Promoting the movie Spring Breakers, Selena Gomez struck down the same question over and over again like a zombie hunter swathing away swarms of the undead. The query came in many forms but the gist was this: what would the Disney Channel star’s young fans think about her starring in a movie that includes the following: slow motion shots of naked bodies gyrating to acidic Skrillex beats; James Franco in full Riff Raff mode jumping up and down on a bed of money with a machine gun in each hand; Gucci Mane and his squad of shooters raining bullets on an enemy before peeling off in a Ferrari as the rapper yells “burr!”. This was a career swerve as pronounced as Pope Francis’s transition from bouncer to papal, but with more cocaine (probably).
The media pearl-clutching seemed to etch away at Gomez’s spirit. Asked by Hitfix about whether or not she is worried what her younger fans might be thinking, the star’s reply was particularly barbed: “Yes and no because I do everything for my fans – everything. I do my clothing line, my fragrance, my music, my tour – everything is for them.”
Half a decade later, Gomez hasn’t so much rebuilt bridges with her Disney audience as dispatch kaiju monsters to completely smash those connections to bits. These beasts come in the form of her percolating pop songs and provocative videos. Pop music’s great power is the depiction of savage human emotions in the narrow margins of short verses, catchy choruses and tightly packed beats. Gomez is winning right now because of her stunning ability to portray the complexities of this thing we call adult life within these fine borders.
Every generation of tween stars try to make that leap in adult credibility. Of Gomez’s contemporaries, Miley Cyrus’s sometimes bizarre, sometimes banging track record is stained with crimes of cultural appropriation. Justin Bieber’s got some jams but Skrillex will never be the Timbaland to his Timberlake. And then there’s Gomez, who has roundly beating them all since the 2015 release of second solo album Revival, a record that did nothing to mask her motivation for stylistic rebirth: “I feel like I’ve awakened lately,” she sings on the opening track. “The chains around me are finally breaking.” The bondage of catering to a kid audience.
That Revival wasn’t one of the most critically acclaimed pop records of the decade is impossible for me to understand. Two years on from drawing a neon paint line in the Florida sand with Spring Breakers, Gomez’s old cloaks fell to the floor. From the ashes emerged a sleek, dapper, à la mode style that simultaneously sounded fashionable and unlike anything else on the market.
Gomez’s renewal was confirmed with Revival’s first single “Good For You”, a desperate plea to a lover that rings with the weariness of someone twice her age. The track’s woozy crawl – all lurid synths and echoing finger snaps – only punctuates her pleas as Selena riles, crawls and staggers, linking her twisted sense of self-worth to the man she desperately tries to seduce out of the idea of leaving her. It’s a haunting reminding that sex and self-hate are sometimes tough to disentangle.
The video punctuates the themes. Gomez – then 23-years-old but almost uncomfortably young looking – gives a controlled, emotive, lustful performance, slouching around empty rooms, examining the deepest caverns of her psyche. The addition of A$AP Rocky on the album version was an unfortunate commercial decision as his presence just dulled the lonely impact of the original. This is Selena’s cerebral meditation. No second voice is required.
Revival grapples with heavy themes throughout. “Sober” addresses the corrosive effect alcohol can have on a relationship as Gomez laments the bottle’s affect on her beau. Or maybe it’s about a guy who can’t fuck unless he’s drunk. Either way, these are smart topics. Even the comparatively bubblegum numbers lean towards the unobvious. “Hands to Myself” snaps and cracks with glitchy minimalism; “Kill Em With Kindness” rides a propulsive piece of electronic production. There’s no song here that resembles a knock-out radio single. Gomez rebuked the idea that a hit was required to launch her star. The result: everything on Revival fits.
The level of input pop stars’ have in their music is always falsely minimised and used as a stick to beat them with. Gomez is credited as Revival’s executive producer and a songwriter on the majority of its tracks. On multiple listens, the agency she exhibits over the record becomes undeniable. Trying to find original ways to depict conditions of the heart is akin to finding the lost city of Paititi. Gomez’s greatest strength as a performer is her ability to identify and crystallise those feelings that hack away at our chests from the inside at times of heightened emotions. I’m aware her love life has been well chronicled on tabloid pages but I’ve zero interest in leafing through them. All that’s important is that via music, Gomez ossifies the kind of internal compulsions that we ourselves struggle to understand let alone communicate. When you consider this writing is then cut with her convincing performance and suitable urbane beats, the concoction begins to feel miraculous.
The first evidence from Gomez’s yet-to-be-titled forthcoming album hints at another potential classic. Take the single “Bad Liar”: at first the sampling of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” is distracting but adjust your brain after a few listens and another sharp pop song emerges. Gomez will never be a powerhouse singer but she’s a brilliantly tasteful vocalist, able to deploy a wide spectrum of sounds. Check out the “woooo-hoooo” hook on “Bad Liar,” where she tunes her voice to something between yoddling and Blur’s “Song 2”.
“Fetish” boasts infatuating features similar to that of “Good For You”. Gomez seeks to measure the distance between between love and sex, hinting at a incompatible relationship glued together by the physical (“You got a fetish for my love/ I push you out and you come right back.”) Here, she’s united with Gucci Mane, and unlike “Good For You”, the presence of a second voice bolsters the hit as the rapper comfortably slides into the role of the ensnared lover.
So why doesn’t Gomez get all due credit? Maybe she’s caught between former fans baffled by her urbane upgrades and a new audience not yet willing to pay respect to the name. Yet over and over I’ve listened to these songs, entranced by the power of the writing and orchestration, provoked by the marriage of sentiment and performance. If you can’t identify with the severity of Gomez’s work, consider yourself a fortunate person. They encapsulate the kind of desolation that I wouldn’t wish on anyone – songs that glisten like a 14-carat marquise diamond but made of substance that feels twice as hard.