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Carly Rae Jepsen Illustration
Illustration: Cory Bugden

How Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION Predicted Pop’s Future

Don’t “Call Me Maybe.” It’s a disco revival, baby.

by Ben Boddez

From the post-pandemic pop escapism of Dua Lipa to the stadium-sized anthems of The Weeknd, the delightfully retro sounds of 80s synthpop and disco revival have become an essential component of modern day pop music. A key reason for this might just be thanks to the perennially underrated Canadian pop visionary, Carly Rae Jepsen — Just hear us out.

Jepsen’s 2015 album E•MO•TION was ahead of its time, yet it’s easily one of the most influential albums on today’s musical landscape – in more ways than just its sound. E•MO•TION was released at a critical point in Jepsen’s career trajectory. Three years prior, she had the biggest song in the world as a relative unknown. Billboard has since dubbed the chorus of “Call Me Maybe” the century’s best. Embraced for its kitschy charms while capturing juvenile romantic giddiness by an artist nobody had quite realized was 26, Jepsen’s next move was a make-or-break moment that ended up being both. E•MO•TION was a commercial failure at the time, but its enduring cult status landed it on countless year-end lists and transformed Jepsen from the starry-eyed pigtail-rocking popstar into a disco darling that recalled the most palatable elements of True Blue era Madonna

Those who threw preconceived notions aside and gave the project a chance discovered a highly rhythmic, gorgeously textured set of 80s synthpop instrumentals that ushered the exhilarating charms of the bygone era into a modern context. On top, a set of cathartic, bright choruses delivered by Jepsen’s playful, wispy voice disguised a somber realization: Jepsen was singing about picture-perfect romance, but always as an outsider yearning for its joys.

Especially in the worlds of pop, EDM and hip-hop, the offspring of the most influential albums tend to show up about five years later. Think about the wonky rhythms of future bass taking over the 2015 airwaves five years after Flume’s debut. Or everyone from Justin Timberlake to longtime rival, Taylor Swift, trying their hand at minimalist, distorted bangers five years after Kanye West’s polarizing Yeezus. Now, soaring, euphoric choruses, funk basslines and synth hooks have made a return to pop music in a huge way.

An even more significant change that E•MO•TION sparked in the pop world was the invention of the “alternative” pop star. Jepsen’s choice to link up with some key producers from the indie world including Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij and Blood Orange/Dev Hynes gave her credibility in a completely new way, but it was her full commitment to a passionate and deeply personal sonic shift without a care for the sales numbers that attracted her newfound audience.

E•MO•TION was released at a time when the image of the quintessential pop star had to be an unreachable, highly manufactured and almost godlike figure. Instead, Jepsen’s genuine, endearing delivery and fun-loving attitude led to an underground pop renaissance, sparking listeners to drop their biases and indulge in the genre’s escapist pleasures. Artists like Julia Michaels, Charli XCX and Kim Petras flooded in with their own weird, personalized spins on trendy pop sounds. Maggie Rogers has explicitly said that she owes her sound to Jepsen’s E•MO•TION, which shifted her direction from somber indie folk to soulful, homemade bedroom pop.

While some of 2020’s biggest pop success stories like Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, The Weeknd’s After Hours and Miley CyrusPlastic Hearts are the most obvious descendants of Jepsen’s style, the year’s biggest pop album wasn’t really a pop album at all – and Jepsen’s leap into the alt-world has a lot to do with that as well. Taylor Swift’s folklore was a surprising heel-turn into a highly specific new genre. One of the biggest artists of our time known for her meticulously planned album cycles and image alterations took an audacious “indie” risk by unexpectedly linking up with The National’s Aaron Dessner. In a world where our biggest stars are now seeking connection and relatability rather than sitting comfortably on their pedestals, Jepsen’s fearlessness in dropping the charade and simply being her emotionally messy self predicted pop’s future in another way.

It is the heart-wrenching genuineness of E•MO•TION’s emotions that has made it stand the test of time. One of the biggest surprises for unsuspecting listeners after the runaway success of “Call Me Maybe” was just how much deeper Jepsen’s music could go. It’s like when you watch a Pixar movie and get caught off guard by the current of poignant sadness lurking under the bubbly animation, ending up in a puddle of tears. What better mood to fit the state of pop music on the heels of a global pandemic? We all need something to dance to on the surface, but a shoulder to cry on at the core.