The last time Carly Rae Jepsen was slated to play Pittsburgh it was opening for Justin Bieber at the Consol Energy Center. She was riding the “Call Me Maybe” wave then — a video that’s been viewed nearly 800 million times on YouTube, though its parent album, Kiss, sold barely 300,000 copies in the U.S. This time around, Jepsen is doing a club tour, hitting up Mr. Smalls, which has a maximum capacity of 650.
It may seem surprising that the most meme-worthy act of the century (remember the lip dubs?) is playing a stage recently populated by indie darlings Neko Case and Kurt Vile, while Jepsen’s contemporaries, like Halsey and Ellie Goulding, are hitting up the 5,500-capacity Stage AE.
But Jepsen has always been a little more accessible than the average pop diva.
Where Beyoncé, for example, is a living, breathing perfume ad — a radiant, flawless blur with a Mona Lisa smile I’ll never embody, never know as my own — Jepsen is my wide-eyed girl next door. Inspirational as opposed to aspirational. Of note: Between 2012’s Kiss and 2015’s Emotion, Jepsen’s most memorable move was starring in Cinderella on Broadway, which seems like something perpetual people-pleaser Anne Hathaway would both want to do, and never be caught dead doing.
Jepsen feels like someone who doesn’t belong out of reach. She seems like she belongs on my sofa, gabbing about the latest episode of Broad City over a box of wine and a bag of Cheetos.
But instead, Jepsen is in the New York Times promoting her gobsmackingly good ’80s throwback album Emotion, which topped a not-surprising number of best-of-2015 lists. She’s on SNL showcasing her sly, Prince-lite sensuality with “All That.” She’s in Grease: Live. Her character is not tough Rizzo or malleable Sandy, though. Her Frenchie is fallible and sweet and fun, and knows what she wants out of life, which is to make other girls feel beautiful. And, perhaps most importantly, Jepsen is singing the theme song to Netflix’s Full House reboot, which is corny and wholesome and delightful, a fitting nostalgia trip from a chick whose album sounds like it would’ve been on heavy rotation in D.J. Tanner’s Walkman.
Emotion is Debbie Gibson mall-pop. Pure, open-hearted Kids Incorporated glitz and swag to Roundhouse’s smack of ironic grunge. It opens with a sultry, noir sax riff, then follows with 12 to 18 tracks of divine pop perfection, depending on your edition — I went with the 18-track Japanese bonus release, which is worth it for the resilient ear-worm “Love Again,” a very T. Swiftian way to end an album, a la 1989’s “Clean” or Red’s “Begin Again.”
Emotion is throwback ham, but with assured depth, and a warm embrace of hope, optimism and ladies-doing-it-for-ourselves. Yes, it’s preoccupied with romance, but “Making the Most of the Night,” which Jepsen co-wrote with Sia, feels like what Thelma and Louise would pre-party to before hitting the open road. And the getting-over-it anthem “When I Needed You” evokes the tender defiance of Sky Ferreira, whose frequent collaborator Daniel Nigro worked with Jepsen on that very track.
Jepsen is not political like Yoncé, nor is she consumed with assembling a glamazon squad like Taylor Swift. She’s not an icon. I don’t know who her famous friends are, or if she even has any. Perennial nice guy Tom Hanks was in her “I Really Like You” video, so maybe they’re pals who practice the Big rap on lazy Sundays. In fact, it’s really important to me that this be true.
Jepsen is not the bad girl, or the innocent girl. She’s neither the virgin nor the whore. She’s none of the above, and all of the above. Like Gwen Stefani once proclaimed, when it still might have been true, she’s “just a girl” whose one-hit-wonder follow-up has gotten critical acclaim … accompanied by mediocre-at-best sales.