Discover more from Elly Says: Eat Oatmeal, Spread Love
coming alive with Carly Rae Jepsen, opening the doors to hope, surviving, and dancing for joy
Sometimes you just need a little dance music to remind you that you're alive, you know?
“Have you ever listened to her music?” I asked my therapist on Monday.
“Well, no, but…”
“Okay, well! Then you can’t say anything else about Carly until you’ve listened. So I know you’re usually the one who gives me homework but your homework for this week is to listen to her album Emotion first, from start to finish, and then listen to her most recent album Dedicated from start to finish—in that order. And listen to the self growth in the lyrics. And then tell me it totally makes sense that I love her music.”
“Okay, alright. I will listen to Carly Rae Jepsen this week and let you know.”
I wish I could tell you that this was a completely made up conversation, but truly this is just who I am as a person, so yes I did have this talk with my therapist this week. And yes, I will be expecting her to truly listen to Carly’s discography before she keeps asking me what it is I love so much about her music. And yes, I really do talk about Carly Rae Jepsen enough in sessions that my therapist had to ask why all the queer and trans clients she has have soul-boners for her.
What is it about Carly’s music that I love so much?
It’s clear in the difference between Carly’s lyrics in Gimmie Love from 2015 — “‘Cause I want what I want, do you think that I want too much?" and her lyrics in Too Much from 2019 — "So be careful if you're wanting this touch 'cause if I love you, then I love you too much / I'm not afraid to know my heart's desire" — this alone shows astronomical growth in sense of self-worth and self-knowledge. And I simply love a good character arc.
Anyone who knows me—scratch that—anyone who even so much as sees my tweets knows that I love Carly Rae Jepsen. But the truth is I can’t exactly remember where this love came from, or started. It was just there out of the blue one day when I needed it most.
I do remember listening to Call Me Maybe repeatedly at the end of high school when it came out, and feeling a bubbly joyfulness that was incomparable to the way I felt when I listened to most music. And I do remember her music continuing to carry me throughout hard experiences in college even when everyone said that Call Me Maybe made her a one hit wonder.
Listening to pop music after elementary school was unusual for me, considering that in high school, I spent most of my time listening to alternative rock and indie folk or punk: bands like The Killers, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, Bright Eyes, Bon Iver, Green Day, Misfits, the Ramones—all music that I liked for real—but all music that I was mainly listening to because I was dreadfully afraid I would be Extremely Uncool if I occasionally “cheated” and went back to the pop music I’d spent most of my life listening and dancing to—Britney Spears, Hilary Duff, The Jonas Brothers, and then of course, the music from Glee.
This, of course, was not helped by the people I surrounded myself with. Two people I was friends with in particular were musicians, but unlike me (or so they made me feel), they were serious musicians. They played drums and bass and were in bands. They wrote and recorded their own Queens of the Stone Age-esque songs. They were the real deal. I dealt with a lot of teasing about my music taste during high school, and so I slunk into the corners of my room listening to the most hardcore bands in my music collection, letting the pop stars gather dust.
I managed to change that half self-righteous half self-conscious mentality by 2011 when two of my good friends I’d become close with thanks to Tumblr, Sarah and Makinsey, became completely obsessed with One Direction. Suddenly there was a whole community of teen girls online who made me feel like it was not only okay to like pop music, but it was okay to love pop music, and that there were people to listen to it with. Once they helped me to break through that barrier, I never went back to using the term “guilty pleasure” for the music I loved. And I never went back to trying to hide my love of pop music behind “cooler” or “more serious” music.”
Then I went back to Carly’s earlier music—her 2008 album Tug of War, in which her lyrics are a little choppier, a little more about trying to make it in the world and her love life, and not so much the self-confident voice we’ve come to know and love today. Her song Money and the Ego embodies the acutely specific experience of trying to make it in an industry where it’s all about, you guessed it, mostly money and people’s egos—a struggle I now know well. And her song Tell Me—which never truly went anywhere—still embodies all of the feelings prominent in new love when someone says they love you but don’t show you.
“Inside you there's a room, a room with a door / I finally come knocking and I've been here before / Oh I've got this love for you, but what is it for if you can't hear me / Then, tell me, last chance / Hold me in your arms and say if you want this love to walk away / Tell me and I'll say goodbye”
Flash forward to my adulthood, when I remembered how much joy I still find in the silliest, most upbeat pop music, mostly thanks to some of my favorite writers who were unashamed to proclaim their love for it—and in their doing so, reminded me that it’s not just okay to love pop music. There are communities of people where it’s encouraged. For most of 2019, I woke up every day and went into work early and turned on the I Really Like You music video with Tom Hanks lip syncing the words, and I danced to the song to start my day off right—to start my day off feeling joyful and hopeful, even if about nothing in particular.
I had just finished going through a really difficult depressive episode due to some hardships, personally and professionally, and while I had just started to feel better around May last year, getting up and out of bed in the morning every day was still the hardest part. I needed some external motivation to help me. And that’s when I turned to Carly.
The first time I found out that Carly had a music video with my favorite actor Tom Hanks, who has brought so much joy to me in my life, and I watched the music video for I Really Like You, I turned to my friend and then-coworker Jamal and said, “What if I just watched this video and listened to this first thing every morning?” sort of as a joke. But then I thought—what if I actually did that? Would it affect my brain? Would it affect my happiness? Would it make mornings easier, more manageable, or more joyful? So I started doing it.
Every morning, I tried to start my day by dancing to Carly Rae Jepsen music at some point before 10 AM—and it honestly changed my whole life.
It made me want to wear a nice outfit every day—not something that other people deemed nice, but something that felt comfortable to me, and something that made me feel like myself. It made me want to put effort into myself. It reminded me that there are good things outside of myself to look forward to—and not only that, but that I could create things to look forward to. That I could decide to make every day, or any day for that matter, a dancing day. No special occasion was needed to try to do something that made me happy. Every single day is the occasion.
Last summer, I got to go to a Carly concert in Manhattan, too. And although I went alone because I didn’t have any friends in New York who feel quite the same way about Carly as I do, it was one of the nicest experiences in my life thus far—because I felt alive. There is such an aliveness to Carly’s music that translates to joy—but more than that, it translates to the feeling that your life is your own and whatever song you want to write or sing about it is the right one. There’s no melody, no certain rhyming scheme or lyrical mastery that you have acquire for your song to matter or be good. It’s exactly what one of my favorite writers, Hanif Abdurraqib, says in his essay on Carly’s music:
“From a metaphorical standpoint, one of the worst things we do is compare love to war. We do this in times of actual war, without a thought about what it actually means. Mothers bury their children while a pop musician calls the bedroom a war zone and romance a field of battle — as if there is a graveyard for heartbreak alone. We’ve run out of ways to weaponize sadness, and so it becomes an actual weapon. A buffet of sad and bitter songs rains down from the pop charts for years, keeping us tethered to whatever sadness we could dress ourselves in when nothing else fit. Jepsen is trying to unlock the hard door, the one with all of the other feelings behind it.
…This is the difficult work: convincing a room full of people to set their sadness aside and, for a night, bring out whatever joy remains underneath; in a world where there is so much grief to be had, leading the people to water and letting them drink from your cupped hands. Inside Terminal 5, under the spell of Carly Rae Jepsen, love is simply love. It is not war. It is not something you are thrown into and forced to survive. It is something you experience, and if you’re lucky enough, time slows down. It is not as fashionable as our precious American anguish, our feelings that eclipse all else. But, then again, there is a time to throw all else aside and see if maybe dancing will bring us back to life, packed so tightly in a room of strangers that everyone becomes one whole body, shaking free whatever is holding it down.”
At the Carly Rae Jepsen concert in 2019, I was surrounded by hundreds of drunk gay men who, in any other context, I might be extremely annoyed with for bumping into me as they danced to Cut to the Feeling and Want You in My Room. But I wasn’t annoyed. I was joyful. Because Carly was bouncing around the stage and giving herself permission to be fully alive—and in doing so, she gave us all permission to do the same. She opened up the door to all the feelings, and she said, “Come in, friends. There’s plenty of room in here for everyone.”
My work life balance right now is not quite in the place I’d like it to be, and I’ve returned full circle to the place where waking up and getting out of bed in the morning is once again extremely difficult. I haven’t yet gotten back to the place where I’m dancing to Carly every day. But I do still turn to her when I need comfort. I put on Emotion and listen to it while I write sad or frustrating or scary articles about the things going on in the world right now. And it balances me out.
It reminds me that while the world is hard, I do not have to be. I can soften under the weight of music that wishes to make me unjaded and uncut by the world.
Even though I don’t start every day by listening to Carly anymore, I do start every day by reminding myself that I have survived every day before this one. I do sometimes put on Warm Blood and touch my own body like no one is watching, because no one is, and sing my heart out about how my heart is pumping. I do listen to her lyrics from her older albums, from Emotion and then her lyrics from her newest album Dedicated, and track her self growth and the way she now writes answers to the questions she first asked in her old songs—about if she was too much for the one she loves to handle—about how now she knows she is too much and she loves herself for that.
When I fell in love for the first time in years in 2018, Carly’s song Favourite Color was there for me, describing exactly how it felt to blend with another person.
“When I'm close to you, we blend into my favourite colour / I'm bright baby blue, fallin' into you, falling for each other”
This morning, I listened to Call Me Maybe for the first time since last summer when I went to her concert. The only reason I listen to this song more infrequently than others is that it isn’t one of my all time Carly favorites. BUT. In listening to Call Me Maybe again for the first time in a while, I’m reminded why I first fell in love with Carly’s music in the first place. I’m reminded of all the joy in Carly Rae Jepsen’s music that makes me feel capable and sure of my own feelings and needs and desires—that makes me just want to dance—how she gives us this gift again and again in song form, saying, I am here for you. I’m dancing, too. Come join me!
I know that truly not everyone enjoys pop music, or even likes dancing. Maybe that’s not what helps you come alive. But we can metaphorically dance, in our spirits. We can do whatever helps us find ourselves. So this isn’t a puff piece I was paid to write by some PR person. And I’m not telling you to close this window and immediately open up Carly Rae Jepsen’s most recent album and jam to it.
I’m saying there’s music out there that will remind you that you’re alive and that you can dance if you want to.
Whatever it is, I hope you allow yourself to find it. Wherever it is, I hope it finds you.