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Friday, September 14, 2012

Carly Rae Jepsen's Kiss: A First Listen

Posted By on Fri, Sep 14, 2012 at 9:01 AM


Normally I do these things on Radiohead or Bruce or Madonna, but my editor cleared one for Carly Rae Jepsen, who was a complete unknown a year ago. That's how big the biggest hit of the year is. Problem is, it's that mass-mass appeal that I think keeps me from all the way enjoying it. It's a cute song, but one that I suspect is going to be more fun in retrospect -- as nostalgia, as a segue on a Girl Talk album, as bar mitzvah fare. Since it's so big and Jepsen's personality appears so small, she's already been kind of deathmarked as a one-hit wonder, even though her Owl City duet is currently dominating digital sales or some shit. But now she has an album and I think it's safe to say we're all genuinely curious if she has any bullets left in the revolver. So this will be less of a review and more of me playing A&R odds.

"Tiny Little Bows"

She plays the Kylie card: Opens with twisted-disco strings and aluminum slap bass, and I'm straining to find the significance of the title image, the first concrete image I can associate with her music (does the implied phone in "Call Me Maybe" count?). But I can't parse this chorus at all: "How do you think it goes with those tiny little bows/ You're the one I want/ You're the one I know/ And everywhere you are/ is a place I wanna go."

Questions for the class:

1. Is "how do you think it goes..." her way of being coy? Are the bows a tattoo, like the one Vince Vaughn calls a "bullseye" in Wedding Crashers?

2. Does she only want the guy because he's familiar to her? I don't know lady, it sounds like he might've friendzoned you already.

3. Is the very subtly intoned and brief passage from Sam Cooke's "Cupid" a hint of what kind of "bows" are in question? Or is she just playing with the phrase?

None of this is ever explained. The song is a lot less interesting than this convoluted outline would imply.

"This Kiss"

The new single, and I like it a lot better than "Call Me Maybe" to be honest. Disco gives her pleasant voice more contours and the sound effects (particularly happy laser synth) her generic tunes so sorely need. But she's SO dull. "I went out last night/ I'm going out tonight again" is not an opening line unless she's yearning for a "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight" style parody. And hey, did you know "kiss" rhymes with "resist"? Although she hilariously keeps upping the ante to "unreliable"/"undeniable" and finally "sentimental"/"detrimental." The backing robot-vocals are hilarious -- the little accent "GETATTENTION." Pop achieved.

"Call Me Maybe"

Which leads rather directly into the fluffiest pop song of the last five years. I'm the dick who prefers Gotye, wishes for a production twist or a minor chord, or a thematic twist. But the song's fine. It's not overrated, just over-enjoyed -- by many people who don't normally enjoy this kind of song, because she doesn't risk abhorring anyone with so much as a personality. Ke$ha is a photo negative, but Ke$ha has cheek and sass and a palette of various tones and moods. As Green Day once put it, she's a smartass who's playing dumb. Carly Rae Jepsen is a nice girl who plays nice -- she doesn't know any other games. I'm fine with 2012 going down historically as the year this was "Beat it" or "When Doves Cry." But it ain't. It does sound better slotted into this DJ playlist of an album though.


This is almost a pretty one; she could well be the North American Kylie Minogue yet. But Kylie's synthesizers are toothier, vocals more exasperated. All up-and-up sugar, "Curiosity" is fun but topically confusing. I get the joke this time -- "This is crazy love/ And you know I'm gonna follow you home" -- it's just not properly sold through that unrelenting smile. It's hard not to think of a pop star who'd sell the happy-psycho conceit better than her: Beyoncé ("Ring the Alarm"), Ke$ha ("Stephen"), Britney (take your pick). Even Taylor "Better Than Revenge" Swift.

"Good Time"

Here's where the album really proposes an ultimatum: follow these androids into la-la land or bite them maybe. The co-humanoid in question is Adam Young, aka Owl City, who's sometimes tuneful but always brainless. What he is to the Postal Service is closer to closer to what she is to Taylor Swift than actual Taylor Swift, so they're perfect for an inane duet that somewhat audaciously claims "We don't even have to try/ It's always a good time" and cannot compute the relative subtleties of the Prince song that wakes up in Young's head. Reversing Justin Timberlake's juiciest lyric into the PG "Good morning and good night" and lacing up with enough buttery harmonies that you want to hear it again, this song is the enemy.

"More Than a Memory"

This album's remarkable adherence to tune and beat is starting to make me wonder about my avowed position that there's no guilt in pleasure. But I can actually feel my resistance to this album melting away. So figure if her production and lyrics are going to be completely flavorless, her melodies might as well begin to pick up the slack. "More Than a Memory" is the "I'm over you/ Are you over me" dance hit that Kelly Clarkson should've punched out years ago.

"Turn Me Up"

Computer-funk with better bass, more audio layers, a little bit of gauze to get lost in without innovating a thing or changing what a cornball record this is. It's hard to tell if Jepsen's interested in pleasure though; when she begs "turn me on, turn me on," she sounds like a coffeemaker.

"Hurt So Good"

How many insistent, peppy dance songs does one need? This isn't even a cheerleader album, this is a toothpaste commercial album. Even the pain is a -- what was that, again -- a good time. Love the slight little voice manipulations in the background, if you can even listen to the background behind all those rainbow-striped lollipop synths and four-always-on-the-floor slabs of obvious. But this one's excellent. "Why you gotta make it hurt so good?" Because you have to be human to feel pain you fucking Cylon.


A minor miracle that she spins Justin Bieber and Owl City into palatable cotton candy on the same record--this is more songful and bouncy than anything on his. And it's the first ballad! One nice side effect of the year Eurosynths conquered everything pop in enormous caramel goop is that ballads have all but disappeared from the pop charts. Now we can count on one-hit twitters to have more upbeat songs on their album than just the hit -- thanks Autotune!

"Tonight I'm Getting Over You"

"I wanna smash your fears" and "Don't you share your smile with anyone else but me" and crushing your heart in her bare hands -- this is Jepsen's attempt to be a bitch. But she can't keep a straight face and keeps cracking up. It's not even in a minor key -- her idea of dissonance is dubstep synths diluted to "We Found Love"'s pitch. But we've reached a holding pattern; this is one of the most listenable pop albums I've ever heard that by any calculable metric on paper should fail at every category. With only two songs left, it can't fail now. More bubblegum please.

"Guitar String/Wedding Ring"

She's so weird. At least unlike Owl City she doesn't think it's necessarily clever to wear a guitar string like a wedding ring, and she doesn't play it goofy like Ke$ha. She compares herself to a fish on the ground but doesn't seem to be suffering elsewhere in this song. Maybe she's just flopping? Is that what people who'd wear guitar string do? This song's fucking insane -- and one of the most addictive tracks here.

"Your Heart Is a Muscle"

Wow, the Jepsenbot never skips a beat does she? Even the piano ballad closer is fast-paced. I really liked this album and I was genuinely not expecting to. So many of her melodies are half-assed; words no-assed. She's no Robyn or Gaga. She's no Taylor or Britney either. But the way they're arrayed in a row really just punches you in the face. Maybe she could duet with Andrew W.K. next. He could teach her about lyrics.

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