Music

While You Weren’t Paying Attention, Selena Gomez Became A Masterful Pop Star

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Selena Gomez is only 24, but she’s already been through some sh*t. Let’s briefly recap what she’s been through in the last decade or so: After rising to fame as a pre-teen on the Disney Channel show Wizards Of Waverly Place, she released three studio albums with her band Selena Gomez & The Scene (all before she was barely eighteen), dated one of the most famous pop stars in the universe for a good chunk of that time, canceled a tour to go to rehab and receive chemotherapy to treat her lupus, an autoimmune disorder she’s openly discussed, and also talked candidly about using the “life-saving” therapy technique DBT to manage her turbulent emotions.

Most of us could only handle one or two of those things — Selena has endured all of them with singular grace. (This is the kind of backstory that prompts a girl in her mid-twenties to name her second official studio album Revival, but more on that later.) When you consider all the darkness that she’s already been through, the lightness and airiness of her two brand new singles feels like an even more clear sign of healing.

Because despite her obvious fame and commercial success, Selena Gomez hasn’t really been taken seriously as a pop star until very recently — last month Billboard pointed out her new single “Bad Liar” is her most acclaimed ever, and this year’s collaboration with Norwegian EDM producer Kygo, “It Ain’t Me,” has been similarly successful, hitting No. 12 on the chart and lingering in the Billboard Top 20 since its release in March.

Though she’s had hits before, these two indicate a shift in perception, this time around, it’s critics and tastemakers who are praising Selena, not just her core fanbase of teenage girls — word to the world’s most prescient demographic, though. She’s had plenty of commercial success before, but Gomez is entering a new echelon where she’s given her due as an artist, and putting out music that has earned her that distinction. It’s been a slow grind for her, but the shift in her career started back in 2014.

Like most good things in life, the best thing to ever happen to Selena Gomez’s music career was an ending. After years of back and forth and on-again-off-again with her headline-grabbing and fellow pop star boyfriend, Justin Bieber, Selena had finally had enough. The couple cut things off for the last time, and it was time for her to speak her piece about the relationship. For most people, the American Music Awards that year was just another yawn-worthy, B-level award show, with only a handful of meaningful moments to dissect and celebrate on social media.

For Selena Gomez, though, the 2014 AMAs became the avenue for unveiling her new ethos as a musician with the devastating, cinematic single “The Heart Wants What It Wants.” Her heartfelt performance quickly became the standout moment from the event.

Though she’d previously debuted the song on 102.7 KIIS FM with Ryan Seacrest, her first live performance a couple weeks later on the AMA stage was when most of the world was introduced to the song. That night, she stood in an elegant gown and thrust her heartbreak out into the world with more poise and vulnerability than any other songwriter or performer currently working.

It was that performance that finally changed the way she was received in the musical community; it was her first step toward full blown stardom as an adult. It also felt like the first glimpse of the real Selena Gomez, the woman, not the girl who’d grown up on Wizards Of Waverly Place, graduated into the role of Justin Bieber’s girlfriend, and released a handful of middling, smattered pop albums via Disney’s own label Hollywood Records.

As for the dissolving relationship at the heart of her new single, Bieber and Gomez dated from 2011 until 2014, even moving in together at one point, before finally cutting ties for good toward the end of 2014. “It’s the perfect way to end the year, it’s the perfect way to end a chapter in a way,” Gomez told Seacrest of the song when debuting the track. “This is what I’ll say about every single person that has judged me for every decision that I’ve made, for every person, [and] heart that is being judged for something they’ve done.”

During the AMAs, in a telling moment of public tenderness enacted in real time, Selena’s longtime best friend Taylor Swift cried along with her during the performance. If anyone knows the cathartic power of a pop performance, it’s Taylor, and if anyone knows the stress of having a relationship play out in public, it’s her. Buoyed by the tearful, emotional performance, the song quickly rose on the charts, and became Selena’s second-ever top 10 hit, ostensibly changing her career forever.

Of course, the song wasn’t her first musical offering by any means. Prior to this performance, Selena furnished the world with three albums as the lead singer of the “band” Selena Gomez & The Scene, who inexplicably leaned heavily into EDM, and produced many commercial hits, but arguably only a couple songs worth hearing; my vote goes to “Love You Like A Love Song,” but there’s a couple others, including her first top 10 Billboard hit, 2011’s “Who Says,” which is a positivity anthem that honestly sounds more like a country song than a pop one. Not mad at it, but I wasn’t really moved, either — the intended audience is clearly younger than I was when it came out.

Which is why Selena’s band was so wildly successful — because of her pre-established Disney fame — but it was always seen strictly as “kids music,” completely ignored or even openly derided by critics, and existed separately from most of the pop music world at large. After three albums with the group, Selena put The Scene on “indefinite hiatus” and released her solo debut Stars Dance in 2013. That album was not a full-fledged success, even if it was her first album to debut at No. 1 on Billboard. It’s most notable for the tinny lead single “Come & Get It,” a thin “worldbeat” bop.

Led by this hit, Selena began to tour behind the album, but the second single “Slow Down” slumped and she canceled the final leg at the end of 2013 to spend some time in rehab. Following that rehab stint, Selena made some major changes in her career. In the following year, she officially split with Bieber, fired her parents as her managers, released a “compilation” album titled For You to fulfill her contract with Disney’s Hollywood Records (anchored by “The Heart Wants What It Wants”), and signed with Interscope and Polydor.

For You was quietly released the night of the 2014 AMAs, but focus quickly pivoted toward her first release for Interscope and she began to drop hints in earnest about a forthcoming album that would help introduce a mature Selena to the music industry — and to her fans.

Many people have written about the tricky dance of becoming a woman in public, compounded by the fact that most pop stars must, by trade, deal in sexuality and desire. Selena made the jump masterfully, cleaving from her little girl past by appearing tastefully nude on her album cover — both a nod to her flourishing sexuality as a single woman, and her new “naked” emotional bent — and giving her music the visual clean slate it needed. So though Revival wasn’t on the same level as Bieber’s Purpose when it came to reinvention, it didn’t need to be.

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REVIVAL 10.9

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Selena was never a hitmaker, she was never really a pop star per se, like Justin was. She released pop music, but she wasn’t taken seriously as an artist, the way that he was, even as a pre-teen. Plus, aside from a few petty social media snafus, and cultural appropriation gaffes (just like, don’t wear bindis if you’re not Hindu??), Selena didn’t have to do the kind of apologizing for bad behavior that the pop culture world felt Justin owed them.

In mid-2015, Selena released the lead single off Revival, “Good For You,” featuring rapper ASAP Rocky, who shows up to add a new level of “adulthood” to the track. Plenty of rising white stars use hip-hop to indicate some sort of maturation, and until last week’s release of “Fetish” featuring Gucci Mane, this was Selena’s only collaborations with a rapper. Rocky actually ended up as the sole feature artist on Revival, and clearly the collab was beneficial to both parties, but “Good For You” offered another masterful pivot; it completely reimagines the romantic partner Selena might be singing to — there isn’t a trace of Bieber in Rocky.

Revival‘s second single “Same Old Love” built off the foundation that “The Heart Wants What It Wants” established, alluding heavily to Selena’s feelings post-Justin; while she never gets into the kind of specificity that her longtime BFF Taylor Swift does, or engages in the kind of introspective emotional violence that Lorde is capable of wielding, she’s able to own and relate her pain, she’s able to articulate her desire for a change.

For most critics, “Hands To Myself” is the obvious standout on the record, it centers female desire, even to the edges of excess, celebrating lust over a syncopated that’s as addicting as a makeout session. All three of these songs became top 40 hits, and Revival debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. It was Selena’s second No. 1 debut, but the first time critics were rallying around her, too. Even throughout 2016, songs off Revival continued to get attention, the entire album was packed with songs like “Sober” (another pretty clear Bieber sub), the fourth, very Selena single “Kill Em With Kindness,” and a deluxe track “Me & My Girls” that is still an all-girl-everything club banger I have on repeat for girls’ nights; Revival had depth that her previous albums didn’t seem to have.


Her momentum only continued to build throughout 2016, when she toured, took yet another mental health break, and entered 2017 ready to become a full-fledged critical darling. At the top of 2017, Gomez appeared on Norwegian producer Kygo’s “It Ain’t Me,” (which I refuse to believe is not a subtle allusion to Bob Dylan), and got a brand new pop star boyfriend.

By the way, did you know Vin Diesel is a guest vocalist on “It Ain’t Me”? The man seriously loves pop music, so all you traditional masc men out there quaking in your boots over the rise of poptimism should take that to heart. The song might be the greatest subtweet of the year, encapsulating the glee that comes in loosing yourself from a caretaker role for someone who will never be able to appreciate or reciprocate your feelings.

Right after this hit was when Selena was on the cover of Vogue for the first time, addressing the therapy technique DBT, and talking about how necessary her multiple breaks from social media were for her own mental health. It seems impossible to separate her personal growth in therapy from the improvement in her musical output — as we’ve seen time and again, good mental health can be everything for creators.

A couple weeks after that, there was “Only You,” a Yazoo cover popularized by Kylie Minogue. The cloudy, tender ballad is on the 13 Reasons Why soundtrack, a series that Gomez executive produced. Even here, there’s small flourishes that set the song apart from her past work; the strings-heavy, orchestral swells feel more Bleachers than Disney, and though the song is almost cloying, it pulls back into minimalism and silvery dissonance at just the right moments instead of leaning into the velvety golden gooiness that undermines some of her past too-sweet pop.

All this success was just a taste of what was to come though. When “Bad Liar” hit in May, it was clear that Selena had reached a new level. A David Byrne co-sign of the Talking Heads sample of “Psycho Killer” that shows up on the song reveals just how far she’s come from the fringes of teen girl pop to the center of the serious artiste musicians. The song is a complete jam, from that rubbery bass line, to the handclaps, and Selena’s playful, stuttered vocals.

Following that hit up with her second sexy new single, “Fetish,” last week, a dark, fluttering track featuring Gucci Mane in the middle of his post-jail sober renaissance, and a forthcoming video from indie darling director Petra Collins, Gomez is in the perfect position to release a pop album that dominates summer. On Instagram, she further credits Petra for helping her open up and be herself. “What’s to come is never what they expect @petrafcollins ? thank you for inspiring me to be me,” she wrote underneath a photo of the two smushed together in a hug.

Clearly, Katy Perry left that lane wide open, and if Taylor is releasing something new this year, we all know it won’t be until fall. But arguably, none of this would’ve happened without that moment on the AMA stage back in 2014 when she decided to give herself over to creating songs that actually meant something to her. The moment when Selena Gomez became a masterful pop star was when she fully understood that fans don’t want to hear another random pop song, they want to hear what’s in her heart.

By honoring her feelings, letting go of a relationship that wasn’t working — and being honest about what that felt like — she was able to establish a level of trust and authority that was lacking before. Now that she’s learned how to trust herself, the sky is the limit for her career, and it will be a thrill to see where her heart leads her next.

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