Carly Rae Jepsen isn't about to start a Twitter fight anytime soon. She doesn't have a perfectly curated Instagram, or a dozen magazine covers. Her third album, E•MO•TION,—out today—certainly doesn't have five number one songs buried in its track list. But it doesn't matter. E•MO•TION is already one of the best albums of 2015.
Not only is it transcendently poppy and unbelievably fun, it does something that every brilliant album should—it forces us to relate: to the music, and more importantly, to one another. It's a perfect pop album without a perfect pop star.
Jepsen kicks off her sophomore album with a stunner of a song called "Run Away With Me," which dropped as a single about a month before the album's United States release. From the very first moments of the song, Jepsen shows listeners that she's not trying to create another "Call Me Maybe." She's trying to make art.
"Run Away With Me" starts with a brassy saxophone riff that dominates the foreground of the song and guides the chorus. It's a direct and obvious contrast to the soft, angelic string instruments that backed her first massive hit.
"Call Me Maybe" went number one, and was downloaded over 7.6 million times. By denying the sounds that were distinctly hers, Jepsen takes herself completely out of the equation. This album isn't about her. And that's something no other pop star would dare do.
For E•MO•TION, Jepsen took her time—a huge risk for a one-hit star. Industry advice, generally, is to stay in the spotlight for as long as you possibly can to keep your career alive. That means a heavy social media presence, a small-scale drama or two, and an album every two years, on the dot.
In fact, Carly Rae Jepsen is barely playing the Olympic sport that pop music publicity has become in the last 30 years. She isn't trying to make you want her life—be that through constant commentary and vulnerability like Taylor Swift does, or the extreme seclusion and catering that Beyoncé uses. She isn't scandalous, and she did almost completely recede from the public eye during the three years she spent weeding through 200 potential tracks to pick the 10 tracks on E•MO•TION (plus the 5 Deluxe edition tracks).
And then, she ignored all of the pop rules to release it. She didn't put out singles from this album with absolute precision so that they would have the highest likelihood of success. Instead, she released the full album in Japan a month before the United States release (leading to plenty of illegal downloads) and then preceeded to drop, fairly quickly, not one or two but seven singles.
Her first single for this album, "I Really Like You," is the closest she ever comes to trying for publicity. It's a gimmicky, star-studded video, for a bubblegum song. But even "I Really Like You" has an edge. It's light, and fluffy, and girly, and unashamed of those things. Jepsen could have made a whole album of "I Really Like You"s and leaned into that early fame, but she didn't. Her next video, for "Run Away with Me," is a strangely indie, seemingly single-shot take that looks more like a clip for a Lana Del Rey song or an independently-produced tour documentary than a music video for a pop album.
That decision, like all of Jepsen's decisions, has a consequence. "Run Away With Me" has only 4 million plays on YouTube. "I Really Like You," for comparison, has 98 million.
But Jepsen has never been very good at cultivating popularity. Her discovery happened almost by accident. After placing third on Canadian Idol to two people you've never heard of, Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" got some airplay in Canada. Justin Bieber heard it on the radio and helped launch it out to the universe. In fact, the most popular music videos for "Call Me Maybe" involved random people lip synching—the song was barely attached to Jepsen's image at all.
Pop music is supposed to be universal, to appeal to something deep within us, a piece of our humanity that is able to reach out and feel. Some people think pop music is shallow, and vapid, and childish—and people have said those things about Jepsen. But pop music is a complicated genre; in order to succeed, something has to connect.
And because pop music is so heavily based on two things—feelings and what we'll call "catchiness"—it's important to have strong songwriters who create a song's lyrics and melodies. That's why you see the same names (Max Martin, Shellback, Dr. Luke) on so many famous pop albums—they've figured out what the perfect mix of those two ingredients looks like, and how to make it.
Some of those names appear on the E•MO•TION liner notes. So do names like Sia and Greg Kurstin. But the only person whose name is on every single song is Carly Rae Jepsen's.
Though she isn't writing the kind of vulnerable, personal songs that tell stories from her own life like Taylor Swift, she's still the primary songwriter for all of her work.
At one point in a video about the making of E•MO•TION, a group of people sit in a studio room. "Okay so we've got a killer verse, pre, and bridge," Jepsen laughs, "we just need the bloody chorus. shiiiiit"
Later, as they continue work on the chorus to what became "Run Away With You", Jepsen does something that's absolutely central to the kind of songs she's writing. She goes on a little monologue where she says:
"Once you break up with someone, there's always that feeling of all you can remember are the good things."
That moment explains why Jepsen's album is so successful. She's not writing about herself. She's writing about everyone. Instead of stepping into the spotlight and absorbing it for herself, she deflects it onto her listener. Asking you to possess the song; to find where it can be yours.
She does this over and over again on E•MO•TION.
"I’ve got a cavern of secrets / none of them are for you,"Jepsen sings on "Warm Blood." It's a line with a level of intimacy and vulnerability that feels like an entrance into her personal life, but there's no staircase to the door. Instead of using that intimacy to welcome us into the living room of her own emotions, Jepsen forces her listeners to create their own cavern of secrets and whispering, pulsing, realize who they are hiding them from.
That's maybe the most incredible thing that Carly Rae Jepsen has done as a pop star: create vulnerability without giving any of her own away. It would be easy to criticize this album for being superficial, juvenile or unsophisticated, for refusing to give listeners any handle on who Jepsen is or what she wants as a person.
So often, Jepsen is indistinctive, so close to accidentally sounding like a dozen other singers. "All That" sounds more like a song for Jessie Ware than a song for Carley Rae Jepsen, and in its pre-chorus, it sounds an awful lot like Britney Spears's "Sometimes." But in Jepsen's ability to off-put vulnerability, to separate herself from the song, it becomes impossible to ignore the feelings she's trying to create.
"All That" doesn't have a "Carly Rae Jepsen feeling" or tell us a "Carly Rae Jepsen story." It stands alone. Like stepping out into a warm summer day, her music thaws off the air conditioned barrier we build around ourselves to keep out feelings and takes over until we are warm—and then sweaty, and then suffocating.
What makes something popular isn't a great hook or a catchy line. What makes something popular is that the people want it. What Jepsen's betting on with this album is that what people want more than anything are songs that talk about, build on, and evoke emotions. What, she seems to ask, is more desireable than the feeling of falling in love? What could you possibly want more?
"Gimme love, gimme love, gimme love, gimme love, gimme touch/ Cause I want what I want/ Do you think I want too much? " she sings on a song titled, well, "Gimme Love."
The question on the end of that line is one that hangs over the release of this album as well. Jepsen is making a dangerous bet. She's betting that a great album full of perfect pop songs can stand up without a pop star. She's betting that an album can work in a climate really only interested in singles. And she's betting that she won't be dismissed because she's a female artist who writes pop songs about love.
It's too early to tell if this album will sell any copies at all. It certainly won't sell the way that Taylor Swift's 1989 sold, even if it is a stronger album. But no one ever said that being popular was a fair game. But there is a meritocracy in what evokes emotion. And that's something Jepsen certainly does on this album.
That's what makes E•MO•TION one of the best albums of the year. Not that it's beautifully written and easy to enjoy (though it is both of those things), but that it's so easy to feel.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.