I keep thinking about Carly Rae Jepsen. Yes, the "Call Me Maybe" Carly Rae Jepsen. But before I get into that, I need to talk about a dance contestant who competed on the fourth season of So You Think You Can Dance. I promise it will all tie together.
If you're a true Jepsen fan, you already know where this is going.
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The year was 2008. The man was Mark Kanemura. Mark was a jazz dancer, or at least this is how he was introduced on the show. He had a kind face and bangs like Pete Wentz. He was best known on the show for his Emmy-nominated dance to Leona Lewis's "Bleeding Love," but he was better known in my heart as my future husband. It didn't matter that I was a teen living in rural Idaho who had never met another gay person. I loved Mark, and we would be together. Forever.
But then the TV show ended, and I completely forgot about him. For a decade.
In 2018, I was on Instagram, scrolling, when Mark came back into my life.
A video appeared on my feed: Carly Rae Jepsen's "Cut to the Feeling" blasted at full volume. Standing in his apartment, a half-nude Mark Kanemura was draped in a rainbow flag. He stomped across the room while performing not one, not two, but six rainbow wig reveals to the track. (For the uninitiated: A wig reveal is when a performer whips off a wig to reveal another wig, a move popularized on RuPaul's Drag Race.)
It was funny, simple, and effective. It seems like a routine that anyone could do, but it clearly takes a lot of practice and skill. I watched the video at least 20 more times.
Apparently, everyone else did, too, because the video went viral. People started recording videos of themselves whipping off wigs while listening to "Cut to the Feeling." Soon, Kanemura would be performing the bit next to Carly Rae Jepsen on tour.
These videos were the first time I really listened to Jepsen. I watched them compulsively. I'm generally not a fan of pop music—my pop aversion is more a personal failure than the genre's—but there's something about Jepsen's music that's undeniably euphoric, catchy, welcoming.
Many of my friends, especially the gay ones, love Jepsen, but they speak about her in whispers. "Emotion is the best pop album of the decade," I've heard a friend murmur, afraid someone will laugh at them.
Jepsen's brand of femme pop is often seen as frivolous, and consequently lowbrow—but it isn't stupid to think highly of Jepsen's music. Musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding have famously gushed over many of Jepsen's tracks on their popular pop podcast Switched On Pop. The two men created the podcast after having an hours-long discussion about the complexity of "Call Me Maybe." Sloan has called it the "greatest pop song of our generation."
"The idea that writing 'frivolous' music doesn't take a lot of artistry is misguided," Sloan told Quartz in a 2017 interview. "Mozart's opera buffa Cosi fan tutte has the most ludicrous and silly plot—but, man, is it complex."
This comment brings me back to So You Think You Can Dance. It's often overlooked that Mark Kanemura's season is also where Lady Gaga made her live national TV debut. A rising new artist during the summer of 2008, Lady Gaga opened her performance of "Just Dance" with a message that isn't on the track. "POP MUSIC WILL NEVER BE LOWBROW," she says, with the words projected onto her face. Gaga, also a judge on that episode, would go on to hire Kanemura as one of her principal dancers.
I've found it helpful to think about Gaga's declaration when considering Kanemura and the pop artists he performs with. Jepsen's music may come across as silly, like Kanemura's wig reveals, but its power is in its unassumingness. Jepsen suggests that our homespun bedroom dancing can be writ large on the main stage. To "cut to the feeling" isn't to be frivolous. Rather, it's to be urgently proud, with arms outstretched. CHASE BURNS
When the saxophone rips through the opening seconds of Carly Rae Jepsen's "Run Away with Me," all of my straight guy friends and I have a complete fucking meltdown. Though we're in our early 30s, for the next four minutes, we just lose it. No control. Our ridiculous bodies fill with electrostatic glee, and we sing and dance until the song's hard stop cuts us off.
The same thing happens when we hear "Too Much" or "Automatically in Love" or "I Really Like You" or "Call Me Maybe" or any of the Canadian star's other certified bangers.
Since Jepsen's music isn't necessarily marketed directly to our demographic (or is it??), and since straight guys fangirling over Jepsen appears to have risen to the level of "a thing," I got together with a couple friends over pizza to interrogate our love for Carly Rae.
For my friend Willie, part of the pleasure lies in a relatively newfound freedom. Though the pop music we heard in middle school was unimpeachably good—e.g., Britney Spears's "Hit Me Baby One More Time"—gender-restrictive norms trained us to believe that straight guys weren't supposed to like that stuff. Though we did like that stuff (mostly because producers spent months in music laboratories making sure we'd like that stuff), we couldn't show it.
But by the time Jepsen's music hit the market, we were all comfortable enough in our masculinity and educated enough about the idiocy of gender norms to cut to the feeling freely. So part of the love is being able to love without caring about who cares.
While my friend Aidan primarily likes Jepsen for her constant musical references to disco and 1980s synth pop—two of his favorite genres—her (carefully constructed) lack of a carefully constructed persona also appeals to him.
"I've seen a lot of Carly Rae Jepsen material, but if you put her in a room with five other women her age, I don't know that I could pick her out of a lineup," he said. Unlike Taylor Swift or Beyoncé, Jepsen hasn't built her stardom around a cult of personality. Not having to spend time defending her like Tay Tay, or worrying that we're placing the wrong offering at the altar of the Beyhive, makes her records easier to champion.
That idea chimes with the thing that draws me to Jepsen the most. Some pop stars seem to organize their music and their personas around shared pain and trauma. But Jepsen organizes her music around mutual joy.
While plenty of loneliness and longing and heartbreak drive the songs, her performances and recordings feel more like occasions to throw a party in celebration of those feelings. Which makes sense! After all, they're signs that we're alive. And being alive is good, especially when a Carly Rae Jepsen song comes on the radio. RICH SMITH