Carly Rae Jepsen Knows Exactly How You Feel
School Boy / Interscope Records
May 23, 2019
Women’s emotions are often dismissed. The culture at large tends to treat women’s anger and pain and sadness and even joy and enthusiasm as girlish. A woman in love is silly, a woman scorned is crazy, a woman upset is hysterical. Women are told that the thing we’re feeling isn’t really the thing we’re feeling—or that while we may be feeling it, we’re being a little dramatic.
Carly Rae Jepsen, however, is perfectly OK with being a little dramatic when it comes to her emotions, so much so that the title of her 2015 album is literally Emotion. And the power—yes, power—of her music, forcefully on display throughout her latest album, Dedicated, is that, for the few minutes it takes to listen to a song, that particular thing you’re feeling or have been told is ridiculous—dismissed because you’re a woman feeling it or because the emotion, for instance heartache, has been feminized—is given a voice. It’s handled with seriousness and sincerity.
Many artists, of course, make music that’s popular in part because the feelings it expresses are felt by so many people—think of Taylor Swift and her besotted songs that chart love and loss. But Jepsen’s music stands out in that the feelings it telegraphs dig a bit deeper: They’re so specific yet so universal, so dramatic yet so normal, so girlish yet so mature and important. Her music is permission to women to feel whatever we’re feeling as strongly as we’re feeling it, or to smile wryly knowing that we, like her, have felt it—this very thing that we’ve kept to ourselves but that’s now here, right here, in a song.
Consider “Too Much,” the bouncy eighth track on the new album. In a way, it encapsulates the core of Jepsen’s artistry: her lyrics of excess that distill what it’s like to have too much passion, too much sentiment. “When I party, then I party too much / When I feel it, then I feel it too much / When I’m thinking, then I’m thinking too much / When I’m drinking, then I’m drinking too much,” she confesses. I don’t know if other women who’ve been told that they’re too much, too loud, too too sat bolt upright when they first heard this song, but I did. And that’s because its emotional details feel personal, even though Jepsen doesn’t offer anything about herself.
Notably, this is a distinction between Jepsen and Swift: The latter’s music is personal because she describes a broadly familiar feeling and then salts it with details about her own experience. Jepsen, meanwhile, says next to nothing about the experience that led to that feeling (in fact, she much prefers to cut right to it). Take Swift’s “Delicate,” a relatable song about worrying over a romance in its fragile early stages, in which there’s a dive bar on the East Side (“where you at”), metaphorical mention of a mansion (“with a view”), and a reference to a man’s “girls back home.” There’s no such geography in Jepsen’s “Too Much.” Rather, what makes it personal is that the feeling itself is keenly specific: The relationship is fragile not only because it’s early days—but also because the narrator does everything too fully, too richly, too full of feeling.
Jepsen continues, asking: “Is this too much?” You get the sense that she wouldn’t change being too much even if the answer were yes. In the same story, told by someone else, the narrator might be portrayed as crazy or overcommitted or too expectant too soon. But, here, Jepsen takes stock of the situation—and of herself—and is aware of who she is and what she wants and how she feels. It’s arguably the best example of why her music is so resonant: Over airy hooks, she can subtly yet radically reshape the politics of an entire emotional landscape.
There’s also “Happy Not Knowing,” an ode to trying—maybe failing—to protect your heart. “I fight, I fight / All my feelings for you all night, all night / Don’t stare, don’t stare / I’ve got feelings for you I hide, I hide,” Jepsen confides on the first verse. And the chorus: “But if there’s something between you and me / Baby, I have no time for it / I’m happy not knowing / And please don’t stir it up / I’m sure it’s nothing but some heartburn, baby.”
It’s yet another song that’s striking in its emotional mapping and specificity—the agony and ecstasy of a crush, yes, but of a crush at the point where you can pretend that it doesn’t exist (but it does—the fact that you’re pretending just proves the point). And on this track, this crush isn’t silly or girlish or something to be ashamed of; here, feelings are all-consuming, things to be wrestled with, things that take time. Put another way, it’s the pain and energy and annoyance of having a crush, or of having something with someone that you’d rather avoid but can’t because how do you avoid a feeling that you, in avoiding it, are only acknowledging you have? Jepsen gives dimension to this wrangling where pop culture would, especially with women, rebuke it.
“Everything He Needs”—an interpolation of the 1980 song “He Needs Me”—also demonstrates Jepsen’s commitment to feelings, and to taking them seriously. “It’s crazy, but when he can’t sleep, I understand / Like pressure points, my love can ease him in my hand,” Jepsen sings, before moving into a series of “he needs me, he needs me.” It’s the sort of thing you can imagine a teenager screaming at her parents. But Jepsen calmly sing-states “he needs me,” presenting it as if it’s of the utmost importance: “You know, not just physically / Emotionally … spiritually … intellectually ... sexually / All the ways,” she says during a spoken interlude.
The song is a kind of knowing nod to women: When it ends, we’ll probably move on, or at least try to snap out of it, this overwhelming need to meet his needs, but for this brief period, this—his needs, and Jepsen’s feelings about them—is what matters most. (More subjective, but I also like that Jepsen’s wants come before his needs on the track list—something that rarely seems to happen in mainstream portrayals of relationships between women and men.)
The song does end, of course, as the next ones will, too. And we—that is, women, and people dismissed as being womanly for feeling something—will go back to telling ourselves that we’re the only ones in the world who feel what we feel. And the world will go back to telling us that our feelings are silly—that they have no substance.
But listening to Dedicated, women know just how untrue that is. Listening to Dedicated, our feelings are, if only for a little while, heard.