Carly Rae Jepsen’s Queer Renaissance

Queer listeners stuck with her after “Call Me Maybe” because we recognized our stories in her songs

The first thing to know about Carly Rae Jepsen is that she isn’t really there. Her glossy pop hooks seem crafted for ubiquity, step one in the inevitable march toward her knighthood as a central pop figure alongside the likes of Ariana Grande. But even the song of the decade, “Call Me Maybe,” a cultural sensation that Carrie Battan wrote in The New Yorker was “so sticky and ubiquitous that it transcended the term ‘hit,’” could not color in her invisibility. No one remembers Jepsen, the 2007 Canadian Idol third-place finalist whose debut album Tug of War released quietly in 2008 — they remember the synth beats, the lyric-inspired parodies, the sheer ecstasy of shouting, “Hey, I just met you” with a group of friends as the chorus kicks in.

It’s that feeling, that ecstasy, that Jepsen has made the protagonist of her music — a fact most apparent in the title of her 2015 album, E•MO•TION. As E•MO•TION’s narrative unfolds, Jepsen’s desires tug the listener forward. She, the person, the artist, recedes beneath the depth of her feelings.

Survey your Carly Rae Jepsen-obsessed friends, and you might find something surprising: a disproportionate share of them are queer. While her recent albums have sold so poorly that most audiences know her post-“Call Me Maybe” releases by little more than the saxophone riff in “Run Away With Me” that briefly dominated Vine, in queer circles, Jepsen is a cult hero. Numerous queer club nights are thrown in her honor, and sentiments like “only gays can hear carly rae jepsen songs” and “carly rae jepsen created gay people when she released Run Away With Me (2015)” abound on the internet.

The roots of this fandom likely date back to the “Call Me Maybe” video in which Jepsen’s crush is revealed to be interested in a man. But her career is riddled with nods to queerness, including in her video for E•MO•TION’s “Boy Problems” (2015) — a slumber party that centers on women choosing each other over the men in their lives, complete with a glittery final dance sequence. Writer and Carly Rae Jepsen prophet Jia Tolentino has argued that “Boy Problems” can be read as a song about coming to terms with love for a woman, writing, “Carly Rae’s boy problems aren’t between her and boy, they’re between her and girl.”

A f/f twist probably wasn’t Jepsen’s intention. But her anonymity within her own music allows all kinds of desire to permeate into it. In a music world in which spaces for queer people, especially queer women, are so limited, there is a revolution in that.

Jepsen’s concern is with celebrating desire in all of its forms, especially desire that lacks an endpoint — she captures the excitement, the fear, the stomach twisting that comes with impossible love. In “Run Away With Me,” for instance, she revels in the privacy of her feelings: “Baby, take me to the feeling / I’ll be your sinner in secret / When the lights go out.” When Jepsen sings, she’s letting you in on a secret, a feeling so big she can’t contain it. “I need to tell you something,” she whispers on “I Really Really Like You,” her 2015 attempt to re-capture the audience of “Call Me Maybe,” which also features a slick video starring Tom Hanks. After a beat, the breathless chorus: “I really really really really really really like you. / And I want you, / do you want me, / do you want me too?”

Jepsen’s concern is with celebrating desire in all of its forms, especially desire that lacks an endpoint — she captures the excitement, the fear, the stomach twisting that comes with impossible love.

The intensity of her feelings belies their internality. You get the sense that while her mind hums with visions of a sprawling romance with the person across the room, she is in reality static: huddled in the corner several feet away, terrified to walk over and talk to them. “I’m so in my head,” she repeats, again and again, on “I Really Like You.” It’s the essential undercurrent of her music. She feels and feels and thinks and overthinks, but rarely do her desires manifest in the real world.

The axis around which Jepsen spins, then, is longing. “I want what I want, do you think that I want too much?” she asks on “Gimmie Love.” She wrestles with the secrecy of her feelings, that push-and-pull of wanting to tell the whole world about her new crush and wanting to bury it. Do they like me? Is it even worth asking if they like me?

Queer audiences might recognize another wrinkle — the struggle to express a desire that isn’t supposed to exist. When so many spaces remain hostile to queer longings, wanting itself is a negotiation: you mention a pronoun, or a celebrity crush, and wait to see if it’s safe to share more.

Queer audiences might recognize another wrinkle — the struggle to express a desire that isn’t supposed to exist.

Jepsen choreographs that silent signaling in “I Didn’t Just Come Here To Dance.” She can’t say outright what she’s feeling, but she waits for a potential lover to pick up her cues: “I didn’t just come here to dance / If you know what I mean / Do you know what I mean?”

It evokes the ways in which queer people search each other out in public. How we read your hair, your clothes, the music that makes you yank your friends to the dance floor, all in service of finding one of our own in a crowded room.

When I first listened seriously to Carly Rae Jepsen, in 2013, I was a high school sophomore mapping out other boys’ bodies but telling myself it was purely platonic. I stared at them, I thought, because I wanted to look like them.

My Butch Lesbian Mom, Bruce Springsteen

Late at night, I played Kiss, Jepsen’s 2012 album, as I scrolled through an assortment of Tumblr blogs, all titled some offshoot of “Cute Boysss.” While Jepsen struggled to resist her attraction in the dance-pop “This Kiss” (“You make me so detrimental / And I wish it didn’t feel like this”), I enlarged pictures of shirtless boys and stared until that disgust, that you can’t, lurched upward and I slammed out of the browser.

I chose Jepsen because she understood that duality, the way desire can burst and bloom but still remain impossible. Her odes to emotion — not to romance, not to relationships, but simply to the primacy of feeling — offered something I couldn’t find elsewhere. Long before I was in a place to share my sexuality, much less have a relationship with another boy, “This Kiss” and then “Gimmie Love” and “Let’s Get Lost” on E•MO•TION reveled in the beauty of an attraction I knew only to hate. I wanted to scrub away those feelings; Jepsen wanted me to embrace them.

Her odes to emotion — not to romance, not to relationships, but simply to the primacy of feeling — offered something I couldn’t find elsewhere.

In Jepsen’s world, you don’t have to act on a crush for it to matter. Even something that never leaves your imagination deserves its own bouncy pop chorus. Hers is a universe in which skipping heartbeats are not clichés and angels soundtrack falling in love, in which newfound attraction matters more than where — or who — it gets you. Desire, in the Jepsen formulation, extends beyond a simple relationship: in many of her songs, she may as easily be discussing a fumbled hook-up or a platonic longing for intimacy.

Our pop culture revolves around romantic endpoints. In movies, feelings invariably turn into relationships, and there is little room for longings that will never be fulfilled. But lots of queer people cannot come out, much less find someone to partner with, and that doesn’t mean they’re unhappy, or lacking, or in need of agency. Wanting without having is not tragic, and Jepsen is one of the few celebrities telling a queer community plagued with a complicated relationship to “outness” that we are whole no matter how much of ourselves we choose to share.

Wanting without having is not tragic, and Jepsen is one of the few celebrities telling the queer community that we are whole no matter how much of ourselves we choose to share.

Since I was a kid, I buried a lingering desiring of mine to wear colorful makeup because I understood enough about masculinity to know it was forbidden. Then, in my freshman year in college, a friend opened up her selection of golden eye-shadows to me. I remember fast walking to my dorm room on the night in October when I wore purple lipstick in public for the first time, so giddy I bounced along to the beats of my Jepsen of choice: “I Didn’t Just Come Here To Dance.” And I thought about that, how this thing I knew to be out of reach suddenly wasn’t.

There is nothing wrong with impossible.

In an essay for Pitchfork, Chris Stedman highlighted the phenomenon of queer fans clinging to albums from once-popular artist deemed to have “flopped,” citing the likes of Ciara, Britney Spears, and Jepsen. “Perhaps we see our own challenges reflected in our favorite flops, feel defensive of them as people who have also been maligned,” he mused. But the correlation goes deeper: part of flopping is being measured against your former self, blurring the space between pervasive and invisible.

Jepsen, as the secondary character in her music, is the most extreme example of this phenomenon. Her name recognition rivals that of today’s most successful artists, but to most people, she is a blank slate. There is something queer about that duality. She is at once seen and unseen, lost in the orbits of her own desires. In a culture in which one-sided longing is tethered to tragedy, she finds identity and fulfillment in wanting, in feeling simply because feeling is great.

Her name recognition rivals that of today’s most successful artists, but to most people, she is a blank slate. She is at once seen and unseen, lost in the orbits of her own desires.

Many critics have dismissed Jepsen’s earnestness as childish, but it’s precisely what makes her so radical. At 32, she still hasn’t burnt out on joy. Her voice radiates an unwavering idealism in which queer communities, and for that matter any marginalized community long beset with tragedy, can find a home, and her glittery lyrics are unabashed in their ambition to make the listener — whoever you are, whatever you desire — get up and dance.

On her most recent single, “Cut To The Feeling” (2017), Jepsen’s feelings catapult her into the stars. “I wanna cut through the clouds, break the ceiling / I wanna dance on the roof, you and me alone,” she says, her voice rising. It’s classic Jepsen. Every line in the chorus opens with her signature phrase, “I wanna”: “I wanna play where you play with the angels,” “I wanna wake up with you all in tangles,” “I wanna cut to the feeling.”

Listening to the song, you don’t wonder whether those feelings come true. There is a fullness to them already. Carly Rae Jepsen is in love, and that’s what matters.

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