“I’m just gonna make you hotter,” announced Carly Rae Jepsen late Saturday afternoon. It had been a taxing day by all accounts—festival-goers, many of whom were going into their third full day of full-bodied jamming, found themselves marinated in sweltering temperatures and sticky humidity. Not one to let mere weather get the best of her, Jepsen took a couple of moments between songs to recount a story of how fellow performer Cyndi Lauper dealt with heat and followed in her footsteps by removing her shoes. And while shoe removal is in itself a relatively mundane task, the episode taken as a whole—the jovial commentary on the situation, the reference to an earlier pop legend, the nerve involved in actually going barefoot on a hot summer stage in front of hundreds of people—is quite emblematic of Carly Rae Jepsen the performer. She’s got quirk and a strong bearing on pulse of pop music. but she also has undeniable edge.
In Schrödinger-esque fashion, Jepsen actively maintains a strange dichotomy as a performer. On one hand, there’s campy Jepsen, a lovely and intensely-memeable figure who has understandably inspired a cult following. On the other, there’s an intensely mature artist whose genuinely great work is routinely snubbed by the public from a commercial standpoint. Buried under the delectable pop hooks exists a superposition of both of these selves. These qualities were very much evident in the singer’s show this festival.
Take, for example, her set design: Rather than utilizing the screen available at Lake Shore, Jepsen adorned the stage with tinsel-looking fringe. Tacky as it might appear, the backdrop was one of the more successful on the stage so far this year, with the billowing material uniformly filling up the space in a display of trompe-l’oeil that shifted attention away from the setting’s size and more towards the performer. Moreover, Jepsen refreshingly embraced the success of “Call Me Maybe,” rather than run away from its near-inescapable cultural presence for better or for worse. These sorts of minute decisions, both whimsically inventive and practical, are the hallmark of who Jepsen as an artist is, and it follows that her music shares a similar characteristic depth.
Don’t mistake bubblegum sound for bubblegum content. The 80s-inspired synth pop repertoire almost masks more adult themes such as loss and longing. The design of today’s show was quite meticulous in this regard, excluding some undeniably happy hits including “Good Time” and drawing most heavily from her critically acclaimed album “Emotion.” Though songs were delivered with levity—during “Run Away With Me,” she playfully looked over at drummer as if to check if he was paying attention, and “All That” featured a live saxophonist—the set almost entirely meshed as a representation of love denied and, in response, love desperately coveted. Clever moments such as the pairing of “Boy Problems” and an amped-up “When I Needed You” (the implied source of those problems when played subsequently) to create a two-song subplot are made possible because of a thoughtfully curated setlist. Jepsen’s got a fair share of hits, but they rest on the razor blade of our selection, and she has demonstrated that she isn’t opposed to killing her darlings.
Contextualized, the set is successful on a superficial and a deeper level—not only is it smothered with pop sensibility, but it effectively packages otherwise heavy material. But of course, no review of Jepsen’s set is complete without addressing the elephant in the room. Fans had been working diligently throughout the set to distribute inflatable swords to the pop star, a tireless effort which finally reaped dividends when the fake weapons were ironically wielded in her closer “Cut To The Feeling.” And you’ve got to give Jepsen credit for staying so completely on brand, embellishing her song with a breathless, squeal-like exclamation of “Oh yeah, a sword!” But fun as it was, make no mistake: Today’s actions were no Excalibur moment. Jepsen’s faux-ceremonial knighting merely provided the physical embodiment of a sword visible for the general public to lock onto. For those paying attention, she’s always had it.
—Staff writer Rick Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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