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Carly Rae Jepsen’s Notes on Camp

Carly Rae Jepsen is many things: an international superstar, a certified expert of pop music, a lover at heart. But—perhaps most importantly—she’s a beloved queer icon. Even if Miss Jepsen doesn’t necessarily play for our team, she happily cheers us on from the sidelines, providing hopelessly romantic pop music like fuel to the furnace of queer desire. On paper, our affinity for flamboyant pop music is what draws us to the star. In theory, the queer adoration of Carly Rae Jepsen holds a complexity beyond the average relationship between idol and superfan. 

Gifted with a sharp eye for the nuanced forms of pining that comes with queer romance, Carly Rae Jepsen is far more than an ally; she is camp in it’s purest form. Such a lofty title is only granted via a thorough analysis of Susan Sontag’s ur-text, “Notes on Camp.” 

Obviously, this is no easy task. As Sontag points out: “to talk about camp is to betray it.” To this charge, I must however plead “not guilty” in the name of self-inquiry: as well-received as Jepsen is now, there was a time when she was dubbed a “guilty pleasure” of mine. To listen to Jepsen’s relentless hope about love is to be self indulgent, to wonder “what if?” What if I, too, unabashedly put myself out there, expressing my unfiltered emotions in the same sincere way that Carly Rae Jepsen does? Fearing rejection and the shame that follows, the question itself remains forever unasked, stored away in the back of our minds. Jepsen both delights us and reminds us of our greatest shame, the “what if”s and missed opportunities of our lives that haunt us still, reminding us to seize love when and where we can.

Just like Sontag, we are able to identify with the essence of Carly Rae Camp because we are both “strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it.” 

She fulfills every aspect of “the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate and the naive” that Sontag’s definition of camp demands.

One of camp’s most important characteristics, according to Sontag, is that: “In naive, or pure Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.” The failed seriousness of Carly Rae Jepsen lies in the career-long continuity of her artistic identity as a highly emotional, hopeless romantic. She fulfills every aspect of “the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate and the naive” that Sontag’s definition demands. Jepsen’s public displays of affection in pop are part of her “seriousness that fails” because they were initially deemed undignified or artless. In response to the viral popularity of “Call Me Maybe,” the quality of Jepsen’s artistic vision was negated by her very public label as a “one-hit wonder.” 

This quality also takes on what Sontag calls: “the sensibility of the theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses…the harmonies of traditional seriousness and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling.” Moving from one emotional extreme to the next, Jepsen’s discography rides on the sporadic whims of love, never once stopping to calculate the risk factor that accompanies her own brand of relentless hope. When observed by the culture at large, Jepsen’s blind devotion to the very act of devotion is often considered naive. But where such a categorization was once damning, her extravagant innocence and dramatic endeavors set her apart as an industry icon. In this way, Jepsen comes full circle: We revere her for all of the reasons critics first refused to take her seriously. 

If camp “is not a mode of natural sensibility,” then Jepsen’s relentless pursuit of love in our overly cynical world is just that. ♦

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