Parenting by the Books: Cut to the Feeling

Our family romance with Carly Rae Jepsen

It started almost a year ago, in the car on the way home from Riis Beach, windows down, skin sticky with sand and sunscreen. “Again!” the two-and-a-half-year-old cried from the backseat. “Again! Again!” And so I pressed play on Carly Rae Jepsen’s “I Really Like You,” once again. Or maybe, actually, it started Summer of 2012, my now-kindergartener in my arms as I bounced him around the house, dancing and dipping his big laughing baby head towards the ground while listening to “Call Me Maybe.” All of it — that post-beach car ride, my kids, the living room dance parties, Carly Rae Jepsen — feels like it’s always been there in me. Before they came into my life, I missed them so bad.

My smaller son loves Carly Rae Jepsen with a purity and devotion that comes from his core. Literally his core; he is the earth to his older brother’s air, he is, to paraphrase Melville, “the very pelvis of [our family],” the one who exhibits such easy pleasure in his body that to simply glance at his feet making full and savoring contact with the ground is both joy and accusation. In the bath one night, he asked me for “Carly Rae hair” and I wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted. Surely, I couldn’t approximate heavy bangs for him. But with some trial and error, we figured it out. He wanted me to gather his little bit of hair on the back of his head into a modest, wispy ponytail: exactly the sort Carly Rae favors when she wears her hair layered and shoulder length. His fine preschooler’s hair now somewhat thickened with suds, I gave him his ponytail; he asked to be taken over to the mirror where he gazed at himself with love and wonder, touching the back of his head with a sense of discovery. He knew he was beautiful.

How would a three-year-old know what Carly Rae Jepsen hair even is? I’m glad you asked! Mine knows because, after giving up his nap early, right after he turned two, I stopped fighting him about lying down alone in his room and let him join me — or more precisely me and my phone — in my room, dim and cool at midday for an hour of “quiet time,” which means, actually, an hour of him watching Carly Rae Jepsen videos in bed. I doze and he practices a new kind of love, both of our endeavors set to the sweet, synthetic sounds of longing and desire. It’s perfect.

I confess that I was no CRJ completist before all of this started, and with a mother’s vigilance, would initially drag myself out of my snooze each time I heard him click over to a new video. Was this okay for a three-year-old to be watching? I don’t do that anymore, and it’s not because she’s pastel pink and anodyne. Rather it’s because I trust and believe in Carly Rae. Carly Rae Jepsen has signature hair, she wears great and stylish tailored shirts, she wears skin-tight leather pants and mini-skirts, she’s a little awkward on stage, she has a beautiful voice.

In the video for “Your Type,” feeling heartbroken after someone has done her wrong, she puts on a skimpy outfit to perform for a collection of queer misfits in a glowing red and glittering dive bar. She is an interesting woman practicing a popular art form in a way that’s generous and loving toward outsiders and oddballs. And what my son gets from her requires very little counter-programming from me. Somehow — even though she is obviously there for us to look at and admire — she inhabits a type of female sexuality that is appealing to a large audience, and manages not to suggest that that’s all women are for. I’m not sure how she pulls this trick off. Is it Canada? I’m sincerely asking.

Our evenings these days usually feature a CRJ dance party (and a lot of arguing and yelling and whining and throwing things, but let’s keep our gauzy pop soft-focus for the moment). He mostly chooses a deep-ish cut from E*MO*TION, maybe “Boy Problems” (the chorus to which he sings as “Paa-jamas”), or, like, “L.A. Hallucinations.” The day that “Cut to the Feeling” was released, a dear friend told me that in the midst of his own pop-induced euphoria over the new song, he thought of my CRJ-loving son. Imagine that! This little person, barely four years on this earth, already so present to others. This is the electrifying circuitry of pop music: people scattered across the world, listening to the same few minutes of music, treasuring one another.

After I had children, the pop love songs that had always been important to me easily expanded to incorporate my new feeling of love for these small beings. The lyrics that used to bring me back to late-night parties and romantic embraces were also strangely perfect, it seemed, for capturing something like the intense feeling of late nights up feeding babies: “You’re everything I need and more” etc. At first, I found myself sort of lame for this, wasn’t this the height of motherly narcissism, seeing her kids in everything? Nobody cares, lady! Tell it to the other randos at the playground! Once, talking about Neko Case’s “This Tornado Loves You” with a friend, she described what she heard as the song’s frightening romantic brutality, while I was secretly feeling kind of weird inside realizing that I now heard the song as about the brutality of loving and being loved by little children.

But it’s exactly this brutality that pop is so good at, and that’s why it’s so surprisingly good at capturing the affective landscape of little kids and their caretakers, all of them together learning the brutal ways of the loving world. The other night, my older son sort of reached out and caressed my face a bit right before bed. He started toying with some bit of my facial hair — you know the sort that I’m supposed to, as a woman in the world, manage, to remove or somehow mask. But he didn’t care, he doesn’t yet know what women or men are. He doesn’t know what he is. He doesn’t know whether or not he finds facial hair socially acceptable or attractive. He was just in the idle and mindless throes of love. The brutal, tornado part, is, of course, that he’ll figure it all out someday — I want him to figure it out! I want him to survive — and that part of figuring it out will be withdrawing that (kind of) love from me. He’ll retract his hand, and he’ll be over there, and I’ll be over here.

Carly Rae Jepsen, a lot of the best writing on her suggests, is particularly good at suspension: at lengthening and staying inside the state of longing that stretches between want and have. Her newest single — with the chorus “Take me to emotion, I want to go all the way” — is almost entirely a taffy pull of that suspension. And yet, despite the incredibly flexible quality of it, the main story we like to tell about Carly Rae Jepsen’s music still usually pins it to familiar romantic terms: boy or girl problems, as it were. You know, “going all the way.” This feels reductive to me. After all, there are so many different kinds of love problems one can have in a life!

The beauty of pop music, I’ve discovered especially since having children, is how expansive a container it is. Listening to Carly Rae with my boys, it’s easy to see how her pop music captures the life of reproduction itself, by which I mean the life of love (many different kinds!) multiplying your sense of yourself in the world. Carly Rae sings songs about breakups and flirtations, but she also gives voice to how it can feel to have an expanding body, an expanding idea, a family made larger or smaller by any number of ways. It’s a chemical reaction, it’s devotion. It’s rejection and a painful, quick slice. It’s a child’s body growing relentlessly, just going, going, going, all the way.

Parenting by the Books” is a series about parenting and classic literary texts.

Sarah Blackwood is editor and co-founder of Avidly and associate professor of English at Pace University.