The way Carly Rae Jepsen dances explains it all, like a metaphor with light choreography. The Canadian singer, 33, bops to her own effervescent hooks with a youthful verve simultaneously brimming with aunt-at-a-wedding energy. Jepsen conjures both the first blush of love and the battle scars of several blushes hence. Her lyrics about late-night bike theft and finding lips in the streetlights graze specificity on their way to pop abstraction.
A big-tent approach to big emotions. With Jepsen, it really does feel like you can have it all.
Case in point: About midway through the Austin stop of her Dedicated Tour on Saturday at ACL Live at the Moody Theater, Jepsen launched into “Store,” an undeniably and unapologetically goofy deep cut from her B-sides album, sort of a cult classic meme within a discography made entirely of cult classics. As the song’s chorus goes, “I'm just goin' to the store, to the store/I'm just goin' to the store/You might not see me anymore, anymore/I'm just goin' to the store.” The song, in other words, is silly.
When you listen to “Store” on a playlist, it earns a smile, maybe more like a smirk. Jepsen took to a platform at the show, sang those lines and did a little dance best described as “Safety Dance” meets the march step from your high school’s production of “The Music Man.” Her smile was giddy; she knows the song is a little absurd. It’s OK that you do, too, she seemed to say, as long as you don’t mind moving your feet.
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Going into Jepsen’s show, maybe some folks didn’t feel like dancing. The world is dark. It felt darker Saturday. If you checked your phone in between songs, you probably saw a push alert or a tweet about the mass shooting committed hours earlier in El Paso. There are new cruelties every day, and sometimes they are small, and sometimes they are terribly big. It would be impossible to think about a pop music show this weekend and not negotiate its ravishingly high highs in the context of those cruelties. Life in 2019 is marked by that negotiation — keeping a space to feel joy and swivel your hips to songs about leaving boys your number, while having to hold that joy up against the dark parts.
But, we do have that joy to hold up. Jepsen, the first lady of feeling, glowed neon for about an hour and a half, and a packed house let all those big emotions hit them cool and hot. On prowling opener “No Drug Like Me,” Jepsen sang about starry eyes and blurry eyes, promising through narcotic, come-hither breathiness to blossom — but if only someone would make her fall in love first. On fan favorite “Run Away With Me,” the singer galloped across the stage and reached her hands out to an audience drunk on romance, paying the deference due to that song’s monumental saxophone riff.
Pop is often more fun when the star who makes it feels like an underdog, not like a Times Square billboard on legs. That’s a large part of Jepsen’s appeal to the fans that show her devotion, the sense of being permanently underrated. Who among us does not feel underrated? The rest of the world can have their one-hit wonder; Jepsen can be your superstar in secret.
The Austin audience was one of the good ones, where everyone seems to know the words but has forgotten how to sit still. You could pick out blonde, bobbed wigs worn by fans cosplaying Jepsen’s look from her “Too Much” video. My friend and I often turned so our glitter-streaked faces met, and we clutched each other’s shoulders when something lit up our brain’s pleasure centers. The breathless line “And I’m so damn scared you don’t even care,” on “Fever”; the opening piano plunks of “Feels Right.” I defy you to resist flashing numbers on your fingers, “Sesame Street”-like, when you hear the line “One more night with you always turns to two.”
Throughout the night, Jepsen held court with convivial cheer, easy with a smile. She’s added a few more sonic tricks since the last time she was in Austin playing ACL Live in 2016: the disco burn of “Julien,” the even more flammable lust of “Want You In My Room.” She kept the banter light from behind crossed arms, but still took time to give a shoutout to her cat before “Now That I Found You.”
The guy in front of my friend and me — one of a couple dudes in a 10-foot radius on the floor that I had definitely seen on dating apps before, such is Jepsen’s key demographic — had a new dance move for every song. You couldn’t help but subtly mimic whatever he was doing; we aren’t all born with an instinctive knowledge of the different ways to shimmy a shoulder. A friend of the dancer’s kept singing directly to him, his eyebrows pulled up in earnest, like some invisible force kept them hanging. The dancer rarely stopped moving long enough to look him in the eyes. It would have made a great Carly Rae Jepsen song.
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The last number of the encore, the sweeping “Cut to the Feeling,” gathered the evening under itself like a glass chandelier. It’s a dazzling piece of überpop, pushing the listener higher and further into dizzying emotion. Jepsen grabbed an inflatable sword — long story, but it’s a social media meme — and swung it through the air, slicing away anything that wasn’t pure, farm-fresh, USDA-certified passion.
What feeling you needed to cut toward was entirely up to you Saturday night. The world makes you hold onto so much all at once, so there are no wrong answers to what you need to feel. When Jepsen’s singing, the only rule is that dancing helps.