding her brown bucktooth. A sleepy looking white boy with a nose like an onion stood slightly behind her with papercut lips and prayer hands. Both wore bindis. The caption read, “Spending Australia Day with a boyfriend who actually celebrates your culture #AustraliaDay #Instahappy #culture”

Before I broke up with Lauren in her room, she lit the candles on the fireplace converted to a bedhead. The vanilla was like a hand pressing against my face. I told her I didn’t want to be in the relationship anymore. She straightened up. “Are you serious?” she said. I nodded. She sat on her bed. The IKEA frame squelched. She sobbed into her hands. I looked around for my copy of Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light. I couldn’t find it. I was about to ask her, but she seemed to be in the middle of something. I said, “I should go.”

Her head jerked up. She glared at me, the whites of her eyes ablaze. I froze. “Are you just gonna fuckin leave me here,” she said, voice gravelly.

I sat next to her. Said that I’d been unhappy for months. That she shouldn’t have guilt tripped me for bailing on her when my mum had fallen over some wire mesh and gotten a concussion. That my landlord caught her chucking a shit on the neighbour’s lawn at midnight, after Oktoberfest at the German-Austrian Society in Cabramatta. That Lenny had told me that, while I was in the bathroom at Sweeney’s, Lauren said I was Asian, which meant I would look after her forever, right?

I tried not to touch her as she cried. She looked up. The flames lit up the trails of tears and snot running down her face. She said, “Stay over one last time? Please?”

My mate Tuyet was on her eighth breakup with her boyfriend Kevin, who sunk all his money on his ’98 Civic. He was convinced it would beat this Lambo in a race around Wetherill Park. I was pretty sure their relationship only dragged on because of the breakup sex. I stood up and told Lauren I was going.

On the drive home I pulled over in a cul-de-sac full of plane trees in Ashfield. ‘When I Needed You’ by Carly Rae Jepsen was playing. Her voice, almost pleading, faded out toward the end of each line:

I don’t know what you wanted
I tried to be so perfect
I thought that it was worth it
To let myself just disappear

How did Carly know? The last eleven months had been me going along with whatever Lauren wanted for the sake of minimising conflict. I thought it would have been easier. The chorus hit, popping bass and fuzzy synths coming in all at once. Jepsen sang at the top of her lungs, “But I know, I know that I won’t change for you / ’Cos where were you for me, when I needed someone?” As her triumphant claim of independence and anger rushed into the song, a patch of prickling warmth spread across my back and up my neck as I realised that Lauren had smothered me. The branches above shook and some spiky fruit fell, hitting the hood of my car with a clunk.

I told the group chat that I’d finally broken up with Lauren. Lenny said, “Dude are u ok?” and I said, “Yeah. Actually I’m relieved that I can feel pissed.” I asked if anyone wanted to come Yagoona KFC with me. It was open till midnight.

E•MO•TION is a celebration of falling in love, even when it doesn’t work out. The album and its companion EP released a year later, E•MO•TION Side B, are filled with bops heavily inspired by the eighties with a contemporary flourish—rich synths, echoing snare hits, and effervescent lyrics that capture the thrill of romantic infatuation so vividly. It’s emotionally decadent, dead serious in its playfulness, taking cues from ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ by Cyndi Lauper, a huge influence on Jepsen. Her precise writing makes the most of pop music as a form, music and lyrics escalating each other to reach dizzying heights within four minutes. Every song ends exactly when it needs to— each track as satisfying as San Pellegrino after pizza. Cultural critic Jia Tolentino has used the obscure word “totipotent” to try and capture the feelings evoked by E•MO•TION—the way in which the album embodies the nervous excitement that comes with new beginnings, and explores the possibilities presented in crushes. Jepsen, in prolonging feelings often dismissed as juvenile, honours them for what they are, rather than imposing onto them a heteronormative narrative. In this way, she savours the ephemeral.

These themes make Carly Rae Jepsen the perfect buoy for being single in a post-Tinder world. New beginnings are all too common when dating is an elevator pitch with 500-character bios, up to six photos, and yes-or-no thumb flicks. Even if you’re not imagining futures with a new date, you might find yourself enjoying the process of getting to know them, clicking with them. It’s this excitement that Carly Rae Jepsen evokes when she sings, “Baby, take me to the feeling” on album opener ‘Run Away With Me’. However temporary the elation may be, it’s real, and it feels fantastic.

My own experience on Tinder was limited. After Lauren, I learnt that dating apps didn’t work well for me: my aesthetic was too broke, my features too ethnic, and my unwillingness to pitch myself too impractical. (I went with the bio, “Women want me / Fish fear me.”) Matches were few and far between, and only a couple of people replied. One time I matched with a person whose name was Jasmin. In her first picture she was wearing a sparkly gold wig in a bob standing next to a bed of upturned screws, her deep-set honey eyes staring straight into the camera. The second was a glittery green monster truck with ‘FREE PALESTINE’ painted on the side. No bio. She was a visual artist from Granville, I learnt. We got each other’s numbers and for three days we talked about astrology, Mariah Carey, and being artists in Western Sydney. She said, “We should of been plumbers lmao” and I said she wasn’t wrong. I asked her if she wanted to get pink fried rice at Loving Hut in Bankstown. She never replied.

The next week I read over our conversation trying to figure out what went wrong. She was funny and sweet and I was pretty sure I had come off as genuine. I thought about the conversations we could have had, the eye contact held for a moment too long, the hands brushing up against each other. It could have been nice. I thought about E•MO•TION’s titular song, where Jepsen urges a former lover to think of her:

Be tormented by me babe
Wonder, wonder how I do
How’s the weather, am I better?
Better now that there’s no you?

The song is dressed as a series of imperatives which barely conceal her sincere plea to be remembered. Although I’ve had several similar connections since Jasmin, I still wonder what would have happened had she replied. In a dating scene tainted by neoliberalism— meet, expend, continue—there’s no time to be intentional, to fall deep and hard. Carly Rae Jepsen reminds us that it’s okay to not be as brutally efficient as Tinder etiquette dictates, that it’s okay to be hung up on the possibilities people have presented, no matter how briefly they appeared in your life. Her writing focuses on feelings rather than narratives, which is comforting when the majority of our not-relationships end in anticlimax.

Jepsen is of course most famous for her 2012 single ‘Call Me Maybe’, which at the time held the record for the highest-selling digital single and inspired countless lipsyncing videos on YouTube. Its accompanying album, Kiss, was written and recorded in two months to follow up the unprecedented success of ‘Maybe’. It sold fewer than 100,000 copies within the first month of its release, even though it was filled with late-night-kebabrun bops like ‘Curiosity’, cry-in-the-rain anthems like ‘Your Heart is a Muscle’, and electropop bangers like ‘Tonight I’m Getting Over You’, which really could have lit up the club if we had given it a chance.

E•MO•TION, written and recorded two and a half years afterwards, made several ‘Best of 2015’ lists, including those of Cosmopolitan, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and Time, but sold dismally with 220,000 certified sales as of January 2017.

Several theories abound as to why Jepsen has underperformed in the charts. In ‘How the Internet Killed Carly Rae Jepsen’ on MTV News music critic Katherine St. Asaph attributed Kiss’s dismal sales to the viral success of ‘Call Me Maybe’:

This sounds counterintuitive; shouldn’t it help Jepsen for thousands of people to remix, recreate and otherwise rejoice over her song? But the meme’s not about Jepsen; it’s about her song, and she is secondary […] loving ‘Call Me Maybe’ as a meme hasn’t made people invested in her as a musician.

The song’s success overshadowed Jepsen as an artist. The song was too sweet, too simple, too viral for anyone to think of her as a singer, less so a co-writer of the song, alongside her guitarist and long-time collaborator Tavish Crowe, and Josh Ramsay of pop-punk band Marianas Trench. The meme was about people inserting themselves into the ‘Call Me Maybe’ phenomenon; it was never about Carly Rae Jepsen, which is why Kiss flopped. (Certified worldwide sales in January 2017 were recorded at 1,000,000, while ‘Maybe’ sits at 18,500,000 digital sales.)

Cam Lindsay, writing ‘Why Did Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION Flop Commercially?’ for Noisey, points to the flawed release schedule of the album for its underperformance: the lead single was released in February, the Japanese early release in June, and the worldwide release in August, with the album leaking online sometime between these last two. Further factors include seven of the twelve tracks being dropped as soft singles as well as Jepsen’s sporadic performances in the Philippines, the UK, and Japan instead of a proper tour in her home country Canada, her new home in the US, or anywhere else. Even the choice of ‘I Really Like You’ as lead single, with its repetitive chorus and music video starring actor Tom Hanks and featuring Canadian pop singer Justin Bieber (who had cast the first memetic stone for ‘Call Me Maybe’ by uploading a video of himself, then-girlfriend Selena Gomez, and actor–singer Ashley Tisdale lipsyncing and dancing along to it), seemed like a pale imitation of her breakout hit, as if to tack onto its success. Further to this, although ‘I Really Like You’ is a stellar pop song, as a lead single, its resemblance to ‘Call Me Maybe’ did not represent Jepsen’s growth as an artist on the album. Several essays and forum threads speculating on the mystery of her commercial failure reveal that regardless, Jepsen is a critics’ darling with a devoted fanbase. The album’s broader failure, however, speaks to a widely held cultural disdain for artists who have been the subject of memes, as the criticism surrounding the album seemed to focus on.

Critics less impressed by E•MO•TION praised it as a technically excellent album while attributing its lack of personality to Jepsen. Music publication Pitchfork gave the album 7.4. The review was as ugly as the name of its writer, Corban Goble. That he gave the album anything lower than 10.0 was problematic enough; he also wrote the following, however:

The best pop stars distil attitudes and emotions into gestures so perfect they can take on a life of their own. This is why pop icons inspire endless memes […] This may seem like a surface-level concern, but it’s an important one, because E•MO•TION […] fails to tell us who Jepsen is or wants to be.

Citing Drake, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Taylor Swift as counter-examples, Goble measures pop artists’ success by the number of memes they inspire. He claims that fans can look to

Rihanna for when we give no fucks, Beyoncé for when we’re feeling imperial. We have Drake for performative vulnerability, Taylor [Swift] for performative generosity. Jepsen, on the other hand, hasn’t captured the Internet’s imagination in the same way.

The last sentence links to a Google search for the phrase ‘Carly Rae Jepsen memes’. At the time of his hit piece, published on 17th August 2015, the only memes available to Goble would have been variations on Jepsen’s 2012 monster hit, ‘Call Me Maybe’. For Goble, memes quantify the way that artists sit in their audience’s imagination, acting as an index to how much listeners care about their stars. This is counter to St. Asaph’s argument in 2012 that, outside of ‘Maybe’’s sales, memefication was detrimental to Jepsen as an artist.

The difference between these views is perhaps due to the three-year difference between their pieces, which saw a shift in meme culture. The bases of production had shifted and expanded with the popularity of Twitter, Tumblr, and Vine, allowing significantly more people across a spread of niches to create memes as a way of participating in popular culture. Memes could more easily express the individuals who made them, rather than sustaining existing narratives of character-based memes (most popularly known as Advice Animals).

Goble’s position is understandable: with the ubiquity and ease of meme production, as well as its particular fetish for pop music related content, how could the dearth of memes at the time of E•MO•TION’s release indicate anything other than a failure to spark fans’ imaginations? He argues that Jepsen fails to provide memeable material, whether in personality or lyrical truisms, which are apparently essential to surviving in this pop landscape.

As far as memes go, Goble’s judgement came too soon. The majority of Jepsen’s memes surfaced over the course of 2016, after fans realised the disparity between her recurring presence on music critics’ best of 2015 lists and her record sales. #RunAwayWithMeme, as an example, spread on Vine (RIP) the February after E•MO•TION’s release. The first Vine, posted by T. Kyle on 4th February 2016, is a clip from cartoon The Regular Show. It depicts the raccoon Rigby standing on top of a van in a motel parking lot, holding up a boombox with a determined expression on his face. The saxophone intro for Jepsen’s ‘Run Away With Me’ plays. The clip cuts to the inside of a room, where the blue jay Mordecai lies on a bed sleepless. He covers his ears with a pillow. The saxophone is audible but muffled. The caption reads, “Me trying to get my friends to stan for Carly Rae Jepsen.” This pokes loving fun at the overzealousness of Jepsen’s fans while also conveying with utter conviction their enjoyment of her music. It also sneakily disseminates her music to non-fans. #RunAwayWithMeme doesn’t contradict Goble’s claim that Jepsen has no memeable persona, because the meme isn’t about Jepsen herself. Instead, it’s about her body of work and her fans. In other words, the meme landscape, having undergone drastic transformations since the internet killed Jepsen, is now working in favour of her music, whether or not she self-cultivates memeability.

Memes aside, Goble is not alone in criticising the indistinct persona behind E•MO•TION. Writing for The Guardian, Alexis Petridis gives the album three out of five stars in a review dated 18th September 2015. He points out that it is so well crafted that he enjoyed it in small doses, but over the course of the album he noticed that:

She doesn’t do anything to stamp her identity on the songs: good as they are, you’re struck by the sense you could be listening to anyone. It’s one problem that all the expensive names in the credits can’t solve, a single glaring imperfection in an album of otherwise perfect pop.

Petridis, whose surname is an homage to his humble origins in a Petri dish discarded from a GlaxoSmith- Kline research facility, emphasises the need for a distinct persona to come through the music. He praises the producers as “expensive names” for creating “perfect pop.” This doesn’t include Jepsen as a writer. He relegates her role to “stamp[ing] her identity on the songs,” presumably as a vocal performer rather than composer. His erasure of her songwriting is misogynistic, and the expectations of vocal performance, here, are gendered. Female vocalists are tasked with using music to prove that they really are women and sing about womanly concerns, as Australian academic Emma Mayhew pointed out in her doctoral thesis on representations of femininity on pop music culture:

Femininity as a vocal performance centres around discourses of appropriate gendered emotions, essentialism and authenticity.

For Petridis, Jepsen as a white female vocalist bears the responsibility of conveying some identity or persona, some presumably autobiographical sense of who she really is. That she does not do this is a mistake, according to Petridis. (Emphasis on autobiographical: Lana Del Rey has, inversely, been lambasted for her purportedly excessive performativity.) Petridis further uses Rihanna and Miley Cyrus, referred to as “cartoonish Barbadian bad girls and weed-addled ex-Disney princesses,” as counter-examples of memorable if outlandish celebrities, both of whom are women. He demands of lyrics fodder for a personality within popular culture, and in doing so conflates pop music with the aspiration for celebrity. Where Carly Rae Jepsen’s ordinariness is lacking because she is a woman, in an artist like Ed Sheeran, it is relatable.

Petridis and Goble overlook the possibility that this indistinct persona may be intentional, and that their narrative around personality as a necessity for making compelling music is extremely limited. As Jia Tolentino argues in ‘Notes on 21st-Century Mystic Carly Rae Jepsen’ for The Awl, rather than a failure to create a persona that these white male critics can quantify in Google searches for memes and scandals, Jepsen’s most distinct feature is her wilful decentring in her music:

In Decreation, the poet Anne Carson wrote about art without a personal centre—a hole in the middle, left open for God. Carly Rae has resuscitated this idea, shot it through with molten sugar and planted it in genre. She’s displaced herself from the centre of the pop album, a self-centred form, designating love—or E•MO•TION, the album’s title—as her god.

In other words, while critics may be right to notice Jepsen’s indistinct persona, they are mistaken in interpreting it as failure, not strategy. Tolentino reads this as a decentring to better explore love. What is remarkable about Jepsen on E•MO•TION is that she takes as her subject not romantic relationships between a persona and other people, but love itself. For Jepsen, exploring the joy and elation of being immersed in crush feelings takes precedence over any narrative or persona. Such a distilled representation requires self-erasure, which is ultimately impossible as a writer: how do you write about love that doesn’t involve people? This paradox is the appeal for Tolentino, who notes that in the “friction between her self-effacing vacancy and desperate presence […] she achieves something like genius.” Where Petridis and Goble demand the presence of a persona on E•MO•TION, Tolentino instead savours the void. (As Tolentino later admits in an article for Jezebel titled ‘Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Boy Problems” Is a Beautiful Gay Song of Discovery’, her article on The Awl was a “degradedly religious, half-serious, painfully serious” affair, echoing the sentiment behind many Carly Rae Jepsen memes.)

This is an excerpt of a piece that appears in The Lifted Brow #38. To read the rest of the piece, get your copy here.

Stephen Pham is a Vietnamese-Australian writer from Cabramatta. He is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. Stephen’s short stories and essays have appeared in Overland, Meanjin, Griffith Review, SBS Life, and Sydney Review of Books. In 2017, Stephen received the Create NSW Writers’ Fellowship to develop his debut novel, Vietnamatta (Brow Books, 2019).