Carly Rae Jepsen: Below the Top, Proudly

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Carly Rae Jepsen isn’t Taylor Swift. She seems perfectly fine with that. And so am I.

In fact, it’s probably better for everyone that her success, and her goals, are more modest. Jepsen probably couldn’t command a stadium or flaunt a Rolodex of famous pals with Swift’s conviction. And she definitely can’t sell albums or singles at a fraction of Swift’s impressive rate.

But she can sing, she can shimmy and last night at the Fillmore in Silver Spring, Maryland, she shined.

The Fillmore is the ideal venue for Jepsen as she embarks on her Gimme Love tour, of which last night’s show was the first U.S. stop. It’s spacious and vibrant, with enough room for Jepsen to cast her gleaming smile and wide eyes broadly over the course of her tight 90-minute set. But it’s also intimate, a snug fit for the personality and sweep of her songs, which cover standard pop fare like breakups and meet-cutes with perky, full-throttle dynamism.

My earlier allusions to Taylor Swift weren’t coincidental. Jepsen’s songs, particularly the ones from her excellent sophomore album E-MO-TION, traffic in the same thematic territory as Swift’s. But breakup songs like “Boy Problems” and the album’s title track aren’t burdened with the baggage of Swift’s public persona. Similarly, Jepsen appears unburdened by the admittedly striking commercial failure of her second album. She spent the entire concert bopping loosely around the stage, flexing her elastic legs and soliciting reactions from the audience at all the right moments.

She also introduced several fan favorites with short, unremarkable anecdotes about the romantic travails that inspired them. It was the night’s only Swift-ian gesture and its only major shortcoming, a halfhearted attempt at constructing a narrative around the evening that only distracted from the sonic delights in store, from the sax blast on “Let’s Get Lost” to the sultry bass line on “All That.” Meanwhile, the dominant PR narrative surrounding the release of the new album was nowhere to be found – Jepsen’s eclectic cadre of collaborators including Ariel Rechtshaid, Sia and Peter Svensson went unmentioned.

The obligatory encore featured an acoustic rendition of “Curiosity” followed by Jepsen’s two biggest hits: first, her genuine worldwide smash “Call Me Maybe,” followed by the ever-so-slightly lackluster stab at a repeat phenomenon, “I Really Like You.” Ending on the first single from her second album, rather than the song that many observers thought would be the one hit for the Jepsen wonder, sent a message: she’s more than “Call Me Maybe.”

Even Jepsen’s outfit, a printed pantsuit with a long-sleeve collared shirt underneath, and her black bob declared her departure from the modern school of pop superstardom. My limited knowledge of fashion prevents me from saying much more about her aesthetic other than “Looked like she was from the 80s.” But the outre fashions of Katy Perry and the skin-baring dresses of Swift seem to have no place in Jepsen’s more modest world.

For whatever reason – shoddy marketing, unfortunate timing, pure coincidence – the American public at large hasn’t caught on to Jepsen’s ongoing bid for pop excellence. It’s tempting to wish for a little bit of Swift’s magic to rub off on her. But then we’d be robbed of moments like Jepsen casually mentioning her boyfriend and his father were among the crowd, delivered without the slightest fear of tabloid coverage or paparazzi thirst. In pop, there’s plenty of pleasure to be found below the top. Watching Jepsen come to terms with the precise nature of her celebrity has been frustrating at times, but last night, she seemed at peace. The crowd knew the words to almost all of her songs. No one wanted her to be anything more than what she was: a talented pop singer delivering a good time to a diverse collection of her fans. See her, definitely.

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