Carly Rae Jepsen is not problematic. At no point during the 30-year-old Canadian-born pop star's sold-out show Wednesday at the Varsity Theater would even the most knee-jerk abuser of that empty euphemism feel compelled to thinkpiece out loud about false feminism or cultural appropriation.
Jepsen sketches a world where desires are refreshingly straightforward even if acting on them is sometimes a little tricky, and her set was an upbeat blast of smartly self-conscious G-rated pop for young adults ducking temporarily out of the their NSFW lives.
Jepsen's 2012 smash, “Call Me Maybe,” was a career-making statement of purpose, insisting that if you flirt wildly enough, the stomach-gulping uncertainty that accompanies the first flush of infatuation can actually be as thrilling than any subsequent physical romance.
Her 2015 album, E•MO•TION, was a commercial underperfomer but possibly a savvy career pivot. It won over the indie-minded crowd that Haim had already opened up to the pleasures of '80s dance-pop while nudging those aesthetes even further out of their comfort zone by refurbishing not just the classy stuff like Janet and Madonna, but off-brand kitsch Nu Shooz or T'Pau.
Jepsen began last night's show in the role of Carly Rae: Ingenue Superhero, leading off with three of her most winning dollops of romantic escapism. “Making the Most of the Night” and its climactic boast of “Here I've come to hijack you” pulsed into the title track from E•MO•TION, a self-contained celebration of the power that comes from being desired. Then, on “Run Away With Me,” Jepsen took flight as a female Peter Pan, leading a chorus of pre-recorded lost girls invitingly chirping the title.
Two of those first three songs mention turning off the lights, because Carly Rae is big on setting moods and seeing where that takes her — or you. It's a characteristically coy maneuver — when she sings “I didn't just come here to dance/ If you know what I mean/ Do you know what I mean?” I'm like … ye-e-ah, I think so, but I'm still not sure if you want me to make a move here. There's a shyness at the core of Jepsen's songs that her characters struggle to overcome but can also be used as a flirtation device.
For all its desirous whooshes, E•MO•TION also deliberately lowers the romantic stakes by casting an envious eye back at adolescence — “relationship issues” are a lot less daunting when you call them “Boy Problems” while dancing to the music you loved as a teen. In this context, “Your Type,” an uncharacteristic (for Jepsen) heart-wrencher about falling for a friend and fumbling between declarations of love and embarrassed apologies, stands out. It was the emotional high point of the show.
Jepsen's set was brisk — 20 songs in less than an hour and a half, including all but one of the 15 cuts on the “deluxe” version of E•MO•TION (sorry, “Black Heart” fans). The vocal nuances that you hear on her recordings — the way her voice snags on a vowel for the tiniest fraction of a second, a winning tendency toward breathiness that makes her words sound like they're evaporating — were lost in the live blare. Backed by a four-piece band, Jepsen displayed the personable ease of someone who's spent many hours in front of television cameras, if not the sort of charisma that allows her to sell her weaker material.
And a couple of songs from her previous album, Kiss, were indeed less buoyant than weightless, particularly the childish “Good Time,” originally a duet with outstate Minnesotan twee-pop act Owl City, and which a terrible old person once crotchetily dismissed as “an invitation to an evening of board games, Victorious reruns, and a fizzless two-liter of that off-brand cola your mom insists on buying.”
But if Jepsen's banter was largely limited to brief, colorless song introductions, she kept out of her own way and let the songs do their work. The latter part of the set showed some exciting stylistic variation: “All That” is a bass-popping slow jam, while “Let's Get Lost” permitted a band member to employ saxophone as '80s novelty instrument. The show wound down with a version of “Curiosity,” with Jepsen accompanied by a sole acoustic guitar, a performance that divided the crowd into those who gazed adoringly and those who ordered drinks.
But that quieter interlude was there to provide contrast to the home stretch. With those synth-strings ringing out triumphantly between the vocal phrases, “Call Me Maybe” really is the Beethoven's Fifth of songs about giving out your number to cute boys. It even inspired groups of women to form circles, all the better to shout lyrics at each other.
After that, the set closer, the more recent single “I Really Like You,” about postponing any premature use of the more serious “L” word with too many “really”s for the song title to contain, might have come off as anti-climactic. Instead, it just showed that the sillier Carly Rae Jepsen risks sounding, the smarter she gets as a songwriter.
Random notebook dump: Like her music, Jepsen's hair pays tribute to '80s pop in a way that synthesizes multiple influences so as to come off as fresh rather than derivative — ragged Benatar bangs, lengthening so stylishly in back that none dare murmur “mullet,” dyed Joan Jett black. She quickly lost the Fonz-tastic leather jacket that initially covered her shiny sleeveless top, though mid-set a shawl covered her shoulders.
The crowd: White, mostly mid-twenties to mid-thirties, though some younger fans were probably crushed up toward the stage, and there were several actual children — little girls in spangly dresses and oversized T-shirts. There was also an unfortunate clump of oafish dudes pushing up from the back about five songs in. (We can be annoying even before we're middle-aged, Grace.)
Run Away With Me
Making the Most of the Night
I Didn't Just Come Here to Dance
Tonight I'm Getting Over You
When I Needed You
Let's Get Lost
Call Me Maybe
I Really Like You