Carly Rae Jepsen Has Found Her People. Dedicated Doesn’t Play to Them Enough.
In 2011, Carly Rae Jepsen was 26 years old. Lots of people, of course, were 26 years old in 2011, but not all of them had budding pop music careers that marketed them like 16-year-olds. When “Call Me Maybe” was plucked from CanCon obscurity by Justin Bieber and propelled to viral fame, Carly Rae Jepsen’s career was helmed by the impresario Scooter Braun, whose clients included a 17-year-old Justin Bieber and ill-fated acts like Cody Simpson (age 15) and boy band The Wanted (relative geriatrics at age 24). Jepsen, then, was marketed as a fresh-faced tweenpopper despite already having one album out, plus a decade on the kids in sophistication. Kiss, her debut for major label Interscope and Braun’s Schoolboy imprint, included tracks like “Wrong Feels So Right” and “This Kiss” that were significantly more adult than Bieber fare; perhaps on purpose, the real un-childish stuff is on bonus tracks like “Drive” (“I don’t care about my lipstick / I just want to drive you to love”) and “Sweetie,” whose “dinner date and a glass of wine” is somehow both more boozy and yet less debauched than teenage crushing.
By her 2015 follow-up Emotion, the tweens had moved on as tweens do, freeing up Jepsen’s music to grow into itself. However, this solved one problem by replacing it with another. The ’80s-inspired synthpop on that album was pristine and shimmering, but also much like the ’80s-inspired synthpop made by dozens of new artists per year. How does one stand out? Jepsen tried to go full mainstream pop, recruiting key cogs in the pop machine like Sia, Greg Kurstin, and Rami Yacoub and Shellback (affiliates of Max Martin). It didn’t work: Lead single “I Really Like You,” though underrated as hell, peaked at an unprepossessing No. 39 on the Hot 100 (though still higher than anything she’s released since). Jepsen made a few bids for cred as a tastemaker, collaborating on tracks with Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij. Those worked, if only in getting the Pitchfork crowd to stop qualifying when they said they liked “Call Me Maybe.” What she did find was a besotted and devoted cult fanbase that has only kept growing since. (There was some very silly discourse earlier this year about Jepsen fans being mostly media people, as if there are enough of those to sell out tours.)
On Dedicated, Jepsen gets to be even more herself. This means sexier—even putting aside the dildo-loaded video for lead single “Party for One,” Jepsen’s just singing differently. Her voice doesn’t quite have the laser-concentrated yearning of Kiss, but in its place is a lascivious slyness, an aural wink. The video for “Run Away With Me” was like an emoji version of the Black Mirror choose your own adventure film Bandersnatch; since then, in Carly language, she’s gone from 😍 to 😘. But the album also is goofier—and, crucially, at the same time. (Jepsen says she vetoed a Marilyn Monroe photoshoot on grounds of being basic.) The most explicit song here is “Everything He Needs,” which interpolates Shelley Duvall in the 1980 Popeye movie. But it’s also the most theatrical (ideal for an artist who did Grease: Live on Fox and Cinderella, the Carly Rae Jepsest Broadway musical) and also the wackiest. The backing vocals reach Betty Boop heights of chirp; the bridge features a lovestruck but also deeply silly spoken-word interlude, as if “Boo’d Up” were laughing at itself. Dedicated also means fiercer; Jepsen calls “I’ll Be Your Girl” her “first real angry song,” and while that’s not quite true, the track’s powered by a wholly different kind of anger from, say, the “Dancing On My Own” resolve of “Tonight I’m Getting Over You.” The fuzzy guitar is very clearly rock in timbre, and Jepsen’s vocal is a tirade about late-night laptop snooping and “[cutting] my eyes out.” (Dedicated is full of lyrical callbacks to past singles, and this bit recalls the lovelorn eye-gouging of “I Really Like You”: “Who gave you eyes like that, said you could keep them?”)
Still, not everything’s a departure. Those who loved the early-Madonna effervescence of “Cut to the Feeling” will find it on “Julien,” “Want You In My Room” (which doesn’t sample the Vengaboys, but has similar chords and energy), and late-album highlight “Real Love,” which is somewhere between “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and Chrvches’ “Clearest Blue.” “The Sound” begins with dreamy piano and continues in the same kind of swoon, and “Happy Not Knowing” is like a remake of Jennifer Paige’s “Crush” for the millennial burnout era. “I’ll only go so far,” Jepsen sings, but unlike teenpop tracks past it isn’t an abstinence message— simply that life’s busy, heartbreak takes energy, and she honestly just can’t right now. But of course the subtext—the e*mo*tion soaking into every note—is that she actually can, will, and, in fact, currently is.
All these tracks have some things in common: they’re about the feeling-everything tween inside every grown adult, and thus they are still unmistakably Carly even as she tries on new sounds. When Dedicated falters it’s in the latter half, where her producers seem to be trying to chase pop, or at least Spotify “airplay,” by making her sound like everyone else. The slow beat and low-key vocals of “Right Words Wrong Time” resemble Julia Michaels. “Feels Right” doesn’t just resemble LA electro-funk duo Electric Guest but features them, and while they’re far better guests than the Owl City of yesteryear, Jepsen’s voice strains to match them. “Too Much” is an exceedingly CRJ lyric set to a track that’s uncannily like “Say My Name,” off Swedish artist Tove Styrke’s Sway, which itself was uncannily like Adele’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)”.
More fatally, “Too Much” has too much chill—when has Carly Rae Jepsen ever been chill? Jepsen sings about how she “[lives] for the fire and the rain and the drama,” but the track is only one or two energy levels above Low-Key Beats to Study To, or working album title Music to Clean Your House To. Fire and rain and drama should sound like fucking the house up. Advance single “No Drug Like Me” is almost great, but Jepsen’s tentative vocals barely sound like her; one gets the weird feeling of wanting Carly Rae Jepsen to sing a Carly Rae Jepsen song. Most tellingly, “Now That I Found You,” despite eventually getting good, starts inauspiciously by turning Jepsen’s voice into a Kiaara puree—an artist most people know not by name, nor even by song, but garbled hook. If there’s one thing about Carly Rae Jepsen fans, it’s that they know her by name, and trust her by name, no matter how screwball or outre or non-charting she gets. Dedicated is best when one senses Jepsen is playing not to some imagined pop audience, but them.