Carly Rae Jespen’s strengths, which have been roundly declared adequate by the immense popularity of her single “Call Me Maybe,” are her simplicity and directness. The most oblique Jespen is willing to get in declaring love, which is her only goal on her second album, Kiss, is the central metaphor in the song “Guitar String/Wedding Ring”: Fish shouldn’t be out of water and birds have no business in the water. Yet the mind of a teenage girl can be a Gordian knot of misdirection, uncertainty, and desire. The fact that it’s often expressed in seemingly direct, if dramatically overstated, elements should deceive no one. These are mythically complex creatures. Don’t believe me? Ask a teenage boy.
Jespen is currently on tour opening for Justin Bieber, who is himself this generation’s hormone lightning rod in much the same way Justin Timberlake, the Hanson brothers, and Donny Osmond were in their time. The politics of burgeoning female sexuality is big business, and every few years it requires a new crop of non-threatening gender-neutral faces who can croon to these emotional basket cases about how they’re the most important thing in the world, etc. etc. And it’s this sympathy that endears Jepsen to her audience. She wants what they want and will back it up with snappy tunes and million-dollar production values. As she states, simply and directly, in the album’s saccharine-sweet, beat-heavy opening track, “Tiny Little Bows”: “I wish we could be holding hands.” Though the innocence eventually verges on the illicit, where “tiny little bows” should maybe segue into discussions about contraception. A line like “Do you ever think about us/Watchin’ TV in your bed?” is surely enough to make any 12-year-old titter at the unknown.
Despite the rise of dubstep, pop keeps to its own by making techno safe as milk with the likes of Jespen and Owl City, who collaborates with the singer on the single “Good Time,” from his album The Midsummer Station. Different as dubstep’s noise-for-noise’s-sake posturing is from Owl City’s golly-gee-tedium folktronica, there’s a shared vapidity that the honest fan of either will recognize in both and which feels right on the dance floor, like you can just fall into it. But relegating an artist to a supporting role on her own album risks making the listener wonder what else they could be listening to.
Of course, Kiss‘s centerpiece is “Call Me Maybe,” the song that’s been a ubiquitous viral/radio hit for so many months it hardly seems possible that the album is only just now being released. It’s perhaps a testimony to the reduced importance of the album format in our post-everything iTunes/Spotify/YouTube world that Jespen’s highest value is as a one-song engine for pennies-per-view ad revenue. It’s a throwback to the pre-album model of 45rpm singles when radio airplay drove sales for pocket change, one earworm melody at a time.