Pop music is frequently interpreted on gendered grounds. Things that are popular are thought of as being “for girls,” whether it’s a hot new boy band or Taylor Swift — an attitude in sharp contrast to the masculinized appreciation for “serious” music, whether that’s a particular era of indie rock or hip-hop deep cuts. (Just ask Howie about the king of the Tuk Tuk Sound.) But men obviously enjoy pop music, too. There are nice colors! Cool outfits! It’s fun to listen to! And, in particular, men enjoy Carly Rae Jepsen. As one fan tells me, the audience at her live shows before the pandemic consisted of “basically just 14-year-old girls and 35-year-old men.”
This tracks with my understanding of Jepsen’s fanbase as a nominal adult who, at the age of 25, hosted a three-hour celebration of her 2015 album E•MO•TION through the drunken comedy lecture series I ran at the time. For the past few years, it’s been clear that Carly Rae Jepsen has a substantial male fanbase — or at least a far more vocal one compared to pop stars like Swift or Ariana Grande.
Many of these men, who first encountered Jepsen during the heyday of her 2012 viral sensation “Call Me Maybe,” express surprise at their own fandom. At best, they liked the song as a piece of pop fluff without investigating Jepsen’s music further. At worst, they dismissed her outright. They were, in a sense, primed to perceive Jepsen as frivolous. As Myles McNutt, assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Theater Arts at Old Dominion University and long-time Jepsen fan, puts it, “She was framed within a feminized conception of pop music, and thus, pop music fandom. And I think that was a real point of resistance to taking her seriously as an artist.”
Because, of course, feminized music, and feminized music fandom, is treated as disposable. As Jessica Hopper notes, “fangirls” often know more about music while simultaneously being expected to prove it to a series of men.
The initial refusal to take Jepsen seriously also explains, in part, why she has so often been experienced through a genre that’s intended to be light, unserious and transitory — memes. “Call Me Maybe” took off through a widely circulated lip dub video featuring, among others, Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez. The song was originally released in 2011 and blew up in 2012, around the same time as the similarly viral “Friday” by Rebecca Black. There were plenty of memes, including a bunch of sports teams doing their own lib dubs and a version that eventually made it to President Obama. Ricky, 25, from Long Island, describes this cycle with E•MO•TION thusly: “It started as a gag about an album that I liked quite a bit, but the more and more that I listened to it, the more I realized that my love for the album wasn’t ironic.”
As someone who is almost constitutionally unable to let a bit go, I recognize myself in this experience of E•MO•TION, an album that sort of snuck up from behind and conked me on the head with a frying pan, leaving me unable to not respond enthusiastically to “Gimmie Love.”
The bit continues today, even for diehard fans: Jepsen is the queen of everything; she should get a sword. Ian Cory, 30, from Brooklyn, described getting into “Call Me Maybe” specifically by discovering a heavily slowed version on YouTube, leading him to see it as “a good song and not just a meme.” Tommy, 24, adds, “This is why you see kids in Death Grips T-shirts at her shows — she almost acts as a gateway for irony-poisoned dudebros to get into music that genuinely makes them feel happy.”
It’s unsurprising, then, that so much of male Carly Rae Jepsen fandom depends on concrete proof of legitimacy. Men sent me photos of their tattoos, screenshots of their listening statistics on streaming sites, photos of themselves with Jepsen at fan meet-and-greets, descriptions of flights they’d taken to see her perform, accounts of their sessions of the Carly Rae Jepsen-inspired tabletop role-playing game Black Heart (one of at least two Jepsen-themed games) and a March Madness-style bracket to determine her best song. I, of course, have a custom-made shirt in the E•MO•TION cover font that reads “THE FUTURE IS FEELINGS.”
Still, it’s possible to take things too far. In 2017, screenwriter, director and notorious sex pest Max Landis published “A Scar No One Else Can See,” a 150-page PDF that purported to draw out the hidden narrative underlying Jepsen’s work. The accompanying photos feature Landis in a straitjacket, as if having thought seriously about Carly Rae Jepsen was sufficiently deranged to the point of necessitating psychiatric intervention.
Except that music nerds love Carly Rae Jepsen, which partly explains why she is such a critic’s darling, and why male Carly Rae Jepsen fans are so fond of dropping Jepsen lore that comes up the way your dad might discuss Beatles recording sessions. “I work in music media so it kind of comes with a built-in Carly Rae community,” says Vice video host Trey Smith. “My favorite Carly Rae convos though are watching her super dude stans argue about who likes her the most normal amount.”
Unsurprisingly, queer and gay men who like Jepsen a “normal” amount are, most likely, her biggest male fanbase. Tyler McKibben describes the introductory saxophone on “Run Away With Me” as “used widely among gay memes almost as a gay battle cry/calling to the dance floor,” while Austin, 27, describes Jepsen’s music as a “uniting force” on the loosely defined Gay Twitter. In fact, some note that their Jepsen fandom had helped them come to terms with and express their own queerness.
Many other female pop stars have similar gay fandoms (just look at Lady Gaga), but Jepsen’s straight male fans tend to attract attention precisely for their oddity in a pop-music context. As McNutt says, “Her critical reputation creates ‘room’ for reconciliation of heteronormative masculinities and her music.” Which is another way of saying that’s why it’s easier for straight (and mostly straight) men to loudly like Carly Rae Jepsen than it is for them to proclaim their love for folklore.
It was certainly easier for me. In July 2017, when Landis published “A Scar No One Else Can See,” I had just hosted my show. The writer Hanif Abdurraqib, a long-time Jepsen fan who read from a piece about seeing her perform with an orchestra in a “Buy E•MO•TION on iTunes” baseball shirt, explains, “There seems to be this kind of overcompensation for how seriously people were applying and projecting things onto Carly Rae Jepsen’s music, which was happening for a lot of artists, and specifically for women.”
Overcompensating for what — and why?
My read: It’s the supposed frivolity of her music and persona. Jepsen’s relatability is part of her appeal as an artist, whether it’s playing board games with a backwards hat or using a slumber party as a setting for a music video. This quality draws in many of Jepsen’s biggest male fans, who in turn imagine her as someone they could plausibly interact with, who they could understand. Andy, 32, says that his friends like to make jokes “about how she is like a really down-to-earth person that slipped through the cracks to become famous.” Abdurraqib definitely identifies this as part of her allure: “So much of her performance is being your relatable friend who’s having boy problems.”
But there’s a thin line between that type of relatability and the classic “girl next door” archetype, ranging from Archie’s pal Betty Cooper to Topanga in Boy Meets World to The Girl Next Door, a movie about a porn star who falls in love with a high school student. In each case, the fantasy is that a desirable romantic partner will just fall into your lap on, say, “A First Date With Carly Rae Jepsen.” The framing of this piece isn’t unique to Jepsen — many Vice artist interviews have run as “first dates” — but something about her lyrics and persona made the prospect feel a bit more realistic. The piece ran under the headline accompanied by a photo of writer Kyle Kramer with his arm around a squirming Jepsen.
This is a part of what Ian Cory describes as a “brony-ish” component of the Jepsen fandom. “There’s something about the way Jepsen mixes her sexuality with this giddy, almost adolescent earnestness that appeals to the kind of dudes who rank their anime ‘waifus’ and buy body pillows,” he says. Several women tell me that they’ve had ex-boyfriends in this vein who were far too serious about Jepsen, including one who got “very defensive” over her comparing Jepsen to Kylie Minogue and another who repeatedly insisted that he would inevitably be able to persuade Jepsen to go on a date and then sleep with him were they ever to meet. (His girlfriend would need to be cool with it.)
Not all of these feelings are romantic projections, though. One man describes his reaction to Jepsen’s music as “brotherly” affection. Another describes listening to her music as “almost like having a friend that also happens to be a woman. For some reason, there are a lot of men like me, and I guess they just feel like being a Carly Rae Jepsen fan is a safe opportunity to be in touch with their feminine side maybe.”
For men whose identity is partially bound up in traditionally masculine music, Jepsen feels like a much-needed correction. “I’m a straight dude,” Vice‘s Smith says, “but masculinity should be a much more balanced thing than society acts like it should be, and you need room for the soft, vulnerable stuff.” Or ask Gnarly Rae, a New York-based, pop-punk Carly Rae Jepsen cover band, whose members are former emo musicians who now work in journalism. (The group’s drummer, coincidentally, is Cooper Fleishman, MEL‘s news and audience director.) “I love performing, but the idea of asking friends and coworkers to come see your super-serious new pop-punk band when you’re 30 didn’t sound great,” one member tells me. “CRJ covers, though? Game on.”
Those “feminine” components of the Carly Rae Jepsen fandom are, ultimately, universal. Abdurraqib’s diagnosis of the fandom boils it down to one question: “Why doesn’t everyone love this artist in the same way I do?” Put another way, loving Carly Rae Jepsen is about expressing desire, forming identity and wanting to be seen and understood by the rest of the world — which is to say, the most universal parts of being a teen girl. The teenness of Jepsen’s music is an essential part of it; it’s a powerful tool for someone who yearns for a youth they didn’t get to have. That includes gay men and queer people, but it can also include straight, cis men, socialized to cut off the parts of themselves Jepsen evokes. One mostly straight, cis male fan says the feminine experience of listening to Jepsen is “tied into the sense of vulnerable emotional expression with a concurrent sense of joy.”
A few weeks after my show, Jepsen herself was asked about it in an interview with W Magazine (it was described to her as “an event in New York where writers gave mini-dissertations on the songs on E•MO•TION”). For someone who inspires so much passion, she gave a pretty level-headed response: “I’ve always felt like that stuff is nice to pay attention to but also nice to not really feed too much into your own head about, because if people were saying the opposite thing, I’d still want to be able to love the album the same way that I do.”
But I, along with other men, will likely continue to be inspired as long as Carly Rae Jepsen gives us outlets for that type of occasionally obsessive, too-much attachment. And though Carly Rae Jepsen’s music is most often about various forms of romantic entanglement, her newest song, “Me and the Boys in the Band,” is about one of the things she misses most from the time before the pandemic: cracking open a spiritual cold one with the boys.
The song opens with a lyric that refers to said boys, but it could just as easily scan as a song about romantic love: “On the road for half the year / And I can’t remember loneliness / And it feels like that says something about you.” That experience mirrors the way that Carly Rae Jepsen’s male friends feel about her music.
Maybe it says something about her, too.