Nostalgia in Canadian Pop

Nostalgia in Canadian Pop: How artists like Carly Rae Jepsen look back to go forward

From Francesco Yates to The Weeknd, today's best pop artists are mining the past to explore the entanglements of time, memory and feeling.

- Aug 20, 2015

It’s been hard to escape Francesco Yates“Better To Be Loved” this summer. I admit I wore it out on my own well before getting inundated with it by the soft-rock-adult-contemporary radio station that’s always on at my day job, but even then I never quite tired of it. What’s not to love? “Better” has all the ingredients of a great throwback pop tune, with a stellar Michael-meets-Stevie mid-'70s vibe, sustained by Yates’ funky guitar playing and buoyed by his remarkable voice.

Carly Rae Jepsen’s new album E•MO•TION takes a similar glance backwards, drawing on the sounds of the '80s to defeat the one-hit-wonder stigma of "Call Me Maybe," but if her “I Really Like You” is any indication, she’s dealing with the entanglement of time, memory and feeling in a much more interesting way.

Carly Rae Jepsen - I Really Like You

It’s just one of a number of recent high-profile retreats to the past, from Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” to Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment’s “Sunday Candy" to The Weeknd’s Hot 100-reigning “Can’t Feel My Face” (co-written with The Cardigans' Peter Svensson, who is also credited on “I Really Like You”) .

Carly Rae Jepsen's songs hone in on a feeling. It's a pure connection, like the way your heart connects with the pit of your stomach when you’re around the person you really really like.

This recent outcropping isn’t indicative of some new trend. Rather, they're representative of a technique in pop that's endearing, inclusive and, yes, timeless. If it’s done right, pairing romance with displaced sounds of yesteryear can function as a statement on the nature of love and longing. It's no wonder it's all over the charts.

In her landmark work, The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym argues that nostalgia is a historical emotion, a modern expression of longing for the past as a result of progress. On its own, nostalgia is not inherently good or bad, but a type of longing that can only arise after a certain experience no longer fits into the current “horizon of expectations.”

Francesco Yates - Better To Be Loved (Official Music Video)

It’s interesting to hear the 19-year-old Francesco Yates pining with a sound he wasn’t around to actually experience.  It makes a little more sense when you see that “Better” was co-written with Pharrell Williams, who has had his own love affair with the past in his recent music. This is not the first time the two have worked together: Yates played guitar on Pharrell's' G I R L, a record that solidified the latter’s reputation for misogyny couched in time-travelling pop.

Pharrell got his fair share of callouts for no longer fitting into our current “horizon of expectations” after his 2013 collaboration with Robin Thicke on “Blurred Lines,” a song chock full of greaseball come-ons toward women just as ancient as the Marvin Gaye song they ape. Embedding those attitudes in the sounds of the past makes them sound less out of place - a technique Pharrell continued throughout G I R L and one that Yates seems to be adopting.

Nobody Like You - Music Video

Earlier this year Yates was chosen to write a new jingle for Coca Cola. The end result, “Nobody Like You,” is another funky number in the same vein as “Better To Be Loved,” though it’s more Coke Zero than Coke Classic. Complete with bottle-clink beats, refreshing “ahs” and samples of former jingles, “Nobody” tugs on the brand’s long history, focusing specifically on that age-old trademark glass bottle, a symbol which Yates doesn’t have to do much with to make it a double entendre. He’s not the first person to compare the icon to the figure of a woman, and won’t be the last, but in doing so he’s dug up more than just vintage sounds.

It’s been awhile since I’ve fallen into that rather large and undefined gap between liking someone and loving them. Carly Rae Jepsen is only 18 days younger than I am, so the “horizon of expectations” might suggest she’d be over singing about that now too. Yet “I Really Like You” flies in the face of expectations in favour of feelings. The song builds slowly, airy synths collecting beneath an insistent drum beat as a scattered, giddy melody gushes forth like a secret that’s been held back far too long. It recalls '80s pop rather broadly, folding Madonna in over the anthemic qualities of a John Hughes soundtrack, but it does the trick.

An almost thirty-something telling someone that they “really really really really really really” like them seems juvenile on the surface, maybe betraying a lack of confidence or an inability to articulate an emotion, but there’s no uncertainty in her words. She’s felt this way before. The whirlwind of “reallys” at once describe something so specific yet totally overwhelming and ineffable, like each subsequent “really” somehow unlocks another level of intimacy. That’s the essence Jepsen's skill as a pop singer: honing in on those gut feelings that transcend age and time in order to pin down something very big and complex.

Carly Rae Jepsen - Run Away With Me

Jepsen first hinted at her ability to bridge the gap between 13 and 30 with “Call Me Maybe,” but she doubles down with E•MO•TION. On songs like "Really," "Boy Problems" and "Run Away With Me" she avoids the pitfalls of performers like Francesco Yates by connecting the kinds of longing inherent in both love and nostalgia without letting one outweigh the other. She’s savvy enough to look back on those youthful expressions of love and smart enough to see that our ability to articulate ourselves in those situations doesn’t get much better with age. If they’re genuine they’ll always have the power to dumbfound and amaze.

She evokes a feeling, maybe broadly at first, but still totally effectively. It's a pure connection, like the way your heart connects with the pit of your stomach when you’re around the person you really really like. In honing these ineffable feelings, Jepsen’s songs become as unforgettable as the feelings themselves. And that's something that doesn't change with time.

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