Amidst glittering antique cars, “Call Me Maybe,” blared from the speakers at my high school senior prom. A favorite teacher made some comment about how she could not believe people actually liked this song. I rolled my eyes in agreement, but I secretly loved the song. However, admitting it appeared to be antithetical to the image I wanted to portray — a studious, somber, above-it-all recluse. The anti-pop sentiment continued in college. The hipster reigned. People lived in fear of being called basic. When I would tell people I was going to see Jepsen in concert, I would be greeted with several incredulous “reallys” and “whys.”
The message was clear: If you wanted to be taken seriously, you could not like popular, fun, cheerful music things. On a deeper level, there is an entire debate in cultural sociology about the “cultural omnivore” and academic discussion between the high- and low-brow. Yet, we live in a golden age of access to content from around the world and across time. I can enjoy Susan Sontag and Stephen Sondheim as well as Taylor Jenkins Reid and Taylor Swift all at once.
Returning to Jepsen, Spotify recently informed me I am in the top 0.05 percent of her listeners, and I realized that Jepsen is the ultimate graduate school muse. I have turned to her to accompany many moods and milestones throughout graduate school.
Two words come to mind when I think of her music: confidence and optimism. Jepsen is someone who knows what she wants and goes after it. “Call Me Maybe,” “Run Away With Me,” and “Want You in My Room” are anthems of agency. We all need a song or two to build confidence for hitting submit for a conference, journal, or grant and seeing how the universe reacts. Jepsen knows that things will not always work out, nevertheless she dares to believe in a world where things will.
For my academic career, I have been immersed in studying serious things: drunk driving fatalities, housing hardship, addiction, domestic violence. Optimism is rare and fleeting. Over the years, I have come to embrace escapism as a form of self-preservation, a way to recharge and recommit. That is what makes the brightness and optimism of Jepsen’s music stand out. When I was doing fieldwork in rural Kentucky, my research partner and I had a particularly challenging and emotionally-draining day. The album we had downloaded for the 90-minute drive without cell service was Jepsen’s “Dedicated.” We rolled down the windows and sang our hearts out on the eroding winding roads, providing a much needed respite.
On the flip side, Jepsen’s music is great to handle another staple of graduate student life: failure. Her latest album, “The Loneliest Time,” brims with themes of isolation and rejection; Jepsen is in her PhD era.
There are many flavors of rejection to sample throughout Jepsen’s catalog for when I get paper and conference rejections or deflating feedback and reviews. There is the classic heartbreaking rejection in “Your Type.” But, there are also songs like “When I Needed You” about avoiding sunk cost fallacy — some projects do not work out. Meanwhile, “Talking to Yourself” takes away the sting of rejection, by envisioning a world where the rejecter made a mistake, obviously. And, there is the self-care jam of “Comeback” about re-energizing yourself. Jepsen is there to help push through it all.
Jepsen also captures the humdrum hindrances of the research process. Most of the workshops hosted by the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning workshops I have attended over the years provide solid advice on finding internal motivation. Easier said than done. Throughout undergraduate, my prior job, and first years of graduate school, I took pride in my internal motivation, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. A particularly challenging part of the PhD, general exams, was made harder by isolation and being unable to connect meaningfully with faculty for 18 months. In arguably her most relatable song, “Sideways,” Jepesen sings, “I get all my confidence from you.” In a job where feedback is scarce and final deliverables are sparse, external validation is at a premium. I would love to be completely unfazed by what others think, but the rush of positive feedback from your peers and advisors is undeniable.
Graduate school is distinctly nebulous. Where I am now is definitely not where I said I would be in the 1,000 word personal statement of my application. It can be stressful to feel lost or aimless, especially when you are surrounded by peers who appear single-minded and focused. At the same time, there is joy in taking a circuitous path evidenced by the unforeseen opportunities captured in “Let’s Get Lost.” If I didn’t take the long way around and explore side projects and new methods, I would have missed important aspects of my research, or done projects where I likely would have felt trapped in smaller questions.
Yet, sometimes you work and work, put your ideas out there, struggle and have nothing to show for it. In “Beach House,” Jepsen describes this feeling of futility, though through a never-ending parade of bad dates. Then, there is the lyric in “Too Much,” a song of excessiveness: “When I’m thinking, then I’m thinking too much.” Research is rigorous. We are encouraged to think through alternate explanations and test our hypotheses through robustness and sensitivity checks. We eek out another interview or experiment to get to saturation. It is a thin line between enough and too much. One of my frequent challenges has been learning when to stop — stop adding new variables, stop asking for feedback, stop making line-item edits. Even outside of research hours, thoughts of research frequently dominate my dreams and ooze into casual conversation.
Jepsen’s career and musical process mirrors my own path during graduate school. In PhD life, we are all searching for our own “Call Me Maybe”— a hit that will make us known, a breakthrough and blockbuster finding that will spark discussion and be ubiquitous. But while “Call Me Maybe” might be the best known, “Emotion” is arguably the most critically acclaimed of Jepsen’s albums.
“Emotion” is my reminder that your best work might not be as popular. “Emotion” has aged well with time; it ended up on many of the best of the decade lists and on NPR’s fan favorites for the greatest albums by women, which just goes to show you people might not get you at first.
I think of how Jepsen wrote 200 songs for “Dedicated” and 14 additional tracks that ended up creating “Dedicated B Side.” Similarly, I have a pile of unpublished work and projects in various states of completeness. You can always revisit old work after a break. Her latest album has several distinct styles —- you hear echoes of disco and funk, ballads, and 80s synth. This gives me hope that one day, I will take my disjointed projects with different methods and literatures and create a semi-cohesive dissertation.
Now — an undergraduate degree, general exams, prospectus defense, and more later — when I recently mentioned I was going to see Jepsen in Philadelphia in October, there was no eye-rolling or scoffing, just excitement. She ended her encore with the euphoric “Cut to the Feeling.” We want to cut to the feeling of success and discovery. It is why we are here. But, it takes a while to get there. As Jepsen took the stage, the packed crowd was dancing and singing along. Ultimately, that is what grad school is about – finding our niche and our people.
Emily Miller is a contributing writer for The Prospect at the ‘Prince.’ Please direct any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.