In the summer of 2013, Carly Rae Jepsen was booked to the play the New York State Fair, in Syracuse, N.Y. Unexpectedly sluggish ticket sales resulted in discount “Crazy for Carly” seats, with prices slashed by 40 per cent. Her latest singles at the time, This Kiss and Tonight I’m Getting Over You, had failed to grab the attention of their Grammy-nominated breakout predecessor, Call Me Maybe. Jepsen was reduced to drumming up support by telling Upstate New York fans how much see was looking forward to seeing the fair’s butter sculpture. She was singing Tonight I’m Getting Over You, but pop-music fans had already waived goodbye.
Two years later, the British Columbian opened her North American tour on an Ivy League campus, at Cornell’s Barton Hall in Ithaca, N.Y. Her 2015 dance-pop album Emotion was a critical success (but not a commercial one) and Jepsen had attracted healthy appreciation from co-eds, taste-makers and indie-music sophisticates. Though the concert at Cornell again drew poorly, the sing-along zeal for Jepsen’s pure-pop confections was strong, according to one reviewer.
It still is, judging by an ebullient Saturday-night crowd of some 3,000 diehards at Toronto’s Meridian Hall (formerly the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts). The concert is part of Jepsen’s tour in support of her latest album Dedicated, a glittering, simple-minded synth-disco collection. The tour’s Canadian leg began with a pair of shows at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom.
In Toronto, Jepsen’s upbeat constituency of poptimists and LGBTQ people celebrated in her effervescent presence, bopping to the teenage-dream euphoria of Run Away With Me as they submitted (at least in spirit) to the song’s tempting, giddy offer.
The concert began with the sugar-rush 2019 single No Drug Like Me. No drug like Jepsen, it is true. She has her junkies, and yet mainstream audiences resist her charms. Willfully out of step and defiantly operating outside the Zeitgeist, she revisits the 1980s (on Emotion) and the Donna Summer era (on Dedicated).
There’s something off about Jepsen. She’s too old at 33 to be embraced by bubblegum audiences but too adolescent (in look and lyricism) to be taken seriously by adults. Her lyrics are arrested in teen-hood. Songs such as Boy Problems and I Really Like You were surely written in perfumed notebooks during middle-school math, no?
Want You in My Room sounds sexy enough, but Jepsen isn’t talking about a hotel room or even a dorm room. “I wanna do bad things to you,” she sings. “Slide on through my window.” Is she still living in her parents’ house?
Where Bad Girl Donna Summer was “looking for some hot stuff,” Jepsen breathily sings about swiping a 10-speed on Fever:
So I stole your bike / And I rode all night / But I’m so damn scared / You don’t even care
Moreover, Jepsen’s youthful mindset extends beyond lyrics. “It’s a great pleasure in my life to keep the boys as confused as possible,” she told a Toronto audience made up of few if any boys exactly.
One supposes Jepsen doesn’t wish to confuse anyone as much as to keep them guessing. And while her stardom has been eclipsed by the arena-filling likes of Billie Eilish, and although she had run out of hits by the time she got to her three-song encore in Toronto, she’s too good to be written off as a one-hit wonder.
Remember that Jepsen was a Canadian Idol bronze medalist who introduced herself to the rest of the world with “Here's my number, so call me, maybe.” It was anything but a hard sell or a needy invitation. She makes music on her own terms, to a crazy-for-Carly fan base in favour of her candied pop and dance-loving soul. It’s not hot stuff, it’s fun stuff – and it is enough stuff.
Carly Rae Jepsen plays Ottawa, Sept.16; Kitchener, Ont., Sept. 18; London, Ont., Sept. 19.