MANILA, Philippines – A saxophone beckoned like a horn signaling the Rapture. It’s the opening riff to Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2015 single, “Run Away with Me,” and suddenly, the crowd roars like their souls have ascended to another plane of blissful existence.
I’ve seen this before in venues like Cubao’s Today x Future, a watering hole just some meters away from the New Frontier Theater, the evening’s venue. A DJ puts it on, the opening saxophone solo blares, and the tight-packed dance floor trembles, brimming with euphoria.
This scene happens on a much bigger scale in Carly’s third visit to the country, the last stop in the Asian leg of her Dedicated tour. It’s glorious to behold and to experience first hand – that missing out would cause painful regret. (IN PHOTOS: Carly Rae Jepsen Live in Manila 2015)
Seeing her live gives a rush unlike any other – no drug like her, indeed – as she tirelessly burned through a 21-song set that even included some deep cuts.
It also drew a parade of familiar faces, all in our Sunday best: colorful, glittery, and unflinchingly garish.
Some even donned blond wigs looking like the crew in her “Too Much” video. There even were running jokes: that it was a gathering of former flames and heartbreakers, and that it kept Pinoy Twitter quiet for a few hours. Here and there, you might catch a glimpse of bright Pride flags draped over shoulders.
A cursory look at her following shows that Carly is mostly a prophet to a queer demographic. Not to contribute to any sort of erasure, but as comedian and Keep It host Louis Virtel’s hot take put it, “only gay men can hear the words ‘Carly Rae Jepsen.’”
In a sense, combing through her discography is like exploring a secret world that only a handful are privy to.
To many in the world out there – read: straight – she’s still the Canadian singer-songwriter behind “Call Me Maybe,” the ubiquitous and unabashedly cloying earworm from 2012. (READ: Carly Rae Jepsen, out of the shadow of 'Call Me Maybe')
The viral hit also cast a long shadow. “Call Me Maybe” appeared as part of Carly’s sophomore effort, Kiss, which – in spite of its many gems – wasn’t really able to capitalize on the single.
It’s tempting to call her a one-hit wonder, but that’s really an unfair label – denoting a tragedy. To many of us, her fiercely loyal fans, that phrase borders on blasphemy – primarily because of her critically acclaimed, walang tapon (no fillers) 2015 album, E•MO•TION.
That record set Carly on an unlikely path.
It seemed like a swerve from the in-the-moment, bubblegum pop of “Call Me Maybe’s” type, to a sound inflected with nostalgia.
With its shimmery synths and infectious hooks, E•MO•TION sounded like a loving homage to the effervescent synth-pop music of the ‘80s (she personally mentioned Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, and Prince, among others). It also boasted a roster of admired producers and co-songwriters with some indie cred.
The result was very much akin to the so-called anthems that have made gay people scream time and time again. Think the shimmy of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” or the pining of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” infusing what Carly Rae Jepsen, prolific songwriter, has already been doing for quite a while.
E•MO•TION also wasn’t about replicating the breakthrough success of “Call Me Maybe” as much as basically being herself, “putting up with less shit.”
“There’s a realist and this sort of fairytale-ish side of my personality, and I think that I’m constantly battling those two,” she told me in a 2015 roundtable interview. “But when it comes to music, that’s the place where your imagination gets to be at play.”
“You don’t think about the real rules of the world, or how it all kind of sometimes works. It’s a lot more poetic, and I allow myself to go there.”
For all its ambiguity, Carly delves into romantic pleasures that are not specifically queer. Yet somehow, she has tapped into an inner, secret mindspace that’s all too familiar.
With sappy and seemingly frivolous words – laid over ultra-catchy melodies – she conveys that it’s great to feel for feeling’s sake. Perhaps it’s even evocative of our inner starry-eyed monologues, as we wrestle with our own desires.
As writer Michael Waters ruminated in an Electric Lit piece: “Jepsen’s concern is with celebrating desire in all of its forms, especially desire that lacks an endpoint – she captures the excitement, the fear, the stomach twisting that comes with impossible love.”
Waters also zoomed out on the pertinent circumstances – that such desires are kept secret for a reason:
“Lots of queer people cannot come out, much less find someone to partner with, and that doesn’t mean they’re unhappy, or lacking, or in need of agency. Wanting without having is not tragic, and Jepsen is one of the few celebrities telling a queer community plagued with a complicated relationship to ‘outness’ that we are whole no matter how much of ourselves we choose to share.”
In Jepsen’s hands, maybe imagination doesn’t necessarily have to materialize completely into an actual moment. A song will suffice.
Joey Santos, a DJ who hosted an unofficial concert afterparty at Today x Future, shared with me via private message, “She resonates because her music is an absolute surrender to your hopes, your fears, your feelings, and to yourself.”
Brandon Tensley echoed a similar sentiment in the Pacific Standard, “Jepsen taps into a shared queer history of escape, possibility, and disappointment. And she does so, more to the point, with what seems like limitless passion. Her shimmery pop music is as much about feeling love's pain as it is about reveling – dancing – in its pleasure.”
Carly herself once described being labeled a queer hero as the “gift of [her] career” in Jessie Ware’s Table Manners podcast.
“We’d been playing a few Pride shows and things, and I’m definitely passionate about any support I can give towards fighting the good fight, and love is love is love, come on!” she said. “I’ve had friends since childhood who’ve gone through some pretty severe experiences that have enriched me enough to make it a calling of mine.”
For all its mind-numbing repetition of “Hey, I just met you and this is crazy,” it’s imbued with so much guilelessness, and there’s no reason to apologize for being unpretentious about crushes.
In a birthday tribute to Carly last year, Canadian artist Derek Aubichon said, “It makes sense that someone who displays a romantic girlishness in the work she makes, but with adult preoccupations and perspectives, would play well with a queer audience, since this dovetails with an especially queer narrative of perpetual self-discovery.”
“She still hasn’t burnt out on joy,” Waters also wrote. “Her voice radiates an unwavering idealism in which queer communities, and for that matter any marginalized community long beset with tragedy, can find a home, and her glittery lyrics are unabashed in their ambition to make the listener – whoever you are, whatever you desire – get up and dance.”
Not to mention that in these circles, she is dubbed a pop messiah whose recent work has been criminally overlooked. She’s viewed as an underdog more than a – excuse the word – “flop.”
Pitchfork’s Chris Stedman mused, “Perhaps we see our own challenges reflected in our favorite flops, feel defensive of them as people who have also been maligned, and find inspiration in their perseverance.”
Without boxing her in, I think that she has grown to be self-assured in this space.
“I'm much more comfortable in that position,” she herself told i-D herself. “But I don't think I'd consider myself as someone to feel sorry for. I think I have an incredible life and incredible gifts that I've been given in my career.”
“Also, there's always a feeling like there's further to go. Without that, there's no point in still doing this. I will always have the hunger of an underdog."
Almost half a decade later, she released Dedicated, which has been on tour to promote. But when almost the entire audience can accurately mouth along to every syllable, word, and vocal run, it was more like a church service – not much need for proselytizing.
Leading up to this particular Manila outing, fan circles were abuzz with hype as if a Queen was coming to town. But her presence on stage – in a rainbow-tinged tulle dress, no less – belied her the praise that her stans have been lavishing upon her.
It was more like, “one of us, one of us” honestly.
In introducing “Too Much,” Carly mulled over and preached about the tenuous handle we sometimes have on our own feelings. “We all have big emotions that I think sometimes, we try to simmer them down to make it comfortable for others. In a relationship I had in the past, I worried being too emotional, too extreme,” she shared.
With equal parts wisdom and earnest naïveté, she shouts out to the crowd, who laps up her counsel as gospel truth: “I think when it comes to really finding the right partner, there should be no such thing as too much, okay?”
In other quick moments of banter, she would casually and wryly talk about lows in her life. One experience of heartbreak even made her fess up to theft (of a bicycle, specifically) in the E•MO•TION outtake “Fever.”
She even has some cutesy choreography under her belt, and her fans would mirror it in time with her.
“There’s a purity to her as an artist and it’s what pushes her to keep evolving, that’s why every show from every era is different,” observed DJ Joey Santos, when I asked him about what made her so magnetic.
“Fans see her less as an idol – an untouchable, goddess-level megastar – than as a person they can trust, a celebrity who seems like a friend,” wrote Time’s Raisa Bruner. “That’s true of plenty of contemporary artists who have built careers on a platform of authenticity, of course, but Jepsen stands apart.”
Her pop genius is also possibly rooted in how she is able to make room for many narratives, even as she draws inspiration from something so specific (like her ex Julien’s “musical name” that lent the eponymous track its hook).
Waters deemed this to be “an anonymity in her own music.” He explained, “In a music world in which spaces for queer people, especially queer women, are so limited, there is a revolution in that.”
There are different stories – a wealth of memories and experiences – as many as the people in the room.
“Everyone is going through something and we’re all different,” Santos pointed out.
For one night, Carly gave a voice, distilling all that in one joyous chorus of voices.
In her scintillating closing number, “Cut to the Feeling,” she soared above the pounding drums, singing and sending us to Cloud Nine: “I wanna cut through the clouds, break the ceiling / I wanna dance on the roof, you and me alone.”
For that one night, we all screamed about how we want to be swept up and taken to the stars.
“The CRJ experience is ultimately about acceptance,” Santos also said. “Acceptance makes loving ourselves and each other a reality.”
I didn’t need to know what the strangers around me (or maybe the people I love, too) were thinking of: which ex? Which date? What memory? What wish?
It bursts a bubble. Even with the intensity and madness of it all, I’m reminded that I’m not alone.
As we howled, jumped, and danced along to Carly’s glitter-drenched music, we felt alive in the joy, pain, hope, and love of others.
Paolo Abad is a film/television editor and motion graphic designer. He is also a self-confessed concert junkie.