Dreams of Getaway Love – Diving into Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION
With the resurgence of eighties pop-culture having marked a fair share of the last decade, the Retrowave community has come to expand and thrive as a fully-fledged postmodernist subculture. Bonded by a devotion to the idyllic neon era of action heroes and brick-sized mobile phones,
With the resurgence of eighties pop-culture having marked a fair share of the last decade, the Retrowave community has come to expand and thrive as a fully-fledged postmodernist subculture. Bonded by a devotion to the idyllic neon era of action heroes and brick-sized mobile phones, it does not take long for our scene to embrace and naturally flock around the same cinematographic and musical works for reference, whether old or merely “vintage” in its aesthetic. Films like Drive, Tron: Legacy, Blade Runner 2049 and even Netflix’s Stranger Things series have earned the love of the Retrowave community, while contemporary artists like Chromatics, Starcadian, Danger and Kavinsky have been integrated into its music scene. As clearly outlined as some of the Eighties retro tropes may be, what remains to be defined is what exactly makes a contemporary artist an honorary ‘Retrowave’ act. While the consensus may still differ in different pockets of the online community, I, for one, rejoice in seeing artists and fans collectively celebrate the merits of retro-themed works by indie and ‘mainstream’ artists alike.
In the first of what I hope to be a series of columns highlighting unsung pieces of Retrowave culture, I direct your attention to one of last decade’s most surprising career comebacks.
“[…] Let me tell you a story, a little bedtime fairytale. There was once a girl … No… a young woman, but not just any young woman. This one was special. On the outside, she might even have seemed ordinary. But never judge a book by its cover, and certainly not this one. Because this… is a Cinderella story!”‘
‘Your Type’ (Music Video)
With it’s glossy, glistening eighties sound and aesthetic, Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION was released in the summer of 2015 to rave reviews from critics, quickly garnering a cult following despite the album’s poor commercial performance, followed a year later by E•MO•TION Side B, a collection of B-Sides that garnered equal amounts of praise. Returning to the scene no less than three years after her breakout album Kiss, the Canadian pop singer resurfaced after many had long dismissed her as a mere “One-hit Wonder”, defying all expectations with a fifteen-track Synthpop banger. In many respects, E•MO•TION is an album that was born from the pressure and expectations weighing down on Carly Rae Jepsen following her breakout success with the teen-pop megahit ‘Call me Maybe’. Rather than continue riding on the hip party-pop wave and hopelessly measure up to her colossal, record-breaking single, Carly opted for a sound and aesthetic that resonated more closely with her overarching lyrical leitmotiv of unrequited and hopelessly romantic infatuation, delving head-on into a world of neon triangles and midnight city drives.
The album opener ‘Run Away with Me’ kicks off with a triumphant synthetic sax blaring into the distance like a lone wolf howling at an electric blue moon and instantly sets the cinematic and nostalgic tone of the record. Every bit of E•MO•TION is paved by the sounds of gated reverb, smooth scintillating synth melodies and anthemic choruses exploding through your speakers, with each one as catchy and ear-grabbing as the next. Carly Rae Jepsen wears her Cindy Lauper influence on her sleeve, both in interviews and on ecstatic jams such as ‘I Really Like you’, ‘Your Type’ and ‘When I needed You’. The songs have an extra bit of slick, modern production layered atop their retro Synthpop sound, yet somehow strikes a fine line between vintage charm and contemporary pop efficiency. With E•MO•TION Side B, Carly ups the ante and goes even deeper down the Eighties rabbit hole, starting the record off with the sound of a cassette player being turned on and lining up track after track of pure Synth magic. ‘First Time’ is a punchy pop tune with strong Madonna vibes, ‘Store’ is a quirky poke at consumerism as emotional escapism in the age of golden age of Megamalls (Vaporwave, anyone?) and ‘Higher’ is just pure Outrun that doesn’t need to mention cars to sound like pure driving music.
Though some may dismiss E•MO•TION and its EP counterpart as opportunistic and bandwagon-hopping upon first glance, an in-depth look at Carly’s lyrical and musical DNA can be used to foreshadow and explain this match made in heaven that is Eighties music and the ‘Call Me Maybe’ pop sensation. Her previous album, Kiss, while undoubtedly marked by the sound of its time, did contain hints of eighties aesthetics and vibes sprinkled throughout its songs and music videos, as shown on both the Lyric video and Music Video to ‘This Kiss’ or on the song ‘Drive’, released less than a year after the movie of the same name and whose lyrics about escapism through driving will go on to become a recurring trope on E•MO•TION.
Like in Retrowave, the themes, narrative premises and words employed by Carly Rae Jepsen are repeated so often that they become a trademark of hers, a cliché which she openly owns up to on songs like ‘Boy Problems’ on E•MO•TION. Some of you might remember screenwriter Max Landis’ 150-page essay A Scar No One Else Can See, which elaborated on the idea that all of Carly’s songs boil down to the same exact premise of unrequited, naïve and forbidden love and escapist fantasy scenarios with said subject of passion. The sheer dedication to this fixed, fairly innocent premise of “shy girl silently obsessing over her crush” dates way back to her first album and is kept throughout and beyond E•MO•TION. The entirety of E•MO•TION and E•MO•TION Side B can be encompassed by three key themes directly extracted from the Jepsen song premise foundation, with each of them directly tying Carly’s lyrical narrative to the album’s nostalgic eighties sound. These three themes are that of dreams, getaways, and innocent love.
Every moment of fulfilled romance on E•MO•TION and Side B is dreamed, part of a fantasy conjured up by Jepsen to escape the reality that her romantic interest is unattainable for one reason or another. The title-track ‘Emotion’ perfectly exemplifies this, as it portrays her wishing that her love interest ends up growing obsessed with her, as the song’s opening lines plainly state: “Be tormented by me, babe”. The pre-chorus builds up as she adds that she wants to stop being a mere little ‘flower on the wall’, eventually leading up to the chorus exploding into a catharsis with her wish of becoming all that he thinks about in his own dreams and fantasies.
The theme of fantasy and dreams holds a very close relationship to child-like innocence and thus directly references nostalgia. As with Retrowave perpetuating the sound and tradition of eighties Synth-pop, the blurred temporality of dreams and their tendency to bring us back to our early memories creates a feeling of “atemporality”. Such nostalgic dreams of time past are mentioned in songs like ‘When I needed You’ (e.g. “What if we could go back?”, “You come to me in dreams at Night”) and ‘Your Type’, where Carly reminisces a time long gone: her lover has moved on and is seeing someone else, while she wishes they could go back to the place where they first met.
Amongst these dreams of idyllic romance, one notable Retrowave trope makes a recurring appearance: that of escaping into the night in a car. While ‘Run Away with Me’ hints at driving off to escape the party Carly and her lover are stuck at, ‘Gimmie Love’ opens up with a lone midnight drive past her crush’s place. ‘Let’s get Lost’ is about a slow drive through the night and ‘Cry’ on Side B sees Carly waking up only to see the headlights of her lover’s car driving off. If these mentions of lone, emotionally stoic love interests at the wheel don’t make your head peak up like a young gosling, maybe you should take a closer listen to ‘Making the Most of the Night’, where the narrator is speeding through the night, running red lights to care for her (or his?) loved one. If anything, the line “Here I’ve come to hijack you (Hijack you), I’ll love you while we’re making the most of the night” should illustrate the sense of urgency and danger you might need to grasp to unwind this reference.
To touch upon the main, all-encompassing theme in my three-point demonstration, allow me to redirect you to the opening track ‘Run Away with Me’, a song about dreams of love and escapism with a distinctly cinematic feel. If you’ve ever noticed how perfectly this song would fit as a closing theme song in an eighties flick, this might be because of how faithful it is to the “eighties movie theme song” formula. The implied escape by car should also draw your attention to the word “Hero” in the chorus, a cliché referencing back to songs like Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Holding out for a Hero’ on the Footloose soundtrack, Tina Turner’s ‘We don’t need another Hero’ off of the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome soundtrack, and even College’s ‘A Real Hero’ from that damn film I keep forgetting the name of.
Like the idea of the eighties as seen through the Retrowave filter, the word ‘Hero’ harkens back to a collective unconscious of mythos and fairy-tales and the archetypical ‘heroic figure’, ‘the Knight in Shining Armour’. As decades go by, so does our recollection of the past fade and – as with childhood memories – so do our recollections of simpler innocent times past grow strong with nostalgia. Eighties pop-culture and our early relationship with it as children give us more than enough space to fantasize about simpler, more innocent and optimistic times, where good guys were good guys, bad guys wore bad guy eye-patches and love was pure romantic love. Furthermore, this explains why the dreamy eighties constitute a perfect context and playing ground for Carly Rae Jepsen’s seemingly endless stories of broken love.
What sets Carly Rae Jepsen apart from the rest of her pop music contemporaries is that, whereas many teen-pop idols eventually aim to break with their younger image to move forward as artists (Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber…), she has preserved her child-like, girly personality. Her personality is anything but braggadocious, her sound is very bubbly and colourful, and her music makes her seems more interested in pillow-fighting on hotel beds and dancing her worries away rather than showing herself off and dropping molly at the club. Carly’s personality is one of a girl who refuses to grow up, who refuses to have her glittery, fuzzy dreams and fantasies tied down, which explains why she ends up in the same situation over and over again. Though she openly recognizes the cycle on ‘Boy Problems’ and ‘First Time’, she never betrays her fantasies, effectively keeping the illusion real, so as to keep feeling the warmth of idyllic romantic fairy-tales.
Her obsession with her lovers and crushes is a refusal to let go of the idea of romantic love. Carly Rae Jepsen is never looking out for a potential suitor; she is always after a specific man to whom she desperately wants to be ‘The One’, another very frequent theme in her songs. Through her use of the nostalgia-infused sounds of eighties Pop Music, Carly Rae Jepsen’s music embodies a refusal to let go of the past. It is specifically her naiveté when it comes to relationships that keeps her young, both in her fantasies and to us as listeners. With ‘First Time’, Carly namely brings us back to our first love, a more naïve time. Carly frequently uses child-like terms such as ‘Boy problems’ to refer to relationship issues with the men in her life, or that allusions to sex remain so subtle or tame on the album. For example, Carly evokes the idea of ‘Staying up all night’ on ‘Run Away with Me’, a theme in her songs that plays on a razor-thin ambiguity between cheeky tween girls partying past their bedtime and a more sexual subtext. The album’s main single ‘I Really Like You’, is centred around an extremely repetitive and repetitive chorus that evokes a child’s speech, with “I really really really really really really like you”, as is the case with the use of ‘Gimmie’ on the chorus to ‘Gimmie Love’.
Carly Rae Jepsen is clearly an artist that is plainly dedicated to making pure, cutesy, heart-on-her-sleeve Pop Music, whose scope aims much less at ‘making a statement’ than it does at simply partying your worries and heartaches away. And it is through this escapism through nostalgic throwbacks and innocent dreams of simple idyllic love stories that Carly Rae Jepsen’s album finds itself so unmistakably entangled with the sound that drives Retrowave. E•MO•TION is a celebration of pop music as a powerful vector for nostalgia, allowing our minds to blindly indulge in the most naïve fantasies, regardless of how distant and unattainable they may be. Everything goes, so long as it feels right, and everything goes so long as it sounds this good.
Article by Robin Ono.