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On The Eve Of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Return, Did ‘Emotion’ Really Influence Pop Music?

Written By Sam Murphy on 10/31/2018

Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion was a flop. Jepsen’s third album failed to produce any hit singles with not one song cracking the US top 30 while the album charted lower than its predessecor Kiss in just about every country. Despite a large label push for the first single I Really Like You which saw Justin Bieber and Tom Hanks strangely grace the video, it seemed Jepsen was going to be unable to shake the one hit wonder tag Call Me Maybe bestowed upon her.

From a label point of, ideally Jepsen would be about to drop the first single off her fourth album produced by Max Martin or written with Julia Michaels. Bieber would be ready to post a ‘swipe up’ link on his Instagram story and radio would be champing at the bit to play the record first. While commercial success is still not beyond Jepsen, she’s in a very different position now to when she released I Really Like You. She’s a cult hero.

2015 was a big year for pop. Hip-hop had yet to fully infiltrate the charts and the end of year lists were dominated by Bieber, Adele and Ed Sheeran. The Weeknd made his transition from cult favourite to mainstream giant and EDM’s grip on the charts had faded. We were a while off the ’80s influence infiltration pop again and Jepsen’s music felt like an anomaly. In terms of critical appeal, we were starved off great pop music. Jepsen, Bieber, Marina & The Diamonds and Grimes were the best but that’s small pickings compared to the mass of great pop albums 2018 has delivered.

The fact is, Jepsen was instrumental in changing the thinking around pop music. Had I Really Like You been a success, the label may have coerced Jepsen into releasing a very different record but as her commercial appeal wained, Jepsen found a whole new freedom. She had access to the Max Martins of the world, and she did complete sessions with him for the record, but instead she searched outside pop’s usual wheelhouse of collaborators. Emotion housed a crew including Ariel Rechtshaid, Rostam, Dev Hynes, Greg Kurstin and the Haim sisters.

On paper, it reads like an alternative rock/pop album but Emotion was pure, euphoria-inducing pop. It’s just that it didn’t sound like anything on the radio at the time. From the glittery, fairytale of Making The Most Of The Night to the unapologetically anthemic Run Away With Me, it was full of mighty pop songs that were unconcerned with sounding cool. And yet, the seemingly impossible happened. Jepsen became cool.

She brought Rechtshaid and Hynes to the Saturday Night Live stage, quickly became a Pitchfork darling and Twitter made her its new best friend. The Fader called it “a classic”, Pitchfork said it was as “spotless as any pop album you’re likely to hear this year,” and even hip-hop champions Complex became fascinated by her. 

Jepsen wasn’t trying to be cool or cross over into the alternative world. She just made her favourite album. She reached out to Hynes because she loved his production on Solange’s Losing You, had a “try everything” attitude that landed her in the studio with Swedish producers and consciously shied away from listening to top 40 radio.

Sound-wise, it’s telling that Jepsen’s Emotion probably wouldn’t have flopped if it came a few years later. Taylor Swift’s Reputation drips with the same kind of ’80s pop appeal, Dua Lipa got her break on radio with songs that straddled the line between alternative and pop and even Calvin Harris production has got distinctively more underground.

That’s not really where Emotion‘s impact is best seen though. Jepsen has been instrumental in shifting pop’s impact away from the mainstream. Even in Australia she had some of the most reluctant music publications writing that pop was cool now. With that attributed ‘coolness’, pop music has been able to transition into the same kind of realm that indie-rock existed in in the ’00s. No one really cared whether or not Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes or Grizzly Bear topped the charts.

We’re not saying that Swift can release an album without worrying about chart appeal but there’s now a pocket of pop that exists away from the mainstream. Charli XCX has been able to shy away from releasing a Boom Clap follow-up by releasing experimental mixtapes that have earned her an even more devoted fanbase that sellout every headline show she does. Lorde released a brilliant album last year Melodrama that failed to score one big hit but was nominated for Grammy Album Of The Year. New popstars like Kim Petras, Tommy Genesis and Alma are able to make pop music that fulfils their own vision, gaining a fanbase without reaching for the charts.

Popstars are the new cult heroes. In the years since Emotion Jepsen has garnered the same cult status as artists like Frank Ocean or Grimes. There’s not a day that goes by where people aren’t asking for new music from Jeppo meanwhile every festival lineup that is released without her name on it is questioned.

On Friday, Jepsen is rumoured to be releasing her ‘comeback’ single Party For One. She’s in a distinctly different position to the one that she was in before releasing I Really Like You. There’s almost no pressure to emulate the success of Call Me Maybe. In fact, her fans now would probably be disappointed if she tried. In the traditional sense of the word, she could ‘flop’ again. Who cares. Jepsen is one of the greatest flopstars on earth.