Carly Rae Jepsen's 'Party For One' Lets Us Dance On Our Own, Together

Two years after her last project, Carly Rae Jepsen is finally back with a new song, “Party For One,” and an accompanying video. And in the spirit of wistful pop queen Robyn, who made her own long-awaited return with a new album this past weekend, Carly Rae is dancing on her own, sort of.

The video starts out (after an unexpected Bread Face Blog cameo) with Carly Rae entering a hotel room. She sheds her fur coat and her skirt, flops down on the bed, and starts flipping through the TV channels. We cut to other hotel guests, alone in their individual rooms, looking bored and distraught. Carly Rae sings, “If you didn’t know that you were right for me/ Then there’s nothing I can say.” We can connect the dots: these people are here because they’re all somehow going through a breakup at the same time. It is the somewhat literal Heartbreak Hotel.

The guests display all manner of banal and outrageous coping mechanisms: taking a luxurious bath, dancing around in one’s underwear, burning a cigarette on your ex’s picture, giddily unpacking a suitcase full of sex toys, crying while watching TV. It’s only when the fire alarm goes off and everyone congregates in the lobby that the guests, including Jepsen, look and feel truly at ease. They dance around to “Party For One” like it’s the only thing keeping them from going off the deep end.

The “Party For One” video may be frivolous and implausible, but just like the giddy, euphoric videos for “Call Me Maybe” and “Run Away With Me” before it, its utter devotion to fantasy, empathy, and camp cuts through any cynical qualms about its logic and makes the experience of watching it purely delightful. On a basic level, “Party For One” works because it does what any good music video should do: It tells you, the listener, why these four minutes of pop confectioner’s sugar should exist in the first place.

No matter what genre or style they fall into, great music videos guide the viewer/listener along a path of emotional sympathy and solidarity with a song, whether by convincing the viewer that the song “gets” them or demonstrating exactly what the song can be used for – usually, as a thing to dance or to cry to. Videos can be suggestive in how to listen to the music (like the impromptu dancing that sparked The Black Keys’ “Lonely Boy” video) or they may tackle the song’s applicability by way of something more abstract or impressionistic, anything from the Robert Longo lithographs in New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” to, yes, the schoolgirl fantasy of Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time.”

Part of this is marketing -- visually enticing you to keep streaming the song, or maybe even purchase it -- but an iconic music video, as with all forms of art made professionally, transcends its commercial value. Rather than being prescriptive, these videos tune into what a listener might subconsciously already be thinking or feeling about a track and enhance it. “Party For One” doesn’t try to convince you there’s one right way to go through a breakup, or that there’s one type of breakup that the song is perfect for – it’s suggesting that it’s a perfect soundtrack for every breakup, all at once, at the same time.

It’s the same idea that propels Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” video, from 2010, with its dual scenes of Robyn’s lonely silhouette at the club and her inner monologue at the microphone, frenetically belting out her feelings to the rhythm of her own body language. She provides you with two sides of the same lived experience, and an extremely personal one at that, but its universality allows for an immediate, intimate connection to the images, and thus, the music itself.

Lorde’s “Green Light” clip, released last year, replicates not the breakup itself, but the feeling of the breakup, the initial liberating rush during the first solo walk home, before all that being alone and single entails comes crashing down on you in the morning. The whole video feels like an internal monologue: try imagining Lorde washing her hands in front of the bathroom mirror instead of singing into it, or walking down the street silently with her headphones on, and it’s easy enough to envision the song playing in her head rather than out in the open. The inherent suggestion, then, is that if you ever find yourself in that breakup scenario, you could be playing it in your head, too.

What sets Carly Rae’s narrative apart is that she’s not totally alone. Staging “Party For One” in the same hotel setting brings all of its characters together into one narrative, rather than have them be totally separate vignettes. And that fire alarm that comes two-thirds of the way through the video is both a clever change of pace and a nice way to bring everyone together for a hopeful ending. It also demonstrates a self-awareness of Carly Rae’s stereotypical fan base: largely queer, often into theater, and very into dancing on their own… together.

In an essay for Pitchfork, Judy Berman explored how visual albums like BeyoncĂ©’s Lemonade create and shape associations with their music. She wrote that they could be considered “a work of criticism -- an instruction manual for reading the music.” “Party For One” offers no such instructions ­­-- narrowing the interpretation of Carly Rae’s universal subject matters would only diminish their appeal -- but the video does provide an opening, a permission slip to completely throw oneself into the thrill of the song with all its Technicolor simplicity and stage-ready optimism. It says you shouldn’t be afraid to dance, even when others are watching.