@The Feldman Agency
Dreaming of Canada with Carly Rae Jepsen
The most beautiful sound in the world to me is that of an orchestra tuning itself to the oboe’s taut A. The second most beautiful is Carly Rae Jepsen. For these two reasons, I flew to Canada for exactly twenty-eight hours over the weekend, to see Jepsen perform with the sixty-person Toronto Symphony Orchestra, in a sold-out performance for twenty-six hundred of the purest souls in pop fandom and, possibly, the world. “I’m so happy that it’s almost like I’m uncomfortable!” Jepsen gasped, with one song left before intermission. She looked like a statuette: blond pixie cut, floor-length gold sequinned gown, her small figure catching every blink of light in Roy Thomson Hall. I was short of breath, too, and ecstatic: there were so many violinists drawing so many bows in unison, as if hypnotized—and if you put pizzicato strings on a Carly Rae Jepsen song it sounds like love is newly forming in your heart. The crowd, gooey-eyed, screamed back at its unassuming diva. “It’s the best and the worst all at once!” Jepsen said, before launching into the title track from her first album, “Tug of War,” released nine years ago. Nearly everyone recognized it. “You seem too good, too good to be true,” we sang along to the first line.
The idea for the one-night-only Carly Rae Jepsen orchestra spectacular—arranged by Christopher Mayo, conducted by Lucas Waldin—came out of the 2016 Polaris Music Prize Gala, where she performed her song “Your Type” with a string quartet from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, accompanied by her frequent collaborator and “Call Me Maybe” co-writer Tavish Crowe. “Your Type,” off her last full album, “Emotion,” is, like most of Jepsen’s songs, about unbearable one-sided longing. Its chorus begins, “I’m not the type of girl for you / I’m not going to pretend / That I’m the type of girl you call more / Than a friend.” On the album, it sounds like an eighties movie, sparkling and propulsive and synthetic. With the string quartet, it is easier to hear how the song oscillates between hope and sadness, as the chords shift from major to minor and back. Jepsen’s greatest gift as an artist is her way of making the space between love and desperation seem infinite there is an obvious pathos embedded in the way she expresses desire and affection that is singularly well-suited to a string section.
Jepsen was born in British Columbia and entered the northern spotlight when she finished third on “Canadian Idol,” in 2007. She put on Saturday’s show as part of Canada 150, the yearlong celebration of the country’s sesquicentennial—a century and a half has passed since the provinces of Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia were united under the British North America Act of 1867. Traditionally, Canada’s national identity has been less known to Americans than ours—aggressive, heavily mythologized, all bald eagles and jingoism—has been known to them. Today, though, in this time of psychological and actual fragility induced by President Donald Trump, Americans have begun framing Canada as a sort of parallel paradise. His Keystone XL policies notwithstanding, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—handsome, discreet, young, liberal, perpetually camera-ready—is easily positioned as Trump’s perfect foil. While the U.S. news is dominated by hate crimes, police killings, and the inexorable upward drain of resources from the needy to the rich, the Canadian news cycle seems increasingly dreamy: Trudeau has gotten in a kayak again and taken photographs a beaver has bitten into a power pole in Saskatchewan, disrupting a local wedding a ninety-eight-year-old woman who published a bad recipe for butter tarts has issued a public apology “for desecrating one of Canada’s most beloved baked goods.” The “Meanwhile, in Canada” Twitter meme is deployed every day.
And so it was within the context of full-throttle escapism that I arrived in Toronto, the city where I was born. (For better and worse, my family moved to Texas when I was four.) I had flown on an airline called Porter, whose mascot is a raccoon in a tuxedo and which provided free wine, coffee, snacks, and Wi-Fi. I got in a cab, and Toronto’s version of Taxi TV featured a large dog pushing a small dog in a grocery cart under the chyron “Why Two Dogs Are Better Than One.” I passed the mall where my dad had scooped ice cream in college and the high-rise building where my parents lived until I was two. Not a single person on the street looked angry. An elderly couple burbled past on a motorbike two Canadian flags and a goggles-wearing teddy bear waved hello to me from the back. There were maple leaves everywhere for the sesquicentennial, and rainbow flags, too—it was either a terrific coincidence or else ordained by the gods in antiquity that Jepsen would be performing with the orchestra during Canada’s second-ever Pride Month. “Carly Rae Jepsen invented gay people,” one concert attendee said, very earnestly, after the show.
At Roy Thomson Hall, before the show, the crowd quivered. Strangers babbled at each other, smiling like maniacs. The orchestra began, suddenly, in a way that resembled star formation—dense clouds of melody floating in suspension and then, under piccolo flurries and timpani rolls, fusing into one. A sax line emerged, neon with yearning, and Jepsen came out to sing “Run Away with Me,” unprotected by reverb and curling her voice tight around the notes. She glittered in her peculiar, brilliant, half vacant way. Jepsen is, for a pop star, a remarkably unassuming presence—she always seems like a conduit for something, rather than the thing itself—and though she managed the evening’s performance appropriately, like a diva, with a gown change and Streisand gestures, it seemed to me as if she could’ve been singing in front of her bedroom mirror, or in a dream. It just so happened that she was in front of a full symphony orchestra, facing a crowd of people who would eventually jump to their feet and sing along and dance like they, too, were alone in their rooms. The orchestra was heartbreaking, restrained by the simplicity of the songwriting and yet inherently hyperbolic. The violins took up the moments where, normally, on her albums, you’d hear Jepsen ad-libbing with interjections. Instead of a “Hey!” their bows would strike, like an epiphany, a burst of sweetness outside the realm of words.