There’s a synthed-up saxophone that opens Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away With Me,” the leadoff single from her 2015 critical darling, Emotion. It lingers for a second or two alone in almost naked fraudulence before the heartbeat throb of a mild dance beat arrives to escort us into Jepsen’s flawless, hushed soprano.

The synth-sax is one kind of '80s affectation and sonic nostalgia en vogue at the moment among pop’s leading divas, so it’s not shocking that Jepsen opened her set last night with that sax. Though, live at the Fonda Theatre, it was a real one, played by a member of her backing band. The sound of the sax live but still in a manipulated state made it indistinguishable from its recorded version. Wait, are they both real? And if you coat something in that much sticky throwback, does it matter?

This is exactly the kind of thing that makes watching a huge pop star play at being “genuine” so utterly fascinating. It also makes you wonder why there was even a live band behind Jepsen at all.

As she worked through her first few songs, “Run Away With Me,” “Making the Most of the Night”  and “Good Time,” Jepsen seemed reluctant to own the stage. For someone whose biggest hit has been referenced by everyone from bad local advertisers (“Install me. Maybe?”) to the president of the United States, you have to wonder if that reluctance is a practiced vulnerability. “You are all the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” she cooed to the audience between songs, tipping her hand to that fact a bit. Most beautiful thing? Ever?

Carly Rae Jepsen; Credit: Photo by Hannah Verbeuren

Carly Rae Jepsen; Credit: Photo by Hannah Verbeuren

No matter. The crowd devoured it. They reached out to her and absorbed her awkwardly coy energy. Basically a motley assemblage of pop aficionados wearing all manner of CRJ-inspired costume, they were goofy hayseeds blown in from who-knows-where contrasting with a boho-whatever Hollywood crowd. You’d think it would have been teenyboppers and suburban mall sprites, but instead these were adults — real, over-25 adults for the most part, filled out largely by male couples. This became most apparent when she called out her next song, “This one is about … solving 'Boy Problems'” — and everyone up and lost it.

Her voice came in light and airy all night, but still flawless, as if she might even be lip-syncing. She wasn’t. But still. Most apparently on “Warm Blood” — the kind of song you put on a mixtape for someone you’re involved with physically but you know it’s going to end poorly — she floated over the emotional heft of the lyrics with perfect detachment. “And I cannot control it/The way you're making me feel/And you have got me going/Spinning in circles 'round your warm blood.” It’s almost as if she refused to access whatever inspired those lyrics. Or maybe, in the act of repeating them so many times, they’ve lost meaning to her — like repeating a word so much it eventually sounds like gibberish.

Carly Rae Jepsen; Credit: Photo by Hannah Verbeuren

Carly Rae Jepsen; Credit: Photo by Hannah Verbeuren

At 5’2”, Jepsen was dwarfed by members of her live band, and her little black dress and pixie-ish haircut echoed the kind of vintage Chanel–inspired, Holly Golightly look that women reared on French new wave would chase on Pinterest. She inexplicably threw on a dressing gown–like cape for “Your Type.” Just one song. She mused, “Sometimes a song really calls for a cape?” It felt like she was settling more into the coquette stock character she supposedly tried to escape with this new album, even if, by pop standards, her performance was still pretty restrained.

Jepsen's practiced air stood in contrast to her local openers, Fairground Saints, who, with their outdoorsy look and mellow three-part harmonies, seem to be striving for understated.

Fairground Saints; Credit: Photo by Hannah Verbeuren

Fairground Saints; Credit: Photo by Hannah Verbeuren

The closer Jepsen got to finishing her 90-minute set, the more excited and relieved Jepsen and her band appeared. She shouted out, as a group, her Emotion production team, who might have been in attendance — a veritable village of producers, engineers and songwriters: Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, songwriter Jacob Kasher, L.A.-based super-producer Ariel Rechtshaid, the Scandinavian titan team of Robin Fredriksson, Mattias Larsson and Karl “Shellback” Schuster. Oh, and Sia. She didn’t list them by name, but without them it would be hard to imagine her being able to stand there at all.

Also, as a semi-permanent L.A. transplant, she shouted out to traffic and called attention to her newly purchased L.A. home: “I just bought a house here. It’s growing on me. What can I say?”

Just before her big finale, she did an oddly compelling version of “Curiosity” with her guitarist on his acoustic. This is the kind of thing for which think pieces pull out their hugest words. It could be said that in all her songs about the transience of contemporary relationships and the thirst for connection in a world of mediated interconnection, this was her raw and real moment. Or maybe it’s just her going acoustic for 3½ minutes.

None of that mattered, because she followed it with “Call Me Maybe” and everyone figuratively shat themselves. Entirely bored by it herself, she demanded that the audience sing it for her. So they did.

Despite her possibly crafted persona, despite the artful look, and the massive production team, and the possibly synthetic saxophone, this is what she can’t escape. Even if she makes 10 more albums, each superseding the next, it’s her Canadian Idol dropout viral mega-hit that will define her.

She closed with the even better “I Really Like You,” but it’s doubtful anyone will be talking about it at the water cooler more than the song that preceded it. 

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