A saxophone slices through the silence.
The sun has already peeked her head up from beneath the blanket-like horizon, but she seems slightly reluctant to rise from her bed entirely. “I get it, girl,” I think, as the runway lights wink at me as I pass.
It’s early, just shy of morning as I know it, but I’m already on my second—and thankfully, last—plane of the day.
The small Bombardier CRJ continues to taxi, and I think about the woman who sat across from me at the gate in Philadelphia again—the woman who ate a cheesesteak at 5 a.m. because “we won’t get one of these for like, 10 days!”—and I draft a tweet about how I’m married to this woman now. It’s silly but earnest, therefore entirely on brand for me.
We pause for a moment on the D.C. tarmac, and the plane is suddenly a small island between rivers. On either side, the motion of travel: the constant and literal comings and goings between state and country lines, but also, the movement of people in and out of each other’s lives.
I’m flying to Alabama, a state I’ve never been to before and truthfully, never thought about visiting, even in my most nomadic daydreams, because I’d never had a reason to be there. But I do now.
I’m off to watch my best friend get married. And I can’t help but wonder, looking around the sleepy cabin, where everyone is going, and who they’re going there to see. Are they in the process of leaving? Or are they arriving? Are they on an island somewhere between the two? Are they maybe not entirely sure themselves?
The engines, whirring into greater life as they build their momentum for takeoff, shake my brain from its reverie.
And maybe it’s the building speed—that wheels up, mounting altitude, landscape-falling-away kind of rush. Maybe it’s because I’ll be reunited with friends I haven’t seen in too long, because growing up means distance, no matter how hard you fight it. Or maybe it’s the fact that the saxophone spilling through my headphones is tinged with such an endearing sweetness, that it borders on nostalgic, but this moment feels cinematic.
“Up in the clouds / High as a kite / Over the city, city,” Carly Rae Jepsen sings as my perspective of the world zooms out and the plane climbs higher.
“We all deserve someone who will choose us at 5 a.m.” I think.
“Run away with me,” Jepsen sings, and Washington D.C. gives way to clouds.
At times said in raised-brow bemusement—as though I can’t possibly be serious—and others, with furrowed-brow condescension—because pop is still so readily excused as a genre incapable of intellectualism—I feel a palpable pang in my chest every time I hear the phrase: “That ‘Call Me Maybe’ girl?”
And, in my most empathetic moments, I get it. I do.
I’m a grown-ass woman, a product of the early-aughts’ Warped Tour scene. I still have a collection of a well-worn, black band-tees—like any emo worth her weight in Hot Topic cash—and I’m sure, if I rooted around in the Narnian-recesses of my closet long enough, I would stumble upon a studded belt or a wayward Fall Out Boy CD.
So, this earnest—and I would forgive you if you considered it somewhat manic at times—adoration of Carly Rae Jepsen’s pop is puzzling when juxtaposed with this image, and my mosh pit musical upbringing.
After all, I cut my teeth on the chug-a-chug-chug of a guitar on the precipice of a breakdown, or that solitary cymbal ding right before the harsh vocals rush in to fill the space.
So, I get it. I do.
But in the decade since I first threw my body into writhing mosh pits—frantic limbs clashing and colliding, everyone humming and frenetic with a reckless energy—and kicked my oversized skater shoes to the curb, I have found a home in different people and places.
Some are permanent—those fixtures turned foundation—while others are only for a few short, seasons, and that’s perfectly okay. That is growing up: the losing and finding, the discovering and expanding; the learning.
Naturally, I bopped along to “Call Me Maybe,” just like any human being with a pulse that summer the song wriggled its way into every ear. And I even had “Call Me Maybe” firmly burned on to a mix CD, and I would often skip songs just to get to its infectious saccharine. But, it would take me a few more years of growing to truly embrace Carly Rae Jepsen and her brand of indie poptimism.
Because it’s easy to be apathetic. I’ve learned it’s easy to glide through life dressed in a leather jacket like cynicism and call it cool. Or call it personality, or interesting. But abandoning that concept that cynicism is cool—how often are we sold the brooding anti-hero?—and dismantling this idea that art is best created in darkness—or that it must come from a place of pain to warrant acclaim—took me well into my twenties to fully learn, understand and embrace.
Enter: Carly Rae Jepsen.
Cut to the Feeling
It’s the beginning of October—weeks before I’ll be on a plane to Alabama—and a day after Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in as the 114th Supreme Court justice. It’s the beginning of October, a season of such quiet change, and I am in D.C. for a music festival.
And it feels strange to be skirting the edges of a city that has transformed itself into the ground zero of so much of what makes my heart ache. But sometimes, the most radical thing you can do is be happy. At least, that’s what I tell myself, as my friends and I walk the few blocks to the festival—passing neon graffiti tags and new-age coffee shops in equal measure.
And maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s the fact that this is the first time I’ll be seeing Jepsen perform live—her touring stops have been sparse at best over the last several months, and almost solely reserved for festivals far from Jersey, and far from my price range—or the fact that, one year ago to the day, I lost a home I had built in someone else.
But the unseasonably warm air has a charge to it, and the closer we get to the outdoor venue, the more I’m absolutely buzzing: like a proton you can’t quite pin in place, or a pulsating synth line dressed in rose gold Oxfords.
My friends and I are relatively early—as far as festivals and fashionably-late goes—and one of the workers standing at the entrance, not yet swarmed by show attendees, asks me who I’ve come to see. Her question is casual, but earnest.
“Carly Rae Jepsen,” I say, as if there was another option.
“She’s that ‘Call Me Maybe’ girl, right?”
And before I can stop myself, my hand flies to my chest in a way that can only look melodramatic, but I assure you, is completely genuine.
“Are you saying that you don’t know about ‘Emotion’ and her entire collection of bops!” I say, my voice climbing a few octaves higher in mock indignation.
And whether it’s at my very serious response, or the collected visual of this motley, Carly crew in front of her, she laughs and waves us through. She tells us to have fun, and I keep a hand to my chest: continually clutching at pearls in a world that insists—despite my vocal objections on Twitter!—on living without emotion.
I didn’t just come here to dance, if you know what I mean.
It’s entirely possible to love someone who is wrong for you—this goes for romantic or platonic love, and all shades in between. It’s easy to fashion yourself a corner of the foundation, when, in reality, you may just be a fixture in someone else’s home.
And this slide into possibilities—this “where you see yourself” and “where you see yourself, together”—is, often times, a gentle one. It’s a ride that you may not even know that you’re on, until you reach the end.
And these endings don’t have to be climactic. Sometimes, they are modest or quiet, or even incomplete: a search for closure or resolution, even though I don’t think those things exist in the way that we think they should, but we look anyway.
This honesty in heartbreak and reality—from the simple sugar rush of a new crush to the complicated sour hurt, and then, the bittersweetness of moving on—is something Carly Rae Jepsen doesn’t just understand, but gets. And it’s this genuine honesty that enamored me so suddenly when I stumbled my way back into synth-pop’s orbit in early-2017.
It was a season of silent Octobers, in which so much change colored my vision. Globally, it felt as though we were trading one volatility for another in endless secession. Personally, relationships were in flux and flow trying to navigate the choppy waters of these new channels: the expanding self-awareness, the plunging anxieties, the muddied hope. And my heart ached.
Cut to: “Cut to the Feeling.”
After casually shelving “Call Me Maybe” years earlier—though staunchly holding on to the mix CD it’s prominently featured on—I was immediately enraptured by Jepsen’s one-off single, “Cut to the Feeling.”
Packed with pulsating synths, crashing percussion and soaring choruses—characteristics that make Jepsen’s third studio album, “Emotion,” just as effervescent and all-encompassing—“Cut to the Feeling” fills the entire space of any room, or tired heart.
It’s pure optimism, in all its cinematic potential, conveniently packaged within 115 beats per minute. And while I very much wasn’t wearing lapels at the time I first listened to “Cut to the Feeling,” I can only imagine how, if I were, it would grab me by them and shake me purposefully, but gently.
Because in a time that felt so intensely unstable and unsure—both on the world stage and in my own, humble corner of growing up—Jepsen, and her sincere poptimism, enveloped me entirely.
Once I was able to tear myself away from my nearly-constant loop of “Cut to the Feeling,” I dove deep into Jepsen’s discography. Particularly, “Emotion,” and her quasi-follow up EP, “Emotion: Side B” (2016).
The dreamy synths dripping with 80’s nostalgia. The layered production and attention to detail—I still swoon when that upward sojourn into head voice happens on “When I Needed You,” or when that drum fill punches up the sound on “The One,” just before the second chorus settles in. The bubbling melodies and moody bridges, the sensual ballads and fizzy bops complete with saxophone—saxophone!—riffs. It was everything I needed.
But, it’s the sincerity in which Jepsen delivers her lyrics that so enthralled me. Alternating between an artful creakiness that endues verses with a longing you can feel, deeply, and an ascending charm that takes you higher, Jepsen’s tone is entirely disarming. And the first time I listened to “Emotion,” it was a sweet revelation.
The retro-inspired synths, the clap-along percussions, the unapologetic fun! And then, PANG! Jepsen’s words went right through my chest, and it was like taking a deep breath—a breath I didn’t even know that I was holding.
Believe me, I am well aware how silly this sounds. I’ve seen enough “here she goes again” eye rolls—no matter how benign—or furrowed-brow-head-tilted-to-the-side confusion to know how my fevered championing of Carly Rae Jepsen sounds.
Because, even in my small corner of musical experiences, pop is often tossed aside in favor of something more prestigious, or pretentious, especially when it comes to talking emotional and intellectual value. So often we look to discredit those things that have an appeal that we can’t quite place or make sense of right away. And then, we just assume that this thing—this wide-reaching thing—can’t contain multitudes, or nuance or a depth worth mining.
How dare pop music have the audacity to be infinitely playable, right?
Because, when greeted with this success, this playability that can’t be placed—especially if it touts a strong fanbase that favors teen girls or the LGBTQIA community—it must be decried, quickly: as vapidity, as phase, as something less than worthy of the home it’s found.
If you give Kurt Cobain a guitar and flannel, you create a whole new genre of rock. But if you give a teen girl an anthem, you’re suddenly reduced to nothing but bubblegum parts and skepticism?
I don’t accept that.
Because there’s something so beautiful in choosing to love something, and not making a single apology for it. There’s something intrinsically liberating in embracing something wholeheartedly, and not trying to rationalize it, or justify it, or quantify it in any way.
And I know Carly Rae Jepsen is far from the only artist making music that meets at this cross-section of unassuming pop and indie darling. But, to me, her synth-driven “Emotion” was this beacon in an endless October. It shook me from a malaise. It offered me more than melancholy and encouraged me to take the long way home.
Embracing Carly Rae Jepsen marked a shift in my personal world. I was done qualifying things as “guilty pleasures” out of shame, however small. I was done equating apathy with interesting, and I was done making room for relationships that only ever gave me excuses.
Instead, I took an intense interest in organic empathy—embracing my quirks and anxieties and being honest about them—and, in the most natural way, I found people who accepted all that.
Making the Most of the Night
“She’s gonna be right there!” I squeal, for what must be the thousandth time, while gesturing to the solitary microphone sitting center-stage an unfathomably close 15-feet away.
Beneath a zig-zagging canopy of twinkle lights and funneled between two loading docks in D.C., my friends—Sam and Travis—and I alternate between bouncing in enthusiastic excitement, and slouching against the barrier, or each other’s shoulders, in extreme exhaustion.
After all, it’s been a long day, as music festivals often are. But the three of us, all clad in some sort of suit and tie ensemble—because this is an occasion! and we will settle for nothing less than “too much”—have prime real estate. We’re nestled just behind the VIP pit and flush against the barricade.
And we simply refuse to give an inch to the swelling crowd which, by now, fills all the available space between the stage and the entrance we walked through so long ago.
There is a tangible energy building and mingling with the twinkle-lights, shining brightly now that the sun is firmly tucked beneath the concrete of the city. Pops of color—Pride flags draped around shoulders like capes, or flying freely—adorn this tapestry of strangers, beautiful and waiting in the nighttime air.
“She’s gonna be right there!” I say, for the one-thousand-and-oneth time.
Let’s Get Lost
The stage lights snap up—illuminating a bright, baby blue banner adorned with swirling, pink florals—and Carly Rae Jepsen is center-stage. She gives a tentative smile from behind the microphone.
It is the smallest of moments.
“You’re stuck in my head / Stuck on my heart / Stuck in my body, body / I wanna go / Get outta here / I’m sick of the party, party / I’d run away,” she sings. “I’d run away with you.”
And I believe her entirely.
Throughout the 14-song set, Jepsen cruises along the surging synth undercurrents of “Gimmie Love,” “First Time” and “All That.” She bounces around the stage to “Making the Most of the Night,” and twirls—her fringed pants enhancing the small circles—while singing “Boy Problems,” “I Didn’t Just Come Here to Dance” and “I Really Like You.
Then, just before launching into the brooding “Fever,” Jepsen pauses—just for a moment, but moment enough for me to catch my breath—and notes that she really did steal a boy’s bike.
And it is a silly confession, but earnest: a small truth, but genuine honesty.
And maybe that’s what I’m looking for anymore. Maybe that’s what I’ve been missing, and why I’m here in D.C. dancing and singing with so many strangers like best friends.
Because connection is everything. It’s honest and moving, and if you allow yourself to be vulnerable, it’s entirely liberating. With Carly Rae Jepsen conducting, the crowd, embracing so much of this emotion, moves like creamer in coffee: undulating and expanding and swirling into something more.
“Hey, I just met you.”
Giving and taking energy—from the music, from each other—in equal measure. We are atoms, frenetic and buzzing, and colliding against one another in the gentlest ways.
“And this is crazy.”
We are all fragile and reckless little things. We are breakable—and capable of doing so much of the breaking—but tonight, we are building something together.
“Here’s my number.”
And this isn’t any different than the mosh pits I dove into a decade ago. All we were looking for then was a space we could fill with ourselves, and if we were lucky, share with someone else. All we’re looking for now is that same gentle connection, that same kind of home in each other.
“So call me maybe.”
And three weeks from now, I’ll be yelling on an Alabama dance floor: “Play Carly Rae Jepsen, you coward!” This will be yelled in mock indignation towards the DJ booth. It will be less demand, however, and more my general plea of the universe. Someone will turn to me and say, “You love Carly Rae Jepsen, too?” and I’ll reach out, to this stranger, lovingly and say, “Yes, I saw her in concert a few weeks ago, can I tell you all about it?”
There will be photographic evidence of us discussing Jepsen—and her catalogue of bops!—in my best friend’s wedding pictures. We’ll be tucked in the corner of a black-and-white photograph, just slightly out of focus behind the grinning bride and groom, lamenting how “Emotion” deserves so much better from this apathetic world.
After that picture is taken, we’ll sneak off, while everyone is still outside twirling their sparklers in the countryside stillness and request a song at the DJ booth.
But for now, I am yelling in chorus with friends and strangers alike: “I wanna cut to the feeling, oh yeah!” as Carly Rae Jepsen thrusts an inflatable sword skyward.
More Than a Memory
Music is a time capsule. It both makes memories and marks moments in your life—milestones read like track lists, and relationships spin like playlists. A party trick of the hippocampus and suddenly, with a single song, it’s a different year entirely. It’s almost like magic.
Or, maybe it is magic. Plain and simple.
In Alabama, the DJ plays songs from the days when we were in college, when starships were meant to fly, all we did was win, win, win—no matter what—and distance meant something significantly less.
“Livin’ on a Prayer” comes on, and while all of us sing-screaming in a circle are too young to have thrived in the aerosol-spray of 80’s hair bands, most of us called New Jersey home at one time or another, and sing-screaming along to Bon Jovi is just what you do.
And as the night goes on, I sing along to songs I haven’t heard in years—but still know all the words to—and sway to choruses that are like time machines, my dress tracing circles on the dance floor like a fashionable ghost.
“If I stop moving, I’ll die!” I tell anyone who dances near me, because a girl—well, this girl, anyway—can only do so much in her seventh hour in heels.
But then, a familiar sound shakes my body: purposefully, but gently.
I Really Like You
Jepsen’s brand of pop achieves a balance of emotions as rich in nuance as it is in sonic texture. Nestled within the 80’s-synth nostalgia, infectiously curated hooks and choruses that know how to treat you right, is a humanity simply brimming with sincerity.
Love gives way to longing, lament gives way to acceptance, adoration gives way to self-possession, and then it starts all over again as the CD cycles back to the beginning. Jepsen’s wins and losses are yours, too—organically and entirely.
“You pulled a gem out of a mess / I was so cynical before, I must confess,” Jepsen sings in “Higher,” and is there a greater master thesis for the effect Carly Rae Jepsen has had on my life?
Because she doesn’t sell you prepackaged cynicism, which is all too easy to do. On albums like “Emotion” and “Emotion: Side B,” Jepsen—and her team, because nothing is achieved alone—create a landscape that doesn’t just ask you to listen along but grabs you by the hand and twirls you around the dance floor. It invites you to mingle with first love and heartache—with boy problems, roses and all that—and it allows emotions to exist in the space between extremes. And within all of this, there is an undeniable charm that makes even the most hard-pressed lips split into a grin.
Honestly, it is scientifically impossible to frown while singing “I Really Like You.” Believe me, I’ve done countless hours of research! Some of which involved me dancing hand-in-hand with my best friend—stunning in her wedding gown!—while telling her over and over again, just as Jepsen intended, “I really like you!”
Carly Rae Jepsen’s pop is radical happiness—and honesty—taken to its most daring degree. It’s palpable empathy and it dares you to love what you love and gives you permission to feel your feelings. In a world that sometimes demands that you be meaner, or tougher, or tells you that emotions make you weak, pop music is here to tell you that none of that is true. After all, you are human—in all your messy wonder—and you are allowed to act like it. You very much deserve that.
You very much deserve to be happy.
As Carly Rae Jepsen fades from the speakers, I think about my friends. And how, come tomorrow, we’ll be scattered to the furthest extremes of this country’s coasts again. I think about how we’ll have to fill in all that space with texts and tweets—both silly and earnest—and how that will be enough. Because it will have to be enough.
Distance has a way of making the “big picture” much easier to see. Fields become squares on a patchwork quilt. City blocks transform into a network of firing synapses, and constellations come a little closer.
It’s the end of October—the end of a season of quiet change—and I am swaying on a dance floor. Another song from another era plays and suddenly, I am an island between two rivers: where I’ve been flowing on one side, and where I’m going, though murky, coursing on the other.
And I think about how things will be different tomorrow, because that is growing up, no matter how hard you fight it. Tomorrow, my best friend will wake up with a new last name. One that belongs to a man who, I didn’t know well before this weekend, but I’ve since learned is patient and kind, and makes wonderful waffles in the morning. Tomorrow, my best friend will wake up inside this new home she’s found in him, and I know he will always choose her at 5 a.m.
I think of the woman from the airport again—and maybe it’s because I see metaphors in cheesesteaks, but I hope she’s arrived, whatever that means for her. I sway to a new song and remind myself to tell Sam and Travis about my triumphant DJ heist. And I know they’ll be happy, because they’ll know I was happy.
And things will be different tomorrow, that’s just how things go. But for now, I think about the text my grandmother sent me—three weeks earlier—as I was leaving D.C. and all that radical happiness we wedged between those two loading docks.
“Good times, good memories,” she wrote.
“Yeah,” I think. “I really like that.”
Ashley Cline is an avid introvert and full-time carbon based life form currently living in south Jersey. Since graduating from Rowan University with her Bachelor's in Journalism, she can usually be found singing show tunes to her dog, drinking too much iced coffee and wearing beanies. Her personal best at all-you-can-eat sushi is five rolls in eleven minutes. You can find her yelling about Carly Rae Jepsen on Twitter and posting photos of her dog on Instagram.