By Ashley Naftule
Saving your biggest hit for the encore is for amateurs. Dropping the 'song everyone knows' as the sixth song in your set? Now that is a power move.
For anyone who’s been near a radio sometime in the last decade, “Call Me Maybe” is instantly recognizable. The way the verses build up like someone who’s barely able to contain their excitement until those feelings explode into a larger than life chorus, the iconic string parts, the jubilant spirit of the song, Carly Rae Jepsen’s giddy vocals — it’s a pop hymn from the Church of Phil Spector, a teenage symphony to Cupid. It’s not her only good song, it’s not even her best song, but it is the first song that most people would think of whenever the Canadian pop singer is mentioned. A perfect candidate for a show closer.
It’s a testament to the strength of her songbook and her confidence in herself and her audience that Jepsen dropped the “Call Me Maybe” bomb early on during her set last night at The Van Buren and she still had the crowd eating from the palm of her hand by the time she wrapped up her encore. When you have songs as good as “Let’s Get Lost” and “Cut to the Feeling” in your arsenal, it’s easy to get people to forget about That One Song.
Watching Carly Rae Jepsen live, it’s easy to see why she attracts such a devoted following. Her set is a string of pop jams, trailing after each other like links in a candy bracelet. She’s a bubbly and generous presence onstage, quick to drop a self-effacing aside like saying "Here's a song about being generally confused about love" before launching into "Happy Not Knowing."
With her shock of blonde hair, orange dress, and large earrings that look like cherry disco balls, she looks like an ambassador from the Kingdom of Malls. If you were to splice together Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, seal that hybrid in cryo-freeze until 2010, and unleash her upon the world, she’d look and sound just like CRJ. And considering how much her music pulls from 80’s synth-pop and 90’s roller-rink R&B, it feels like some kind of weird cosmic irony or divine oversight that she’s making music in an era where the malls and arcades she’d rule with an iron fist barely exist anymore.
The packed audience that came out to see Carly leaned towards the feminine, the flamboyant, and the frisky. Sequined shorts abounded in the crowd, as did hands holding up floppy plastic swords (was the Lady In The Lake dispensing these at the merch table?). The kind of crowd that eagerly sang along to every song in her set.
Before Our Lady of Emotion took the side, opener Phoebe Ryan warmed up the early birds in the crowd. Wearing a coat that looked like what a negligee would leave behind if it could shed skin snake-style, Ryan shared the stage with a drummer and synth player. She belted out her songs in a voice that sounded like a raspier Lorde. Most of her songs were dramatic synth-pop songs. Songs like “Build Me Up” and “A Thousand Ways” were pleasant to listen to, but they lacked a personal touch: They felt like songs a dozen different singers could just as easily make their own.
A giant disco ball reflected light and spun lazily overhead as Jepsen took the stage. She was backed by a full band (guitar, drums, bass, keys, and the occasional sax) and a pair of back-up singers/dancers. Opening with "No Drug Like Me,” Jepsen sang in front of a projector screen that rippled with patterns of glowing squares and pill shapes.
Her set leaned heavily on the back half of her discography—a lot of Emotion and Dedicated cuts. As a live performer, Jepsen doesn’t use a lot of bells & whistles. She pulls off some neat dance moves, like when she did a bit of voguing for “E•MO•TION.” While she’d make the occasional crack on the mic, she didn’t spend too much bantering with the audience.
She did have some wonderful crowd work moments, though, like when she took one of the floppy swords in the audience and brandished it while singing “Run Away With Me” (in front of a shifting cityscape projection that looked like someone giving the Frazier skyline a Vice City makeover). Or when the singer gleefully shouted “This is my first bra!” after someone hurled their brassiere onstage before Jepsen did “Feels Right.”
On a technical level, the sound was great. The production values were tight, the songs were great, and Jepsen was fun to watch. The biggest criticism I have of the show was that at times it felt too tight, too polished, too together. It’s clear that Jepsen and her band have rehearsed this show so rigorously they could probably do it in their sleep. So while Jepsen’s set was very entertaining, there were moments where I craved some kind of messiness, some disorder to keep things interesting. Part of the joy of live performance is watching people improvise and/or fuck-up. We don’t watch the tightrope walker because we want them to fall; it’s just that the possibility of them tumbling off the line keeps things exciting.
A Carly Rae Jepsen show is a lot like a Cosmic Bowling night. There’s loud jams; plenty of flashing lights; and overpriced drinks making everything around you sticky. And just like Cosmic Bowling, Jepsen’s show would probably be more fun if she let the bumpers down every now and then.