The chatter, not surprisingly, has skewed unkind: “Did Carly Rae Jepsen Dress Too Young for Her Age at the Billboard Awards?” demanded a recent blog headline. But even worse than reinforcing tired ideas about female decorum, this nonsense misses the point of Jepsen’s strong new album, “Kiss,” which feels like a successful attempt to invest pheromone-rush dance pop with a bit of old-soul wisdom, while not giving a fuck. And I mean that. Kiss is punk-as-fuck. I promise you, Carly Rae is the Gen Y slash hashtag Millennial Nevermind Cobain incarnate.
The proof is in the pudding. “But here’s my number. So call me maybe.” The maybe, baby. This small addition of maybe plus Jepsen’s age and wisdom suggest Carly Rae don’t need to worry about her love interest calling. Jepsen is unapologetic and aloof once the ball is out of her court. With a gaggle of Millennials, who are sometimes talked about as a generation of entitlement, she’s supporting the idea of transparency in how much she actually doesn’t care. And this is crazy. “Smells like Teen Spirit” was hailed as the “anthem for apathetic kids.” Just as Cobain effortlessly gilded Generation X, Jepsen provides a window into a generation uncomfortable with responsibility but at home putting themselves out there. With 90s fashion back in vogue for the past few years, starting with doc martens and then barre-rolling into flannel, Carly Rae echoes the attitude of an era she was just a tween during. An unattached generation that is hyper-connected can understand the importance of her.
The album kicks off with an around-the-world pop-thumper “Tiny Little Bows” which unexpectedly features “Cupid,” a 1961 hit single that was recorded and written by Sam Cooke. How’s that for Generation Y smarts feeding the tween masses some music history? Rolling Stone magazine lists this as one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. While tumblr re-posts show fluffy quotes about people Jepsen’s junior who are afraid to fall in love, ashamed to show they “care” (believe me I see them on a daily basis as I scroll my dashboard), Carly Rae punctures the barrier to remain aloof, over-serious and unattached. Even the slower tracks on the album,”Turn Me Up” and “Tonight I’m Getting Over You,” both bolster Jepsen saying “f@$% it” and going out to get over someone. “You kiss me on the phone, but I don’t think it reaches. What am I to do and how’s it gonna be? I’m giving up and going out tonight.” Cobain wrote music, whether he liked it or not, for teenagers of a generation that were not spoken for or of. Though he was older, he was the voice of that next wave of Xers.
Kurt Cobain, who was inspired by his contemporary listening habits, slowly began writing more melodic songs into his career. In 1990, Cobain said his single “Sliver” “was like a statement in a way. I had to write a pop song and release it on a single to prepare people for the next record. I wanted to write more songs like that.” Dave Grohl said the band at that point often made an analogy of likening their music to children’s music, in that the band tried to make its songs as simple as possible.
Through multiple layers of “getting it” being followed by “not caring,” even the collaboration Fall sensation with Radio Disney Postal Service buddy, Owl City, comes off as caustic as it does a pre-school exercise theme song. Unapologetic in it’s sickeningly sweet “good times,” the song white-washes naysayers with it’s “Woah-oh-oh-oh-ohs” and smiles. In Jepsen’s world, there’s no war, no election this year (she IS Canadian after all), no bad vibes or issues too cumbersome. It’s all daisy chains, bottomless slurpies and multi-cultural picnic parties in the woods. Carly Rae Jepsen is the poster child for post-post modernism. She’s as likely to be in a Disney Channel interstitial as she would nude in a Ryan McGinley photograph holding a sparkler. “We don’t even have to try it’s always a good time.” We don’t even have to try is equal to a maybe. When Jepsen talks about style and fashion, she says she enjoys the idea of there being no rules of being one way all the time. And says what she performs is “kind-of pop music.” Kind-of.
It could have been no coincidence the “Kiss” album cover is a crystal-clear portrait of Jepsen with the chanteuse looking away from the camera. Funny enough, the back image on “Nevermind” includes a toy monkey and if one looks close enough in the background, the band Kiss is standing on a slab of beef is a sweet little Easter egg. Perhaps Jepsen’s title is a secret homage to Nirvana in which Cobain’s image was a secret homage to Kiss? I digress. In opposition to Britney Spear’s “Baby One More Time” debut with Spears looking her audience in the eyes sitting down on the ground, Jepsen is aware but unmoved to address her fans in the eyes appearing to look over the viewer, or through. We look down on Britney, but can’t even look Carly in the eyes. Where Britney Spears tries to take herself so seriously, Jepsen, only 4 years younger than her feels no need. She can just have a good time. It’s all good. It’s always a good time. Where Rolling Stone’s Michael Azarrad wrote in 1992 that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is an anthem for the ‘Why Ask Why?’ generation, Jepsen is holding the flag for the ‘Why Not?’ camp. Where Cobain’s troop was disenfranchised and didn’t care, Jepsen’s caravan isn’t but doesn’t *have* to care.
Jepsen marks the emergence of a generation of music fans in their teens in a climate dominated by likes and reblogging, hope and change. She’s come along exactly at the right time. It’s actually empowering. As the second runner-up on Canadian Idol, Carly Rae is making music for a group of young people transitioning from Justin Bieber bangs to young adult status. They’ve been called the generation of entitlement, have been overlooked, ignored, or condescended too. Jepsen ignores this and picks them up in her shiny fiat on the way to meet Adam Young. No time for complaining, she has room for everyone.
“Kiss” was actually listened to in its entirety on repeat for this essay. I don’t consider it a guilty pleasure. Just pleasure.