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‘If you know, you know’: How Carly Rae Jepsen became pop music’s most beloved underdog

‘If you know, you know’: How Carly Rae Jepsen became pop music’s most beloved underdog
Entertainment
“Julien,” the first track off the Canadian pop star’s Dedicated, which came out last month, is decidedly measured. Quiet, skittering synths bleed into Jepsen’s hushed vocals as she breathlessly croons the song’s opening lines: “Woke up this mornin’, it feels like everyday / I got the blues babe, not going away.”

The lyrics might seem glum, but the song is positively cheery — peppy percussion swirls into the synths, and by the time the chorus hits, the once-melancholy tune has transformed into an all-out disco dance party.

“Julien” is a nearly perfect pop song, something the 33-year-old Jepsen has plenty to spare. Her breakout single, the breathlessly effervescent “ Call Me Maybe ,” has the chorus of the century, according to Billboard . Her 2015 single “ Run Away With Me ” effortlessly fuses the shimmering saxophone pop of the 1980s with one of the most explosive hooks in recent memory, and her new single “ Party for One ” thrillingly articulates the euphoria of getting “back on your beat” after a tough heartbreak. Pristine pop is Jepsen’s specialty. Her music is bubbly and lighthearted — even her darkest tunes (which are never really that dark) are lit up by danceable, glittery production.

Despite the success of some of her singles, however, Jepsen hasn’t managed to penetrate the upper echelon of pop superstardom currently occupied by the likes of Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran. But this doesn’t seem to be particularly bothersome to her. Jepsen’s songs might touch on seemingly superficial experiences — the agony of unrequited love, the jubilance of a crush, the rush of asking somebody out — but they’re also brimming with the type of emotion, passion and confession that hits the listener on a personal level. In this, Jepsen is a special kind of pop star — one who seems more interested in cultivating and maintaining a fiercely dedicated fanbase than packing stadiums.

For the cover of her new album, Jepsen fought with record execs to avoid putting her face front and centre. Instead, Dedicated shows her back. She explained to The Guardian, “I don’t love the way that in pop music, your body and face seem to be a big selling point. I’m not wanting to hide away but image can be everything for some artists.” The idea of a pop star not selling out has a sense of the oxymoronic to it, but that’s exactly where we find Jepsen.

While this might limit her mass-market appeal, it’s made her fans love her all the more. Social media is littered with Jepsen’s devoted followers shamelessly plugging her music, with some accounts, like Mackenzie Nari’s, dedicated entirely to her promotion and praise.

Nari has a tattoo that reads “EMOTION,” after the singer’s 2015 album of the same name, and runs Instagram and Twitter accounts devoted to her. She says she cried when she met Jepsen during the singer’s 2016 world tour, and eagerly recounts the time she sent her a direct message on Instagram. Still, she recognizes the disconnect between the pop-music star who isn’t more popular. “She deserves so much success,” Nari says over the phone. “It’s kind of sad.”

Fans like Nari are feverishly loyal to Jepsen, but many of them only truly began to fall for her music after her less successful releases. “Call Me Maybe” might have led to a more traditional sense of success, but it was the genuine, delicate pop released afterward that transformed her into a critical darling that borders on cult figure.

E•MO•TION, the album that followed 2012’s Kiss, saw Jepsen explore a retro, ’80s-infused sound. Though the record failed to perform commercially — it peaked at No. 16 on the Billboard 200 and quickly dropped off the chart — it gathered a loyal group of listeners primarily through online word-of-mouth, the way a midnight movie might.

Rather than lament E•MO•TION’s “flop” status, Jepsen embraced her newfound fanbase. A year later, she released E•MO•TION: Side B, an EP featuring eight songs written for E•MO•TION that didn’t make the cut for the finished product — an unusual release for an album that didn’t live up to commercial expectations. The project came as a result of fan demands for more music, and Jepsen delivered — the EP showcased eight pop songs coated with glam production and heartfelt lyrics.

Though E•MO•TION: Side B barely moved the meter in terms of sales, it solidified Jepsen’s position as an anti-pop star. The music she makes is for the small group of fans she already has, not necessarily for the masses.

And this has continued to be the case for her latest release. Dedicated peaked at No. 18 on the Billboard 200 — nearly the same chart position as E•MO•TION. Though Jepsen might not have a string of chart-topping singles or a sold-out stadium tour under her belt, she does have something her A-list competitors could only dream of: An intimate relationship with her fans.

Super-fan Henna Mohan, who says she would “literally die for Carly Rae Jepsen,” explains that her devotion is due to the singer’s music reaching her at a deeper level. “It’s like a personal communion with that sort of music,” says Mohan. “It feels like a lot more intimate version of pop.”

Because of that personal communion, being a fan of Jepsen is more than just listening to her music or engaging with her social media posts. It’s a special connection, and one that breeds camaraderie, according to Mohan.

“Finding a fan of Carly Rae Jepsen seems so much more special to me now,” she says. “If you know, you know.”

There’s no end in sight for this community. Fans like Mohan and Nari will continue to listen to Jepsen, and she’ll keep on dropping her nearly perfect pop songs, constructed in a way that feels exclusively for her devotees. The curious cult of Carly Rae Jepsen will remain firmly entrenched, and this beloved singer will remain one of pop music’s greatest anomalies.

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