My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy, and when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture such as you cannot even imagine.
– The unnamed daemon of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
If creation and destruction are but flip sides of a coin, a binary choice whose outcome is but a whim of the human heart, then it stands to reason that if one chooses creation, and if one is to essay the vast volumes of those works credited to the yearning for creation that lie within the beating heart of humans, one would find a never-ending war between the urge to create love and the urge to negate said love. This schizophrenic impulse perhaps finds its most perfect artistic sublimation within the seemingly simple form of the love song, a commercially crass product that is so outwardly base as to evade the gaze of most who are critical by profession — but within the quote-unquote simple love song lies a vast and broiling crusade between our submission to love’s mesmeric gaze and our spite against its pitiless power over us mere mortals.
Canadian person Carly Rae Jepsen is a master of the simple-seeming love song; her oeuvre is often misinterpreted as being composed of shallow trifles of song, fluff with little substance inappropriate for a serious world with real problems and issues. The party-hearty rabble that awaited her stage entrance at The Paradise Rock Club last Tuesday (November 10) would, on the surface, make this reading of the artist seem accurate, as their rowdy exuberance would seem primarily based on, ostensibly, not just proximity to a semi-celebrity but to the eventual doling out of a run-through of a beloved pop radio single. This makes a certain amount of sense: Jepsen’s 2011 single “Call Me Maybe” was, by a wide margin, the most ubiquitous pop hit of 2012; worse still for her reputation as a serious artist, her celebrity and the song’s popularity are owed primarily to the happenstance whimsy of then-teen pop heartthrob Justin Bieber, whose random sampling of the tune on Canadian radio quickly snowballed into Jepsen’s management deal with Bieber’s overlord Scooter Braun which in turn led to the viral propulsion of “Call Me Maybe” as a non-stop earworm juggernaut. It hit the four quadrants, even if several of them were probably hit ironically, and the seeming innocent Jepsen was vaulted into the realm of worldwide popstar ubiquity.
Luckily for her and for us as inhabitants of the world in which her art resides, The Jep was already, by “Call Me Maybe’s” vulcan formation, a musical artist in full bloom; she had a mission and a calling, and “Maybe’s” preposterous success would be the Trojan Horse that would allow her muse to infiltrate minds worldwide. She wasn’t just a cookie cutter popstar, in thrall to producers and ghost songwriters and whip-cracking label heads: She had a fiery furnace of determined song forging power that she was ready to unleash on an unsuspecting world. Her message: the perils of the heart, the trials of love, the pains of the pure of heart, as they say. If it is all masked within quote-unquote pop songs about boys, then so fucking be it — whatever it takes to get people to listen to a soul on fire with a voice growling with gritty determination.
Tuesday’s show began with the slow smooth crescendo of Jepsen’s six-piece band: her stage show, with massive lights and fog effects, a saxophone player, and two backup singers, saw a stadium act’s setup crammed onto The Paradise’s relatively tiny space. No matter: With blue lights searing through an ethereal mist dripping down around an impassioned sax bleat figure, Jepsen stormed the stage in a shoulder-padded getup that screamed spunk with a capital S, sputtering and cooing the opening plea to “Run Away With Me,” the powerful opening track of her new album E•MO•TION. Although the vibe from the band was frictionless and froth-full, Jepsen’s insistence lined up with each song’s percussive heart, resulting in a powerful and frenetic performance that was neither overbearing nor fake-intense. Lost in the music, she lived within the song for minutes at a time in a way that allowed the audience to feel the power of deeply internal and conflicting emotions.
Jepsen is the kind of pop artist that is tossed aside by serious music connoisseurs for a number of reasons: First because her medium is pop; second because her brand of pop is branded with a slick Euro-dance sheen that is indebted to both the disco movement of the 1970s and the Big Beat sound of the 1990s; third, because she sings about love; and fourth, because there is a perception that she is but a sheep led by a coterie of super-producers — a human voice placed on top of other people’s music. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course: No one is putting words in Jepsen’s mouth, and on Tuesday night it was clear that her work is as singularly personal as music can be. A propulsive downbeat stunner like “Warm Blood” is a good example of Jepsen’s artistry: On record it could be misconstrued as some kind of wimpy whisper-throb, but live Jepsen infiltrated the groove’s quiet and haunting pop signal with internalized pain and longing. “I’ve got a cavern of secrets, none of them are for you/Even if you wanted to keep them, where would you find the room?” she implored, splitting the difference between soccer stadium shout and bedroom-tape-hiss hush-talking.
Jepsen, prior to the Justin Bieber intersection, was primarily known to Canadian music aficionados as a third place Canadian Idol contestant who managed to convert her television notoriety into a somewhat low-key music career that veered towards the folk side of the aural spectrum (the lead single on her Canadian-only debut album from 2008 was a cover of John Denver’s “Sunshine On My Shoulders”.) Her transformation into the CRJ we know today, then, would seem to be the move to a more electronic pop sound, fashioned by a who’s-who of famous uber-producers; in the wake of “Call Me Maybe”s gargantuan success, the eventual album to surround the single, Kiss, released in the fall of 2012, bore the stamp of such Goliaths as Max Martin and featured a duet with Justin Bieber. It appeared to some that Carly Rae Jepsen was nothing more than a docile laboratory concoction, a blank face and voice willing to be moulded into the shape of whatever her musical masters could muster.
The moment that Jepsen’s set ended and the house lights went up, the public address system began blasting “What Is Love,” a 1993 hit single by German singer Nestor Haddaway. To millions of European dance music participants of the 1990s, this song represents some of the most heartfelt dancefloor tenderness ever put forth on wax; but to most Americans, the song is considered the punchline of a Saturday Night Live joke from nearly a decade after the song’s release, as a mocking recurring sketch presented obnoxious dancefloor cretins using the tune as their signal to accost women. The point of the humor is that the electronic pulse of the tune is somehow at odds with the confessional nature of the vocal performance — that the dancefloor is no place for being open and nakedly vulnerable in song, that the propulsive force of a beat like in “What Is Love” can only be used as a show of force. It is this cognitive dissonance that causes many to misunderstand and misinterpret the kinetic genius of someone like Carly Rae Jepsen, who transformed her own confessional song tendencies by working with dance music producers to create a superior emotional product.
On Tuesday, the emotional highlight of the evening came not with the euphoric singalong of “Call Me Maybe,” when Jepsen finally cranked the release valve and allowed her faithful to belt out the tune that was in some ways more their than hers — a number of songs earlier, she hit the sweet spot with the drubbing hellhammer whump that is “Your Type”, cranking up the power notch by notch as the song’s desperation hits peak after peak until her fist-in-the-air thrusts to “I’ll make time for you” showed her prowess in channeling both unthrottled frenzy and torch song smokiness into a heat-seeking missile of power-pop combustion.
In the end, this is what it is all about: An artist needs a purpose, a reason, a motivation to do what needs to be done to create. For a musician, any musician, there is more time, energy, money and lifeforce wasted behind the scenes than anyone standing in the audience or listening to a record could ever possibly conceive, and so it all has to mean something, there has to be a theme which the artist reveals to themselves as they are revealing it to the world. Carly Rae Jepsen somehow figured out that her art would be focused on a smoldering and intense desire for love, masked as “songs about boys” so as to allow people to dance and occupy those songs as she does, to step inside the emotion within a song presented as a light and fluffy concoction. “I get teased a lot,” Jepsen declared on Tuesday, introducing her Sia collaboration “Boy Problems”, as close as Jepsen gets to just laying it all out vis-a-vis her obsession. “The general story was that I was always talking about boys and I could see and sense how annoying that was becoming. So rather than stop that, I just wrote a song about it.”
Jepsen is who she is and her songs, shrouded in subterfuge, are dense and sticky — it isn’t a coincidence that many of the most powerful songs in the pop canon are often described as “syrupy”. As the audience filed out into the main hallway of The Paradise after the conclusion, Haddaway blasting, we all did a subtle little head-bop as we attempted to shake off the molten gooey aftertaste of Jepsen’s heartache and endless longing.