The Brilliant Queerness of Carly Rae Jepsen

The singer's music taps into a shared queer history of escape, longing, and disappointment—while reveling in the pleasure of all those emotions.
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The singer's music taps into a shared queer history of escape, longing, and disappointment—while reveling in the pleasure of all those emotions.
Singer Carly Rae Jepsen and songwriter Justin Tranter speak onstage during the 28th Annual GLAAD Media Awards in Beverly Hills, California, on April 1st, 2017.

Singer Carly Rae Jepsen and songwriter Justin Tranter speak onstage during the 28th Annual GLAAD Media Awards in Beverly Hills, California, on April 1st, 2017.

By most metrics, it wasn't an unusual Saturday night: I met up with some of my closest gay friends in London—I was in graduate school in England at the time—and we bar-hopped in Soho, the city's gay epicenter. But one thing was different: We were capping off our night with a performance by Carly Rae Jepsen at Heaven, a gay super-club nestled beneath the arches of a railway station. We stepped through the door and into 1980s neon splendor, where we danced, tipsily, and waited for the real show. At last, Jepsen climbed onstage in black heels and a bright lemon-yellow pantsuit and bounced ecstatically as she sang her sugary-sweet odes to love.

Thirty minutes later, Jepsen was gone. This was in June of 2015, only a couple of months before she released her third studio album, Emotion, widely praised as one of the best pop albums of 2015. (About a year later, she released Emotion: Side B, also to acclaim—incidentally, I challenge anyone to prove that this isn't the best EP of B-sides by any artist ever.) While Jepsen had regaled us with her breathy hooks for only a short time onstage, the show stuck with me, and it kept me thinking: Her music is really, brilliantly queer.

It's a thought I returned to the other week, when she dropped her latest single, "Cut to the Feeling."

"I had a dream, or was it real? / We crossed the line, and it was on," Jepsen confides at the start of the new track. "I've been denying how I feel / You've been denying what you want." About 30 seconds in, we're already soaring into the chorus: "I wanna play where you play, with the angels," she sings. "I wanna wake up with you all in tangles, oh / I wanna cut to the feeling, oh yeah." The song, an Emotion outtake originally planned for Side B, distills feelings familiar to queer people: denial and longing, balanced with restraint. In these lines, Jepsen isn't just talking about love—or the desire for love—but, rather, the desire for an impossible love, as she works through synth-saturated feelings of heady confusion and an almost hopeless sense of expectation.

Of course, being lovestruck isn't a uniquely queer experience. Even though Jepsen hasn't ever explicitly avowed her own queer artistic intent, the tropes in her lyrics—everything from emotional alienation to feverish anticipation to nostalgia for a yet-unexplored love—coupled with her unabashedly airy, glossy pop sound, are especially poignant to me: I think that Jepsen's music actually makes more sense to a queer listener.

Like perma-camp queen Kylie Minogue, Jepsen taps into a shared queer history of escape, possibility, and disappointment.

On "Run Away With Me," for instance, Jepsen sings about a don't-tell-your-family sort of love. "Baby, take me to the feeling / I'll be your sinner in secret," she pleads over a sultry saxophone. The New Yorker's Jia Tolentino has given a similarly queer reading to "Boy Problems," saying of the song's bridge—"What's worse, losing a lover or losing your best friend? / What's worse is when you discover / You're not good for each other"—that Jepsen's "boy problems aren't between her and boy, they're between her and girl." There’s also "Body Language," an angst-filled tune about investigating whether someone likes-likes you. "I call you my lover, you call me your friend / I'm keeping it secret, yeah, even from you," Jepsen sings on the opener, following it with an equally anxious chorus: "Body language will do the trick / If you stay with me tonight, then we'll talk it over / That's the danger with missing it / I just think we're overthinking it." This concept of "looking"—for acceptance and affection, among other things—is an essential element of the queer experience. Because our identities aren't always apparent, queer people have to learn to scan scenes to find connections (and also, at times, to avoid danger).

Yet lyrics are just one part of what makes Jepsen's sensibility so queer. Really it's a combination of other, less-defined qualities—like the breathy repetition that picks up where '80s queer icons Belinda Carlisle and Tiffany left off—as well as those broad lyrical tropes that cut across her songs: dreams and dreaminess, fantasy, longing, and missed opportunity. (These tropes often take on more coherence in music videos, including the gay twist at the end of the "Call Me Maybe" video.) And this is to say nothing of Jepsen's dedicated advocacy on issues of gay rights; she's even described her relationship with her thumping gay fanbase as a "mutual lovefest."

Like perma-camp queen Kylie Minogue, Jepsen taps into a shared queer history of escape, possibility, and disappointment. And she does so, more to the point, with what seems like limitless passion. Her shimmery pop music is as much about feeling love's pain as it is about reveling—dancing—in its pleasure.

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