Update your glossary: Pop music no longer means “music that’s popular.” Clubby thump, breathy wails, mathematically engineered hooks, rhyming fire and desire and higher—the bundle may be going the way of big-band or nu metal, from central to niche. The latest sign of the shift is that Taylor Swift’s animatronic new single failed to dethrone a country-rap novelty from No. 1. Before that, The New York Times reported the end of a “one-size-fits-all” solution for hits, and Pitchfork kicked off a pan with, “Pop is dead; here is its corpse; here is Diplo attempting to make the corpse dance.”
For all her great charms, Carly Rae Jepsen has long seemed like the melodious canary in modern music’s coal mine. When the Canadian Idol runner-up landed “Call Me Maybe” as 2012’s breakout smash, it was a classic tale of sweet bubblegum conquering all. Yet even though her albums, 2012’s Kiss and 2015’s Emotion, were as clever and winsome as that hit—though maybe a half-degree less catchy overall—they were not the juggernauts that other eras might have made them. Instead, they became something that seems the opposite of pop: cult favorites. Girlish, lovelorn sing-alongs of the sort often unfairly dissed as “generic” had suddenly found themselves with a highly specific constituency bridging the indie-rock club and the gay video bar.
If music like Jepsen’s has been losing its ubiquity, it would stand to reason that it’s because the formula has exhausted all its possible permutations. How many times can “Thriller” and “Like a Virgin” and “Just Dance” get rewritten? Sure enough, the first singles for Jepsen’s latest album, Dedicated, did give the impression of someone stuck in a pleasant cul-de-sac. The synthetic sparkles and volcanic choruses of “Now That I Found You” and “Party for One” work as spectacular calisthenic fodder, but they don’t pack much surprise.
Yet dig more deeply into Jepsen’s new album, Dedicated, and you hear signs of a genre worth preserving. With her spry and youthful-seeming voice, Jepsen has long found ways to inject new vibrancy into the clichés of romance (a goal accomplished, for example, with the simple complication of maybe in “Call Me Maybe”). She’s talked, for this album, about wanting to make “chill disco” and about becoming “more confident in my weirdness.” These statements nail the strengths of Dedicated, whose highlights make the case that pop has a point beyond selling records: paying tribute to the wildness of human emotion in a controlled, reassuring format.
Skip to track four for a dazzling and hilarious distillation of this idea. Produced by Jack Antonoff, “Want You in My Room” blasts past any stigmas about “good taste” to evoke a rom-com set in a bouncy castle. Amid Fisher-Price congas, “Paradise City” guitars, and Daft Punk robo-vocals, a series of short and varied exclamations ricochet with an odd sort of grace. The effect is cheesy, yes, but imagine a fine Camembert disguised as a Kraft Single. When a saxophone erupts in the third minute, it’s nearly as joyful as the one on Jepsen’s 2015 classic “Run Away With Me,” except for one bummer factor: the song’s about to end.
That’s okay, though, as what arises next is just as strange and brilliant. “Everything He Needs” reworks something Shelley Duvall mewled to Robin Williams in the 1980 film Popeye into a psychedelic take on lust. The chorus has Jepsen making a hiccuping sort of ascent, like someone hopping a staircase two steps at a time. Saloon piano, funky laser noises, and two manipulated vocalists—one low and spooky, one a digitized opera squeal—jeer along, with increasing hysteria. For the bridge, spoken word turns to hallucinogenic slurring—“not just physically ... emotionally … spiritually … intellectually ... sexually”—before fish-tank bubbles go pop. It’s way better camp than anything at the Met Gala.
Later in the album, “Real Love” cements Dedicated’s triumph. Whereas “Want You in My Room” and “Everything He Needs” use uncool sounds for kooky fun, this track has trendier ingredients: new-new-wave synths trembling like so many lower lips, and a post-chorus EDM explosion. She bends the template for a moving story, still. A breakup is on Jepsen’s mind, but she’s less torn up than giddy for the next romance. “I’m not even scared,” she gasps, for true love is nourishment, and she’s “been feeling weak without it.” Just as the first swell of ecstasy seems imminent, the music pulls back, almost cruelly. When the much-anticipated party finally does crash in, it absolutely communicates the sating, the recharging, that Jepsen craves.
Between those three godlike bops, Dedicated serves up satisfying twists on the familiar. The album opens with a one-two dosing of slow disco enlivened by tangy chords and velvet harmonies. Some of the strongest hooks on the album—“Too Much,” “The Sound,” “For Sure”—are used in a restrained way, chanted and cooed as the arrangements give the sense of traversing a color gradient. Other tracks chase a more straightforward jolt while detouring to different subgenres: a No Doubt rock gallop on “I’ll Be Your Girl,” Motown spunk on “Feels Right.” Throughout, layers of fine detail reveal themselves: strange voices buried deep, reverb that bends and morphs into an instrument in its own right.
Has Jepsen found the future of pop? No, probably not. The drowsy defiance and anything-goes looseness of the rap and rap-influenced artists who constitute what’s actually popular lately remain far away. Jepsen’s not in dialogue with anyone but herself. Yet Dedicated shows that working within the confines of an ailing genre does not speak to a lack of ambition. As with all great pop, Jepsen’s songs are easy to enjoy. They’re also worthy of that thing she can’t help but keep singing about: obsession.