PART 5 -
NAKED AND ANGRY
What I’m doing with this Carly shit isn’t new. It’s just the newest (and most rewarding and overwhelming) manifestation of a pattern that I’ve been repeating my entire life.
Ever since I was little, I’ve had an obsession with lyrics, and the story behind songs. Because I was raised on Motown and “golden oldies,” most of the music I was exposed to was very open in its intent and clear about the story being told. An easy example: a man, after leaving his home in Georgia, ends up frustrated by life and falling into a deep depression, so he sits on the dock of a bay, miserable and defeated.
It took me a while to understand, as a kid, that songs like Otis Redding’s, “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay” by Otis Redding could be about sadness but sound happy. Songs like “Tears of A Clown,” “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” or “Lonely Teardrops,” all make you want to dance, but were entirely miserable in the stories they told.
It got even weirder for me as I got into 80s music in my adolescence; songs that people would sing along to the choruses of which seemed completely misunderstood. “Sunglasses At Night” was actually about being cheated on. “99 Red Balloons” was actually about a computer error that led to global thermonuclear war. “Your Love” was about pressuring a younger girl into having a one night stand with you while your girlfriend was out of town, and “My Sharona" was about pedophilic attraction.
By 1990, songs on the radio were punching me in the face with subtext and straight up storytelling that seemed to escape my hook-obsessed peers. What was that bit about doing crystal meth in “Semi-Charmed Life?” Wait, was “Possum Kingdom” about a murder, or possibly something much darker? And “Lola”…Was it about falling in love with a beautiful woman, or possibly about…a man dressed as a woman?
“Why would you fall in love with a man dressed as a woman?” eleven year old, not-very-woke-me wondered. What a strange song.
But as the millennium turned, pop music seemingly became more straightforward in its intent. The lyrics were less subversive; songs about dancing were about dancing, songs about love were about love, and songs about being Bootylicious were about…feeling bootylicious.
There’d be the occasional outlier; something weird or hidden within the corridors of melody, but mostly, Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” was pretty straightforwardly about getting drunk in a club, and Usher’s “Yeah” was pretty straightforwardly about getting drunk in a club, and “In Da Club” was pretty straightforwardly about getting drunk in the club, but now, from 50 Cent’s point of view.
There were also abominations that just didn’t make any sense. I’d obsess over them. I remember vividly the rise of Britney Spears and my thirteen year old classmates eagerly telling me that “…Baby One More Time” was about sex, or even anal, or perhaps an abusive relationship. But that didn’t make any sense to me; the lyrics just didn’t support it.
It bothered teen-Max for years. “…Baby One More Time” just didn’t come together lyrically in any kind of cohesive way; stuff about being lonely, possibly a break up, but then what’s the bit about “not the way I planned it?” And why “hit me,” hit me with what? My spider-sense tingled; something was weird here, but there wasn’t any kind of secret meaning.
Years later, I’d find out my confusion was due the song’s author, Max Martin, translating the lyrics from Swedish, and thought “hit me” actually meant “call me.”
The same was true of an equally incoherent song that featured this mystifying couplet:
I never want to hear you say “I want it that way”
Cause I want it that way
Max Martin again. “I Want It That Way’s” English As A Second Language lyrics were so completely confusing that there was actually an entirely new, separate version of the track produced with more comprehensible lyrics about being in love. But it sucked, and got scrapped in favor of the catchy word salad that took the Backstreet Boys from Pop Fad to Modern Classic.
Songs with a cohesive story, which is what I hunted so feverishly, were no longer being as commonly presented. Songs were becoming very upfront about their subtext, and this only became more true as the 2010s rolled around.
A big part of this had to do with the a growing musical singularity; hip-hop, alternative rock and electronic music had all converged into one unending stream of Top 40. It was not uncommon to see a song produced by a synthed-up club DJ, with vocals by a popstar, and a bridge by a hip hop artist. Nuance was hard to sneak in with that many disparate voices.
This led to a separate but notable phenomenon, wherein a pop or R&B song about one thing would have a rap guest who’d either say things totally unrelated to the main theme of the song, or, better yet, misinterpret the primary idea of the song to the degree that they contradicted everything the main artist was saying.
I’ve always felt the best and funniest example of this was on Usher’s “I Don’t Mind,” an R&B song about being in a committed relationship with a stripper, the lyrics of which center around the narrator (Usher) and his confidence in his girlfriend’s loyalty and independence, saying he doesn’t worry about what people say, and “if you dance on a pole, it don’t make you a ho.”
Then Juicy J wanders in for the bridge and does a prolonged rap wherein he says strippers will fuck anyone for enough money and he will pay them and fuck them because he loves to fuck them and have threesomes and they will do anything for a tip, all strippers without exceptions are whores for the right price and Juicy J loves to fuck all of them.
The instant implication is that Juicy J is paying to fuck Usher’s girlfriend and Usher is a total sucker idiot for even singing this song. It’s as though Juicy J pulled you aside to laugh at Usher with you like “Can you believe this fucking doofus?” It’s cognitive dissonance at a level that reprograms the song thematically, and in that way, accidentally forms a satisfying story.
But there’s no way it was intentional. It’s just some kind of weird blind-spot in the production of the song.
And then there was other stuff that was just weird, and harkened back to my lyrical confusion with “…Baby One More Time” like this next one, one of the strangest non-sequiturs in 2010s pop that you probably haven’t noticed:
I came in like a wrecking ball
I never hit so hard in love
All I wanted was to break your walls
All you ever did was wreck me
Yeah, you wreck me
Wait so SHE came in like a wrecking ball and hit hard but then SHE was the one who got wrecked? If she came in like a wrecking ball, did she not achieve breaking his walls? How did she get wrecked if she was the wrecking ball, what is happening here? The full lyrics only made it worse: Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball is completely confusing, simultaneously condemning a scorned lover, expressing devotion, describing oneself as a destructive force that was also somehow simultaneously destroyed while also being blameless in the destruction…
It just doesn’t make any fucking sense. It’s a good song, but it’s not a story.
What I’m saying here is: I don’t make this shit up, and I give up hunting it if I don’t get a sense that it’s there. The simple truth is that a lot of pop IS meaningless, and the majority of it operates at best on one textual level, and perhaps always has.
There were of course stand-outs where I got to excitedly exercise my analytical story-seeking in traffic, pop radio blasting. Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” wasn’t a sad break up song, it was about a rejected, possessive douchebag whining and being reproached by his ex. “Pumped Up Kicks was a weirdly celebratory anthem for school shooters.
Drake’s “Best I Ever Had” was likely not about true love, or even a romantic song at all, but instead raw and sordid braggadocio about the joys of manipulating and bribing a side-chick. “Get Lucky” was catchy and thin, but also had a funny lyrical hidden story about patiently staying up with a girl who doesn’t understand that you’re gritting your teeth through the party as the night goes on in the hopes that she’ll eventually sleep with you.
But they were few and far between.
That’s why the dog-whistle of “actually things are maybe not okay and maybe even probably kind of bad” in Call Me Maybe came through to me so clearly. It was my first encounter with the way Jepsen often twists her lyrics in the second verse “Jepsen Second Verse Twist,” as well as her overarching, arguably intentional, romantic tragedy masterpiece, endlessly repeating themes, ideas and subtexts, which all fed a hunger in me that seemed to have been silently growing for years.
We’ve been mostly working our way backwards through Jepsen’s musical offerings, starting with EMOTION, then KISS, then her singles and we’re now back to Tug of War, where her mainstream career started.
Jepsen would refine and hone her focus through Kiss and Emotion, and eventually bring things into sharper relief and somehow even more direct wording on Emotion Side B; going into Tug Of War, I sort of expected to be disappointed, convinced that my series of unlikely jackpots in Jepsen’s lyrics would finally run dry.
So imagine my very weird smile when I pulled it up on iTunes, and, song by song, realized that this album, in as narratively satisfying of a way as one could hope to imagine, represents an inception point for many of the ideas that I’d find peppered throughout Carly’s later work:
Separation by Physical Distance/Geography
Staying Up All Night
Not Saying Something/Saying Something Without Actually Speaking
Saying Something She Regrets
Also narrative elements of: a lover who was a singer/songwriter who became famous or important and forgot her, a friend she falls in love with, but could never have, a man who hides his emotions from her, leaving her endlessly hanging…and even though she kind of suspects he doesn’t love her, she prays for him to realize he does.
The themes and subthemes began on Tug Of War. And of course, framing it all:
TEMPTATION, OBSESSION, LIMERENCE, SECRETS, ESCAPE, REJECTION, MISERY/LONGING.
Carly Rae was 23 when she released Tug of War. Fresh off placing 3rd on Canadian Idol. Brian Melo, the winner of that year, would see his career mostly peter out by 2010. But Carly remained. Carly grew. Carly exploded.
What I’m saying is:
Welcome to ground zero.