is this too much?
embracing excess with carly rae jepsen
It’s hot. The kind of hot that plasters clothes to your body and makes it uncomfortable just to be awake. If today were a normal day, I would nap until night brought cooler temperatures, but I have somewhere to be in a few hours, so I pass the time swiping ice cubes across my forehead and fanning myself with a small stack of scrap paper. I’ve traveled to Philadelphia in the middle of July to see a Carly Rae Jepsen concert. Though the humidity is intolerable and the portable AC unit in my partner’s bedroom doesn’t work too well, I know it will be worth it. We’re listening to Jepsen’s most recent album, Dedicated, and waiting for dusk to fall. As we pick out what we’re going to wear, my partner questions whether the pink mesh top from Ariana Grande’s collection at H&M is too much, but we ultimately decide that it isn’t. We head to the venue early, hoping to get spots close to the stage. When we get there, I notice that I’m wearing the same t-shirt as the girl in front of me. I want to say something but realize I don’t need to. We’ve already made eye contact, which is enough for us to communicate a mutual hello, we have something in common.
It is packed—standing room only in a balcony section. Everyone in the audience is smiling and dancing to the music pouring from the speakers as we wait. It’s definitely not going to be one of those concerts where people stand around and act like they’re at an art gallery. We’re all pushed up against each other, and, though the AC is blasting, I’m sweating and feeling uneasy. I pull at my shirt, trying to keep it from sticking so tightly to my skin. Soon, the lights dim and Carly emerges wearing a purple vinyl dress. Everyone screams.
I was first introduced to Jepsen the way most people were: through hearing “Call Me Maybe” on a loop for most of 2012. I wasn’t reintroduced to her until last year, a few months before Dedicated came out. I was excited to find three albums and an EP waiting for me, and even more excited to find that I loved all of it. Her music is catchy and enveloping. The more I listen, the more I appreciate its power to carry me through all of the highs and lows of crushing on someone in the course of just a single song. It is music that embraces emotion, giving you permission to feel things the way Jepsen does. For me, and probably for many others in her fanbase, this permission is a welcome break from a society that is often quick to condemn genuine emotion. Sometimes it’s hard to give in to and accept what you’re feeling, especially if you’re feeling something that you’ve been told is wrong and meant to be pushed aside. But Jepsen doesn’t care about these expectations; she lives a life abundant with feeling and desire. Her songs, with lyrics like “…dream about me / And all that we could do with this emotion,” “I want to cut to the feeling,” and “When I feel it, then I feel it too much,” are invitations to relish in emotion, regardless of whether it’s good, bad, or “too much.”
There is a long history of labeling people who embrace emotion as “too much.” This critique of emotion acts as though it were possible—and bad—for one to be too open, too gullible, too sad, too happy, too naive, too quick to express emotion, or too slow to get over them. These insults paint emotional excess as unnecessary and childish, condemning how one copes with and enjoys feeling. The pejorative “too much” targets more than excess emotion, it is also levied at those whom society deems too ugly, fat, mouthy, old, sexual, or prudish, among other things. In these cases, the slight “you’re too much” targets physical appearance to equate excess with the grotesque. In the past, Freud pathologized feminine excess as hysteria (something he called “characteristically feminine”) and this stigma continues today. There is, however, a move toward reclaiming excess—psychoanalysts like Juliet Mitchell have written about the “demand for the right to be hysterical.” Jepsen’s willing embrace of emotion, particularly of “too much” emotion, is another way to reclaim and rethink the excessive.
Being “too much” is a common motif in pop music, one that is especially prominent in lyrics written by women. Jepsen embraces this excess in both the quantity and content of her lyrics. Almost all of her songs focus on some kind of romantic endeavor and every single song on Dedicated is directed at a “you.” Yet all of this desire often culminates in feeling like nothing has happened. Instrumentally, her songs build up to a breaking point, into something that sounds revelatory, while the lyrics remain fixated on craving and trying to reach a subject. As a listener, I find myself asking, So now what, did something happen next? And before I can even begin to process what I’ve just heard, the next song begins and she is again singing about wanting. Her existence in what the poet Hanif Abdurraqib calls “the Kingdom of Desire” demonstrates an abundant and lasting hunger that spans multiple albums. Her lyrics are excessive in a way that historically (and currently) might be described as “characteristically feminine” and “obsessive” because she focuses so strongly on emotion.
One of my favorite songs from Dedicated is “Too Much” (no surprise here). From the instrumentals that build up just to drop out, to its repetition of the phrase “too much” 24 times in just over three minutes, this song can certainly be viewed as excessive. Toward the end of the song, Jepsen asks, “Is this too much?” But this is a rhetorical question. She doesn’t care about the answer because she has already embraced being too much—the question is whether or not you are ready to join her. “Be careful,” she warns—if you’re not prepared to “do anything to get to the rush,” you’re not ready for me. It is almost a taunt, as if she is asking us to come closer, daring us to feel with her. And with all the joy and beauty in her music, why would we decline this invitation?
As someone who has been called “too much” as an insult, who has felt like a burden for any number of reasons, I have found a space in Jepsen’s music where I am allowed to be more than. Leaving that concert in July and entering the cooled air of a summer night, I saw people headed in all directions. Some were heading home, some to parties, some to eat, and some just to sit outside the venue, as if to catch their breath and hold on to that moment for as long as they could. Some screamed to their friends, ears still clouded from the noise inside, and others just rested their heads silently on another’s shoulder or their own palm. We had all just exited a place where we were free to be ourselves, and were even celebrated for it. We watched and danced and sang and cried as loudly and as extravagantly as we could while Jepsen reminded us all that yes, we are too much—and isn’t it wonderful?