EMOTION: SIDE B by Carly Rae Jepsen
Favorite Tracks: “First Time,” “The One,” “Cry,” “Store”
In May of 2012, I witnessed a stadium full of people boo Carly Rae Jepsen at Wango Tango. The event, which is hosted by Ryan Seacrest and boasts a roster of chart-topping artists — that year, Nicki Minaj, Pitbull, and Maroon 5 led the pack — couldn’t be any more mainstream. It’s basically Coachella for a Top 40 audience. Surely someone like Jepsen, whose sugary schoolyard single “Call Me Maybe” had already oversaturated radio airwaves, would be more than welcomed on that Carson, CA stage.
Apparently not. Following a brief introduction from her new mentor Justin Bieber, the aspiring pop star flitted her way through a handful of songs, and whenever one of those songs wasn’t her summer smash, the audience jeered. This was all the affirmation I needed: Carly Rae Jepsen was a one-hit wonder. It wouldn’t matter how hard she worked from here on out or if her music outgrew its pandering simplicity. We had already made up our minds out her.
What I didn’t count on, however, was the possibility of a cult following. In 2015, Jepsen released EMOTION, her third album, to minimal fanfare but overwhelming praise from critics and the few others who listened to it. She quietly amassed a legion of fervent internet fans, endearing herself to an elitist community of music snobs and hipsters. The album was immaculate and more than deserving of its hushed acclaim, and EMOTION: SIDE B, the third incarnation of the album following its original release and a remix album earlier this year, is a further testament to just how good it is.
Despite its moniker, SIDE B isn’t a compilation of actual B-sides, but rather a package of unreleased songs that didn’t make the cut the first time around. Thankfully, Jepsen recorded the rare album in which even the rejects are worthy of release. That’s clear right off the bat, as the blitzy opening track “First Time” showcases the album’s brilliance. This so-called “B-side” is a song any aspiring pop star — hell, even some of Jepsen’s peers — would kill to have as a single. It’s fresh, slickly produced, and perhaps most importantly, fun.
That seems to be Jepsen’s prerogative across the board: to have fun. And while it may sound surprising and saccharine, that’s a particularly unique stance to take in today’s pop landscape. Artists like Beiber, Drake, and Selena Gomez revel in sparse production and their recent string of hits feels more debilitating or depressing than energizing. Jepsen eschews those trends and welcomes peppy, busy instrumentals, often creating a delicious juxtaposition between high-spirit sonics and lyrics of heartbreak and loneliness. The club cut “Body Language” is perfect for the dance floor, but depicts a desperate Jepsen using sex to hold the attention of a boyfriend whose affection is waning; the music is merry even when she’s holding onto love with her fingernails.
SIDE B’s 80s-tinged dance music feels simultaneously current and transportive; it wouldn’t feel out of place on the soundtrack to a John Hughes movie, nor on Spotify’s trending playlists. This is a triumphant feat, given how so many attempt to recreate that decade to little success. Whereas Gwen Stefani sounded a little too much like early Madonna on LOVE. ANGEL. MUSIC. BABY. and Taylor Swift demonstrated on 1989 that, like with so much else in her life, her concept of 80s music is deluded, Jepsen sounds both unique and faithful to the decade from which she draws so much inspiration.
As expected, much of the lyrical territory here was covered on EMOTION, but SIDE B does provide a glimpse into a different side of Jepsen. While she was constantly lovesick and perpetually friend-zoned on EMOTION, she’s a heartbreaker on this new batch of songs. On “Store,” she admits that she’s “not good at goodbyes,” she pulls the quintessential shitty father move by telling her lover that she’s going grocery shopping, only to never return. She finds happily ever after to be “too much pressure” on “The One,” opting instead for a one-night stand. Through quivering vocals, the girl who formerly seemed to grant second, third, and infinite chances, decides not to let an old flame back into her life on the concluding track “Roses.”
Whether she’s breaking or getting broken, Jepsen feels refreshingly anonymous. The music is always strong enough to speak for itself. You forget you’re listening to the same girl who placed third on CANADIAN IDOL and whose biggest hit is a stupidly ingenious earworm that scored your summer a few years ago. Therein lies Jepsen’s appeal: She doesn’t come with baggage, or even much of a personality, but she’s able to deliver a cohesive, artistic body of work that stands out from her heavily branded peers. You can enjoy the standout track “Cry” without speculating which of her real-life boyfriends inspired the lyrics about an emotionally distant lover. Of course, it doesn’t seem like anybody particularly cares about Jepsen’s personal life, and she’s wise not to try to close this gap.
Make no mistake: Jepsen is still a one-hit wonder, and that’s likely to be how most people remember her. Her radio and chart presence is essentially nonexistent. But perhaps that’s better. After all, when you’re at the top, you get booed at Wango Tango; but when your B-sides are as good as your album, you surprise and even win over your harshest critics. If Jepsen is lucky, she won’t have another smash hit for the rest of her career.