Over four billion years ago, as the chaos that unfolded during the Big Bang began to subside, one of the many massive clouds of gas released by this universe-birthing event settled into a corner of the Milky Way galaxy today known as our Solar System, and began to condense into solid objects. Due to some complex physics that I was only barely able to convince my college geology professor I understood (D’s get degrees, am I right?), these solid objects began to find one another, colliding into molten hot spheres getting larger and larger until only nine remained: eight other ones and Earth. As the crusts of these planets cooled and ultimately hardened, their constant spinning motion turned these supermassive objects into near perfect spheres, and ultimately dictating everything from the tides to eclipses to the day/night cycle.
Don’t @ me, professor.
Or did they?
“Flatline. Flatline. You fooled me for the last time.” Those words formed the hook to the classic Neil DeGrasse-Tyson diss track “Flatline” by B.o.B., excoriating Tyson for his belief in a round earth. Ever since the rapper (who knows things about the shape of the earth, given that he wrote a song about airplanes) challenged the prevailing assumptions by asserting that the earth is flat in January of 2016, everyone from NBA champion Kyrie Irving to two-time NBA champion Draymond Green has come out in support of B.o.B. and his ideas. With a couple (really long) verses and a (really weak) hook, B.o.B. turned the world on its head in a matter of hours, and forced us to reconcile with how we truly view the shape of the earth. And for anyone who opened Max Landis’ meticulously researched and well documented thesis on the collected works of Carly Rae Jepsen, “A Scar No One Else Can See”, on Thursday, September 14, 2017, it was clear this moment would be just as monumental. The question is not whether the theory is valid (which it totally is). The real question is: what is Max trying to say?
Max’s theory opens with a bit of a head fake. After spending most of his introduction discussing the unique nature of Carly Rae Jepsen’s music, and how his theory first began to germinate in his brain, Landis concludes with a sentence, bolded and in extremely large font, that I took to serve as his overall point: “CARLY RAE JEPSEN IS IN HELL”. Perhaps I took this point too literally, as I spent the first third of the essay searching for the threads to connect Jepsen to Faust, wondering if the mystery man she spent so much time pining for was secretly the Devil. In hindsight, I believe this one sentence is the weakest moment of the entire thesis. My expectations became centered around the idea that we would learn how the literal concept of hell would work its way into the narrative Landis was constructing, even metaphorically. It was not until the final third of the essay that I was able to truly start appreciating the theory on its own merits, but once I did, I was entirely sold.
Those bangs can’t hide the truth, Carly.
To boil this document down to a one sentence summary: Every single Carly Rae Jepsen song that has been recorded (yes, even covers and unreleased early material) fits somewhere along the narrative of a three-act story to such a specific degree that it could not be an accident, but rather an intentional decision by the artist. The story is a twist on an old classic. Boy and Girl are friends (who each have significant others), Boy and Girl flirt around with becoming more than friends, Girl falls in love, Boy breaks it off with Girl for the main girlfriend, Girl is brokenhearted and vows to wait until the end of time for the Boy. Landis compares Jepsen to Sisyphus, saying she is cursed to be writing songs about the same period in her life over and over again. He breaks down the three acts further into their individual themes. Act 1 is dominated by themes of Limerence (having a crush and longing for it to be reciprocated, basically) and Temptation, representing the foundational stages of their friendship, and their flirting with the idea of taking it further even though they are both already in committed relationships [“Call Me Maybe”, “I Know You Have a Girlfriend”]. Act 2 moves into themes of Obsessions, Escape, and Secrets as the relationship finally begins to blossom, and she urges him to abandon their current lives so they can be together [“Run Away with Me”, “Body Language”, “Tug of War”]. Finally, Act 3 concludes on notes of Rejection and Misery as the mystery man choses his old love over Jepsen and abandons her, leaving her with nothing but a broken heart [“Your Type”, “Your Heart Is a Muscle”]. The thesis leaves no stone unturned, even admitting that two songs don’t entirely fit the pattern: “Worldly Problems” and “Store”.
Here I would like to take a point of privilege to address Landis directly. Max, listen: “Store” fits seamlessly into your narrative. It honestly hurts me, as a fan of your exhaustive study, that you missed this. The key to “Store” is to think of it not as addressed to the mystery man Carly has been pining for, but addressed to the man she was LEAVING for him. Remember the pivotal line in “This Kiss”, where she says, “And you know I got a boy”? “Store” is addressed to that “boy”, the one acknowledgement that she’s dumping someone for the new man, committing to the new man just like she wants the new man to commit to her. If anything, this song has overtones of Obsession, showing just how far she is willing to go for the new man, who we know from countless other Jepsen tracks does not reciprocate the same feelings. The track plays like a bit of a fantasy, what she wants to say to her old man once her dreamboat finally commits to her. I mean, it’s just so obvious…
Anywhere, where were we? I honestly can’t remember. I had summarized the thesis, and was going to move into the evidence. That’s right. Well, the evidence is all around you. Max mentions eight “Keystone Songs” that serve as the best examples of how his thesis comes together1, but really, you can make the case that nearly every single song in the Jepsen discography fits somewhere along the story arc. And Max does. Each track is dissected with great attention to detail, going through the lion’s share of the lyrics and showing how each song attaches itself to this grand tapestry. If nothing else, it gives you a much greater appreciation for Jepsen as a lyricist, and how she can use conventional, rote pop songwriting techniques to craft a deep and nuanced narrative within each track. Like really. Try it. Open Max’s thesis right now, go to any of the song breakdowns, and just read the way he breaks down that track. You’ll likely sit there going, “Wow, I’ve heard that song a dozen times, but I didn’t realize that edge, that darkness that was lurking just below the surface of these shimmering pop masterpieces.” And that is all due to the single greatest element of this thesis: the author.
Max Landis is having fun here. Like, a lot of fun. More fun than I usually have doing anything. He rewrites Katy Perry songs as if CRJ was their author2. He fills the work with puns, from “Jeptic” to “JepSaga” to the crowning achievement, “Quantum Raechanics”. He made a trailer for his work’s release where he’s rambling to himself in a straightjacket. He knows the absurdity of writing 150 pages about whether Carly Rae Jepsen is writing about the same thing over and over, and he’s leaning into. He doesn’t care if you believe, and I’m not entirely certain he’s sold either. He uses dark stories of mental illness from his own life to help us appreciate the strain that revisiting these same moments over and over for the sake of art must be having on Carly. But the thing that shines the brightest and ultimately rings the truest about this tome is the simple fact that this is all coming from a place of love, for Carly and for pop music in general.
I walked away from “A Scar No One Else Can See” fully convinced in its validity, but it took me a while to get there. Even by the middle of the essay, as I was first starting to buy into the pattern, I kept coming back to the question of why. Why did Max Landis spend an insane amount of time studying every detail of every Carly Rae Jepsen song (and the songs of numerous other female pop stars, for the purposes of comparison) just to tell us that her music could be reasonably assessed to be telling one story, instead of a few different stories? Is that really so insane? The answer, of course, is no. Even as a believer, I don’t believe it’s insane. I’m also a big Jay-Z fan, and 98% of his music is “I have sex with hot women and buy nice cars and used to sell drugs”. We write from our experiences, and if Carly feels this experience in her life is worth returning to repeatedly, then who are we to question where she draws from? But by the end, I became convinced that this was not the true purpose of Landis’ essay. Or at least was not the only purpose. Max was using the framework of a conspiracy to get us to appreciate the blood, the sweat, the tears, the motherfucking craft (if you will) it takes to create art on any level. So often we can get caught up in the idea of pop as a vapid style of songwriting, forced to dumb itself down to appeal to the masses. However, by pouring his heart and soul into this 150 page work of art, Max Landis forces us to confront the idea that if he did all this just to prove a point, and you even halfway believe what he wrote, then imagine how much of herself Carly Rae Jepsen is putting into every single line in every single song. Just because the technical ability is higher for Sharon Van Etten’s “Tell Me” should not discredit the passion and work being CRJ’s “Tell Me”. And that is ultimately the biggest takeaway I got from this entire experience.
So the earth is flat, the CIA killed Kennedy, and every Carly Rae Jepsen song tells the same story. If you can only walk away from here today with one of those, I want you to know that the earth is flat, and that you’ve been lied to (I’m coming for you, DeGrasse-Tyson). But if you have room in your brain for two things, spare a thought for Carly Rae Jepsen. Both the Carly who has to push that boulder back up the hill every time she reaches back to that story she knows so well, and the Carly whose songs about said subject continue to go criminally underrated. And if you see him on the street, thank Max Landis for me, because he too suffered so that we could appreciate the art we have. The world didn’t need a 150 page thesis on how every Carly Rae Jepsen song is connected, but we have it, and the world is better for it.
2 Page 69. Go check them out. They’re really funny.