Notes on 21st-Century Mystic Carly Rae Jepsen

by Jia Tolentino


The first time we were anything is the last time that anything was possible. We start off life totipotent: one cell, absolute potential, ready to knit itself out towards infinity. Totipotency is a state that lasts about four days and feels as distant as some other, wilder precedents: the fish, the amphibians, the speechless hominids staring at the sun. Every Sunday night proves it: You’ll never get this back. Cells themselves can regain totipotency1, but the means by which they do so remain occult. We — that one cell turned into a degrading thirty-seven trillion — sense our lost totipotency only in the rarest of flashes, and I think, only at the very first second we feel a new kind of love.

Carly Rae Jepsen is a pop artist zeroed in on love’s totipotency: the glance, the kaleidoscope-confetti-spinning instant, the first bit of nothing that contains it all. This is audible and immediate in her voice, whose definitive quality is a childlike ardency inflected with coyness; she sings like her smile is bursting, like there are stars imploding in her eyes. Her music, strictly and deliberately generic, transcends its structure through this sonic technicolor hurry, this ecstatic sense of the possible, untethered from the way anything works.

And so Carly Rae’s music is tied up with an adolescent but ageless question: What’s more compelling — the falling or the love? Infatuation is an unrealized glimpse of future possible, and how you are as a person depends greatly on whether this vision supersedes, creates, or gets eclipsed by the actual possible. Carly Rae, anyway, is not interested in actual possible. She sidesteps the conundrum, and in a very particular way. The nameless, sparkling tension in her music comes from two parallel but opposite forces: Her substance regresses back to an impossible purity of emotional intention, while her form progresses towards an emotional climax that, necessarily imaginary, can never come. Carly Rae wants love; she wants nothing more than to want it — as in, she literally will not move past that point.

And so Carly Rae becomes somewhat of an unlikely mystic. In Decreation, the poet Anne Carson wrote about art without a personal center — a hole in the middle, left open for God. Carly Rae has resuscitated this idea, shot it through with molten sugar and planted it in genre. She’s displaced herself from the center of the pop album, a self-centered form, designating love — or E MO • TION, the album’s title — as her god.

Decreation’s title comes from religious philosopher Simone Weil’s idea of self-erasure. Carson quotes her: “If only I could see a landscape as it is when I am not there.” That’s the project that occupies much of E • MO • TION, its diffuse and unbearable babyish exaltation the sound of a highly pop martyrdom. The love of Carly Rae’s sonic imagination is distinctly spiritual: directed with unimaginable force at some distant object, further distinguished by having no subjectivity at all. Piece by piece, she insulates her subject matter against self-pollution, building a cathedral out of crystal and neon and smoke.

She stays, for the most part, absent, and in doing so becomes wildly present. The productive paradox of the mystic is in here: You can’t have erasure without a self to erase. When you raze your own presence, you are empowered by what goes up in place of it; the mystic becomes stronger in a degree that corresponds to self-extinguishment. The thirteenth-century mystic Marguerite Porete, eventually killed as a heretic for claiming to be able to access the divine directly, cried out in her writing to be an “annihilated soul.” Six centuries later, Weil wrote, “But when I am in any place I disturb the silence of heaven with the beating of my heart.”

Decreation draws heavily on both Porete and Weil, and for the writer, the paradox gets sharper. “Withness” was the problem, wrote Carson: “I cannot go towards God in love without bringing myself along.” The teller can’t disappear from what she is telling, and what’s more, a writer’s vocation renders this project disingenuous from the start.

For the pop star, disappearance is even less fundamentally possible, and Carly Rae — productively — is not always content to stay on the outside. It’s in the friction between her self-effacing vacancy and desperate presence that she achieves something like genius. The synth-blistered, drug-distilled, hyper-real sax howl that opens the album into “Run Away With Me” opens up into a tripleted club beat that, by the chorus, has Carly Rae pounding her fists on the walls of her cathedral she built to protect what she’s looking for. Baby, she sobs, take me to the feeling. It’s the best pop song of the year.

Carly Rae has always been in pursuit of interpersonal totipotency, the bubblegum/impossible/first kind of love. She is, really, the queen of it: Her breakout track, “Call Me Maybe,” situated pure heart-eyes potential in a single transaction that’s almost sure to go nowhere but is, at that moment — and here’s what those skipped-beat synth riffs will convince you — capable of leading to an eternity of bliss. Hey, I just met you/ and this is crazy. The text-message lyrics are fitting; infatuation is the dumbest, most colloquial thing in the world.

Because of this focus, Carly Rae is often criticized as being juvenile — isn’t she actually almost thirty, people will say, accurately — or lowest common denominator, for doing things like placing an entire hit chorus on the stairway-to-nowhere of I really, really, really, really, really, really like you. She’s also criticized for being, I guess, unsophisticated, but a few times through E • MO • TION and it’s obvious she is in control of the genre, rather than the opposite. Her music is often read as unintentionally blank when it seems to me to be obviously deliberately so, and much of the basis for all this confusion, I think, is the fact that she appears somewhat narrative-less: At a time when music criticism is both overworked (hello) and heavily reliant on intentional fallacy, pop stars are expected to provide either biographical or signatory hooks on which to hang a reading (or ideally, like Taylor Swift and Beyonce, both at the same time). Carly Rae was on Canadian Idol, released a debut album, released “Call Me Maybe,” another album, and now she’s here. Her hooks are only, and abundantly, musical. Outside that, she has her thicket of bangs, and fin.

So, though E • MO • TION should by all rights be enormous, Carly Rae seems paired with this basic confusion: Why isn’t she clearer about how we’re supposed to read her, why isn’t she bigger, why don’t we have more to work with here, people will say. Even people who love the music could wonder: How are the songs so direct and the artist so absent, the licks so obvious and the image so dissipated in smoke? The listener, I think — like the critic — wants to be the intermediary: to be pulled into the equation between the artist and what the artist seeks. But Carly Rae, like Marguerite Porete (who, again, was burned at the stake for it) seems to be after direct communion. Her willingness to be directly possessed by emotion — to regress, away from narrative, away from audience, back to that original point — reminds me of Porete’s idea of the soul stripped naked by divine presence. A soul:

to whom one can teach nothing

from whom one can take nothing away

to whom one can give nothing

and who has no will at all.

To be an original in this respect does not necessitate that Carly Rae be original in any other whatsoever. Melodically, she’s right on top of other people’s territory for much of the album. “Making the Most of the Night,” co-written by Sia, sounds like her; “Warm Blood” sounds like Lykke Li on moon rocks; “All That” perhaps should have been Jessie Ware; “LA Hallucinations” (whose first line is incredible: I remember being naked/ We were/ Two freaks just fresh to LA) has a tack-to-delectability ratio and hilariously declamatory chorus that conjures Britney Spears in “Born To Make You Happy”; the great bonus track “I Didn’t Just Come Here to Dance” sounds like what Taylor Swift’s next album will sound like if she keeps dating Calvin Harris. Vocally, Carly Rae gestures towards Ariana Grande on “Boy Problems” — whose first hook is so far up and forward in the nose that I sneezed in sympathy — and, with her roughed-up alto pulled up into little-girl coquetry, she sounds like Selena Gomez on every other song.

But “Run Away With Me” is the song that only Carly Rae could do, the song that epitomizes and matches and clarifies her artistic center. Listen to it again, right now. Robyn could get the closest — Robyn can do pure longing — but it would be more complicated: Robyn is as sad as she is buoyant, always knowing, always wrecked. Katy Perry could do it, too, but then it would be slick, anthemic, the finish line of the race rather than the gun that begins it. Taylor Swift could inhabit and electrify the sheer direct pull of the song, the big Swedish chorus. But it’s the defining feature of Taylor Swift: She is never, ever, ever going to be de-centered.

So, Carly Rae is almost everyone, and in the process she becomes no one — just not in the way that people might think. She’s not derivative but absorptive. E • MO • TION burns three decades of pop down to a few heartstrings and plays them from a home base of pure need. And in the playing, Carly Rae becomes invisible, the Casper of pop music, this album her Lazarus machine. There’s her resolution to that paradox. If only I could see a landscape as it is when I am not there. One way to do it is to be a ghost.

I feel sort of a reverse recognition when I listen to Carly Rae. I have never been good at valuing infatuation or falling helplessly to my needs, but I would like to be. Love is steady even when it’s enveloping; it’s an endpoint that’s always felt un-mysterious and immediate to me. The great, stupid, fascinating mystery is that vectored positioning — that ambient hunger, that sense of possibility, the deliberately thoughtless worship of love before it complicates or decays. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to stay there, hovering at the unreal beginning, under a spell of violent self-enchantment? Tearing your eyes out and replacing them with stars?

Gimme love, goes one of her choruses. Gimme love, gimme love, gimme love, gimme love, gimme touch/ Cause I want what I want/ Do you think I want too much? That’s Carly Rae for you. The world, as they say, is a vampire; by sheer force of wanting, Carly Rae outpaces the world. On the chorus of “LA Hallucinations,” there’s a line: There’s a little black hole in my golden cup/ So you pour and I’ll say stop. It’s a neat and perfect recompression of her genre, whose broadly painted cravings are just accessories to infatuation; it’s a sixteen-word explanation of her endlessly desiring ethos, and of endlessly desiring, you and me.

1. Well, pluripotency, but close enough.