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The Loneliest Time by Carly Rae Jepsen, released by Interscope Records in 2022. Listen


It's generally a mistake to approach pop music intellectually – to explain its appeal by reference to the precepts of musical theory and compositional technique. And not because pop music doesn't reward such analysis; it absolutely does, and often in surprising ways. But that's not how pop music wants to be understood or experienced. Rather, it wants to engage us at a deeper, more emotional level. It doesn't want us to analyze; it wants us to feel. It wants us to let go – of our thinking minds, of our inhibitions, of everything that normally stands in the way of feeling and emotion. It wants us to surrender.

This might seem to make it impossible to talk about pop music, but really all it means is that we have to talk about pop music in a different way. To paraphrase Susan Sontag, in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of pop music. We need to make clear its rush, its electricity, its ecstasy. And no artist exemplifies these qualities better than pop music's queen, Carly Rae Jepsen.

What's so great about Jepsen is that she fully commits to pop music's fundamental premise. Here is music that is pure feeling, in all its intensity, thrill, and exhilaration. Its heart is racing; its pulse is up. It's throwing everything it has behind this emotion. It's an expression and depiction of desire, and like desire itself, it overpowers everything else.

But let's be honest: For most of us, this is not how our feelings actually feel. Or at least that's how it is for me. If you can't already tell from my general demeanor on this show, I'm a pretty calm and stoic guy – so what am I doing crushing on such hyperactive and hyperbolic pop music? But that's precisely the point: I don't listen to this music to be reminded of what my feelings actually feel like; I listen to experience what they could feel like, if I were less inhibited, less reticent, more carefree.

That's why it's so fitting that pop music in general, and Jepsen's music in particular, is chiefly concerned with feelings of desire and longing. Because desire, like pop music, is aspirational. It's not about what we already have and possess; it's about what we don't have and wish to attain. The object of our desire is always just out of reach, which is why the feeling of desire always pulls us out of ourselves – and the genius of this music is that it mirrors that transportive quality and in this way acts as a simulacrum of desire, a musical facsimile of what it feels like to be swept away by emotion.

Which is all just to say that pop music, at its best, is more vicarious than cathartic. It's more performance than portrayal. We respond to it not because we recognize ourselves in the music, but because the music frees us to feel like someone else. Pop music is a karaoke of the emotions, it's a cosplay, it's a larp. And that brings us to what I believe is the real secret behind Carly Rae Jepsen's appeal: She's larping with us.

Unlike most other pop stars, Jepsen's songs are not a demonstration of her virtuosity as a performer, or her desirability as an idol. Rather, they're a demonstration of just how fun it is to sing these songs. She sings them like we sing them, in those moments of solitude when no one else is watching and we crank up the volume, start moving and grooving, let ourselves go, and sing along at the top of our lungs. It's as if she's karaokeing to her own music – and what better way to show how this music is to be enjoyed?

This isn't music to be observed or appreciated at a distance; this is music to inhabit and become immersed in. And what I love about Carly Rae Jepsen is that she never lets us forget this: she's always there, inviting us to get lost, run away with her, and see all that we could do with this emotion.