“Are you gals from around here?” a sweet woman asks me and Carly Rae Jepsen. The three of us are standing in line at Economy Candy, unspeakable volumes of sugar cradled in our arms, waiting for the cashier to humble us.
“I’m from Canada, actually,” Carly replies. “But now I live in LA.”
“Oh, wow,” the woman says, hoisting her basket onto the counter. “And what are you in town for?”
“Just a visit,” says Carly, like I’m her old college roommate and she’s not here to do press for her fourth studio album, Dedicated, for which literal millions of people are waiting with bated breath. The three of us go on to chat about parking in Manhattan, the iffy weather, and how bad we are for buying a cumulative $175 worth of sugar. That Carly’s a famous pop star never manages to come up.
Founded in 1937, Economy Candy is the oldest candy store in New York; a junky little paradise crammed with every treat imaginable, including the weird nougat things boomers love and the floral mints Carly ate on her last tour. When we first arrived, I worried my choice of venue felt a little on the nose given her bubblegum reputation, but before I could finish the thought she joyfully beelined to a Blow Pop the size of a newborn, and I was comforted to remember that on-the-nose is kind of her thing.
Consider, for instance, her outfit. She’s wearing a fuzzy pink sweater that says HEART BREAKER, a black patent leather mini skirt with fishnet stockings, and neon pink heels with a pink leopard coat. Her hair is cut into a choppy bleach blond bob (with bangs) and her eyes are lined in thick black pencil. She’s netting out somewhere between 90s-era Courtney Love, aughts-era Paris Hilton, and the physical manifestation of her own music. And yet, as we walk around Economy Candy and later the Lower East Side, no one so much as stares. Something about her registers, against all odds, as under the radar. Which I suppose is fitting for a pop star who’s managed to skirt the traditional trappings of celebrity.
Carly was born in 1985 in Mission, British Columbia, which makes her 33 years old (a detail that never fails to surprise). Her brand of pop music is inarguably saccharine and lovelorn, making it easy to peg her as Hollywood-engineered for teens. But curiously, teens don’t appear to be her primary fanbase. And if you peel back the sparkly veneer and poke around a little — at her quiet disregard for the formula, at her whiplash-inducing trajectory, at her status as a LGBTQ icon, Japanese sensation, and indie cult figure — you might find that Carly has one of the weirdest careers in pop.
It (mostly) started in 2011, when she penned a song with her Tavish Crowe called “Call Me Maybe.” It wasn’t her first song — she’d released a folk album called Tug of War in 2008 after placing third on Canadian Idol — but it was her first pop song, and it climbed the Canadian charts, eventually landing at number one. “Holy shit,” she remembers thinking, “we should throw a party, this is amazing.”
And then, on December 30, 2011, a tweet changed the course of her life. “Call me maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen is possibly the catchiest song I’ve ever heard lol,” wrote Justin Bieber to his then-20 million followers, of a song he’d caught by chance on the radio. And six weeks later, he appeared in a home-made lip sync video to the song alongside Selena Gomez and Ashley Tisdale that went instantly, implausibly viral. (You might think you remember this digital artifact, but I highly recommend a rewatch. It belongs in a pop culture museum.)
The video feels horrifyingly 2012, but it’s hard to not watch it and remember, in even the most cynical twist of your intestines, how brain-dazzlingly fun the song was. And more importantly, what it feels like to shamelessly revel in a good chorus with your friends, uncut optimism coursing through your veins. Of course, this is the magic of good pop in general, but few songs harness it as acutely as “Call Me Maybe” — and few artists capture it as consistently as Carly Rae Jepsen.
The song proceeded to sit atop the Billboard charts for nine straight weeks, ultimately becoming the best-selling digital single of 2012. Less important but worth noting: In 2017, Billboard honored it with the title of “best chorus of the 21st century.” A casual award.
“The first emotion was joy,” says Carly, of the whirlwind that followed the tweet. “It felt kind of dream-like. Almost movie-like.” She was soon called down to L.A. by Justin Bieber and his manager Scooter Braun, who was interested in signing her. On the first night she met Bieber, he invited her to the studio and showed her his forthcoming album, Believe, and asked her, on a whim, to record a duet with him (the song eventually became “Beautiful,” which appeared on her album, Kiss). She keeps laughing as she recounts this story, as if experiencing its absurdity all over again.
“You know when you watch those movie montages where all the good things happen in a period of a minute and 30 seconds? It felt a little bit like my life was that,” she remembers. She moved to L.A., was signed by Braun’s Schoolboy Records, and was asked to hand in her sophomore album in four months. A terrifying turnaround. “It was like a rollercoaster where you’re like, ‘Ah!!!’ and then you’re like, ‘Stop working! Stop working!’ And I could see the beautiful monster it was becoming.”
But she was determined to not be daunted by the deadline. “I was so stoked to — for the first time ever — have these resources and access to people. There was no way I was going to be like, I can’t do it. I was like, I don’t care if I don’t sleep, I don’t care if this is crazy; I’m gonna figure it out.”
When she dropped her highly anticipated album, Kiss, that September, it tanked, selling only 46,000 copies in its first week and receiving discordant critical review. “Of all the places in a young artist’s career to get frozen, at the peak of a world-dominating summer smash single could be the worst,” wrote New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica of that moment. “There are the unreasonable expectations to live up to, the twisted and assaulted version of the artistic self to contend with, the hungry mouths that demand feeding.”
“Give a girl a second,” Carly remembers thinking when whispers of “one-hit wonder” began to percolate. But she’s still grinning, no trace of frustration in her voice. She was having fun, she clarifies, and even if her album flopped in a traditional sense, she was grateful to be doing what she loved, and while she didn’t know it yet, an alternative path to success was clearing.
As we wander out of Economy Candy and down the block in search of a quiet cafe, Carly’s publicist keeps asking if she’s okay to walk. Carly says she’s fine, but the idea that she might not be never occurred to me, so I’m relieved when we come upon an empty cafe a block later. As we settle in and her publicist makes sure she’s comfortable before heading out, I wonder if all famous people are treated a little bit like children, or if this kind of nurturing lends itself to her innocent air.
To describe Carly as “child-like” would undersell her depth, but there is a pleasant levity to her that stands in contrast to, say, most New Yorkers I know. She laughs and excites easily, has a tendency to curl up while seated. After her photoshoot earlier this morning, she’d requested a glass of apple juice from the bar like it was her standard drink order. Then, in the car to Economy Candy, told me she rarely gets hungover, which is nothing if not the ultimate sign of youth. At one point, when I tell her I’ve clocked her as an optimist, she seems surprised. “You think so?”
“Do you not feel optimistic?”
“I think right now I am. I mean, I’m in New York and I’ve just got a bag full of candy!” She laughs. “But there are moments I feel like I lean toward the more melancholy — even when I listen to music. But I do write really positive. Even when I’m writing sad top lines I generally disguise it a little bit in uplifting production.” This contradictory quality is considered a calling card of Carly’s music by critics and fans. And in person, I get a better sense for how she manages it. She’s totally devoid of cynicism.
Like most people who find their way to Hollywood at a young age, Carly grew up performing. “I wasn’t good at very much else than being imaginative and creative and, like, let’s put on a show.” She remembers making her little sister play with her until her sister grew bored of it. “I can remember getting to the age where I was like, ‘Katie, we should jump through the shadows, there’s fairies over there!’ And Katie being like, ‘There’s no such thing as fairies.’ And me being like, ‘You’re seven years younger than me! Can’t you play along?’”
Although she was heavily involved in high school theater, she spent years “roughing it” through basic subjects like biology and math. “I did okay because I was a perfectionist, but I suffered to get my grades,” she says, popping an olive in her mouth. It was her drama teacher who convinced her to apply to Canadian College of Performing Arts, where she was ultimately one of 25 female students to be accepted. “When I got to college and it was like tap dancing, stage performance, fake fighting… I called my parents and was like,” her eyes widen: “‘This school was made for me.’” Following graduation, it was her high school drama teacher, again, who convinced her to try out for Canadian Idol.
If she weren’t making music, she’s genuinely stumped as to what she’d be doing. “My dad thinks I’d probably live on the street,” she laughs. “Once he told me — and I think it was meant to be a compliment — ‘Of all my kids I always thought I’d have to worry about you. It’s so nice that I never had to.’ I was like, ‘Thank you? I think?’”
In addition to her step-sister Katie, Carly has an older brother Colin, whom she likens to a twin, as the two of them were shuttled back and forth together between the homes of their parents, who divorced when she and Colin were young. (“Oh, you’re a middle child?” I ask. “An attention seeker. Shocking,” she says dryly.) Their mom was kind of a hippie, their dad was more conservative; she thinks both sensibilities exist within her.
She recalls a brief adjustment period for Katie and Colin when her career took off. “[Colin’s] admitted that it was a weird shift for him to be like, known as my brother. I don’t think that’s fun.” But if anything it was short-lived, and today the three of them are close, with Katie and Colin often visiting her on tour.
“[Colin] called me a couple of months back and thought that a bonding thing for us would be to do a triathlon together,” Carly tells me. “I was like, ‘I love you, Colin, but I will not bike, swim, and run for your love. You need to find another thing to do.’ Mama likes yoga, on occasions. Like the chill kind.”
Carly often refers to herself as “mama,” which comes off charming in her airy, sing-song voice— she has a whimsical way of speaking that reminds me of her lyrics. She’s polished. She smiles and laughs when she’s supposed to, tilts her head thoughtfully when the tone demands it. She has a perfect little anecdote for everything, which she often finalizes by saying, “So, to answer your question…” And whenever she finishes speaking there is a brief and awkward beat, signaling she’s ready for another question. At moments our conversation feels natural, but more often it feels like a very convincing performance of a conversation that feels natural. And while I initially suspect this is the result of media training, by the end I am convinced this is simply who she is. A performer, in earnest.
Which is why, when she says she’s at a loss for who she’d be if not a pop star, I believe her. But unlike the artists with whom she shares a general cultural umbrella — say, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, or Selena Gomez — Carly isn’t exactly a celebrity. And it’s this distinction that’s made her career what it is.
After Kiss released to modest sales, Carly opted to slow down.. “Now that I had this new audience that I had no exposure to before, I really wanted to do something authentic — the type of pop music that I loved, which I was still discovering,” she says.
It would be another three years before she released Emotion (stylized E•MO•TION), for which she workshopped approximately 200 songs. With a synthy, 80s-infused sound inspired by the likes of Tiffany, Cyndi Lauper, and Prince, it recontextualized the sweetness of Carly’s tone into something that felt a little more ironic. Still sweet, but sweet in service of a point.
“80s [music] was really helpful for me because it had some maturity to it,” she says. Her collaborators reflected that evolution: Sia, Dev Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange), and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, to name a few.
If Kiss was, as Carly puts it, “pink in the pinkest way,” Emotion felt a bit more in on the joke. And it was this flammable combo of nostalgia and self-awareness, paired with her uncanny ability to write poppy bangers, that earned her both widespread critical acclaim and a new cult following among a crowd I can only describe as “extremely online.” Over the next few years, perhaps inspired by Carly’s strikingly sincere love of pop, or something far more cosmically random, it was this fanatical internet community that turned Carly into a veritable meme, ironically overlaying her music on uplifting video snippets, proclaiming she deserves a sword, or generally using her existence as a stand-in for all that is pure.
“Carly Rae Jepsen memes occupy that sacred space online where it’s always a good time,” wrote Mashable of the phenomenon. “In a post E-MO-TION world, there’s a fluidity to Carly Rae memes as long as they’re hinged on the certainty that Jepsen is pop music’s savior.”
Interestingly enough, Emotion didn’t see huge commercial success, nor usher her into mainstream conversation. For a star of her connection and caliber, her social following remains relatively meager (you could compare her 1.8 million Instagram followers to, say, Miley Cyrus’s 93), and she mostly uses her accounts for album promotion.
Carly’s personality and personal life aren’t central to the CRJ extended universe. At best, she’s in the margins, cracking jokes in the occasional interview and otherwise removing herself from the narrative. It’s a curious choice in this day and age, but she says it’s by design. “I feel there are some pop stars where they’re immediately going to their image and different things [to promote] their brand,” she tells me. “I’m not really one of those… I always wanted it to be about the music that I make.”
This ethos is reflected in many of the decisions she made surrounding the album push — from employing Tom Hanks as the unlikely star of her “I Really Like You” video to shooting all the promotional materials for Emotion with red hair and then, right before it dropped and much to her label’s chagrin, dyeing it black because she “was getting noticed too much.”
Numbers notwithstanding, Emotion — and the internet’s response to it — offered Carly a way back into the zeitgeist. As Carrie Batton at The New Yorker put it: “[T]he woman behind one of the biggest songs of this century now resembles someone whom she never had the opportunity to become at the beginning: an indie darling. She is something like a reverse-order ‘mindie’ [a major act with indie cred], generating underground (or, at the very least, critical) cred long past her career’s incubation period.”
To use her own words, today Carly’s career does resemble a beautiful monster, but post-“Maybe” it’s shaken off the more ominous implications of that and embraced the quirkier ones. After entering the public eye on the back of a global smash, and then failing to sustain that hype, parlay it into a massive social following, or garner the kind of press her contemporaries rely on to hit big numbers, something interesting happened: She managed to sneak in the back door of an industry that had put her name in lights as fast as it had taken it down.
“Those are the best, I eat them in Tokyo,” Carly told me in Economy Candy, as I poked through a bucket of Japanese Kit Kats that came in flavors like strawberry tiramisu and green tea. She placed a box of Chocolate Band-Aids in her basket between a packet of Fun Dip and the edible Harry Potter wand she’d picked for her boyfriend James.
“You have a lot of fans there right?” I asked, adding a few Kit Kats to my loot.
“Yeah, I’m big in Japan,” she deadpanned, then pulled a face like she’d made a dad joke.
It’s true, she is big in Japan, arguably more so than anywhere else in the world. “Other than Canada, [Japan was] one of the first countries to really embrace me as an artist,” she told The Japan Times in 2016, explaining how unusually engaged her Japanese fans are. She dropped Emotion in Japan a full two months before anywhere else, where the album went certified gold despite what would become low global sales. (She later released a Japan-only follow-up album entitled Emotion Remixed+.)
“I had a similar [at-home] feeling the first time I went to Japan that I had when I went to college,” says Carly, when I later ask why she thinks she’s developed such a large fanbase there. “When I saw the fashion and the politeness of the culture, the patience with which you even share a business card, all of the details of it — even the way the toilets worked. I can remember calling my parents again and being like, ‘I think someone made a country for me. I think this is it.’”
When I ask how she’d define the archetypes of her fandom, she replies, “I think the beauty is that there isn’t one.” But if I had to wager a guess, high up on the list, next to her Japanese fanbase and millennial internet following, would be the LGBTQ community, with whom Carly’s enjoyed a long, mutual adoration.
In a CBC article last November wherein six gay men paid tribute to Carly in honor of her 33rd birthday, writer Peter Knegt starts by saying, “Like any warm-blooded gay man born in the 1980s, I love Carly Rae Jepsen. I unquestionably consider her 2015 album E•MO•TION the greatest pop album of this decade. I have spent countless hours explaining to straight people why it is so offensive to ever utter the sentence, ‘What, the “Call Me Maybe” girl?’”
Many have theorized why Carly’s music has struck such a reverberating chord with the gay community, and most liken it to her sound and subject matter of choice: breathy pop and unrequited love, respectively. As Brandon Tensley wrote for Pacific Standard of Carly’s “brilliant queerness”: “[T]he tropes in her lyrics—everything from emotional alienation to feverish anticipation to nostalgia for a yet-unexplored love—coupled with her unabashedly airy, glossy pop sound, are especially poignant to me: I think that Jepsen’s music actually makes more sense to a queer listener.”
The first time Carly ever played a Pride show, she felt embraced in a way that she’d never been before. “I felt how beautiful that is, we were surrounded in love,” she says, pulling her sleeves over her hands and looking a little starry-eyed. “And then I think it was just a love affair that has continued ever since, both ways.”
No matter your sexual preference or gender identity, one thing Carly unquestioningly knows is what it’s like to feel young (different from being young), fall in love, and pine after something out of reach. Her music has the unique ability to capture precarious feelings. It’s the euphoria of getting ready with your friends imagined as a pulsating backbeat. The stomach swoop of seeing a crush synthesized into a sparkling bridge. The rapture of recognizing requited love packaged as a chills-inducing key shift (or, in the case of “Run Away With Me,” a highly meme-able saxophone solo).
It’s this specificity that makes Carly’s post-“Maybe” catalogue so impressive, especially as it grows longer and into a more substantive proof of concept. Whereas most chart-topping pop is engineered to open dopamine doors whether you care about the backstory or not, Carly’s music is improved by a more thoughtful and appreciative ear. It helps to know, for instance, that she isn’t merely a Canadian singer-songwriter fed through a Hollywood machine, but rather an earnest and fame-shy pop enthusiast who practically speaks in lyrics.
Prior to deep-diving her canon for the purpose of this story, I considered myself a light fan, equal parts amused and confused at the niche she’s come to fill in pop culture. But the further I waded into Carly-land, the more convinced I became of her genuine uniqueness. She makes unapologetically sugary pop, yes, but it’s imbued with something more complex — the stomach-turning urgency of positive experiences mixed with the sadness of recognizing the ephemerality of such butterflies. To mistake that for empty calories would be to miss the emotional depth of flavor.
Her new album, Dedicated, doubles down on this general aesthetic while also broadening it. With slightly less in-your-face cheesiness, I suspect it will earn her some new fans. But its synthy, electronic backbone and penchant for lovesick ear worms (like those in singles “Now That I Found You” and “Party for One”) ensures it will be beloved by her long-time fans. Most notably, it packs in more tonal diversity than her previous albums, from the melancholy piano in “The Sound” to the plucky strings of “Right Words Wrong Time.”
When I ask if the four-year pause since Emotion — lengthy in a pop context — was intentional, she shakes her head. “Before Emotion I was like, Mama needs a second to figure out what I want to do,” she says. “This time I didn’t do that, but I knew I wanted to make something different from Emotion, and I wanted it to be something I was equally really proud of and stoked on. I think it takes time to live through enough new things to have new things to write about.”
As with Emotion, she wrote nearly 200 songs before whittling them down to 15. Although the finished product feels more like a 70s/80s/90s-inspired hybrid (“like a radio station,” she jokes), Carly first imagined Dedicated as “understated 70s music to clean your house to.” She says, “I actually wanted to title it that — ‘Music to Clean Your House To’ — but people were like, ‘You can’t do that.’ And I was like, ‘You’re right, you’re right, you’re right, it’s a bad idea.’ It’s still really funny to me.”
The album art for Dedicated shows her topless, desaturated, and turned away from the camera. It’s a departure from the visual language of her previous work, which features Carly staring into the camera in an aesthetically relevant outfit with an aesthetically relevant haircut. “I intentionally made a move this time to be like, I’m just gonna do an album cover where you just see my back and some jazzy pants. I’ve spent my whole life being told that it has to be like this or that and I’m [ready to] move away from that… I’ve always been more inclined for the artistry of it than the celebrity of it.”
Whether she’s your taste or not, Carly Rae Jepsen’s an artist with a very specific vision. She’s a pop star — distinct from a celebrity — who wants to make emotionally honest pop music about love, even if some mistake that for a shallow pursuit. Even if some think of her music as $175 dollars worth of candy. But assuming a measure of depth guarantees a far more interesting payoff: She’s a heartbreaker wrapped in a fuzzy pink sweater, a Band-Aid made of milk chocolate, an everyday lovesick pop singer.
“I think that the thing about love,” Carly says, “especially new love and infatuation, is that it always makes you young. You could be 66 and thinking, I’ve got the butterflies, I don’t know why. That’s what I love about it — it brings you back to that belief in magic and, like, everything.”