Negotiating the transition from adolescence to adulthood is challenging and awkward for all of us, so imagine how hard it is if you’re being watched by millions as you do it. If you have the good luck and dangerous curse to become a celebrity as a teenager, the path to maturity is so treacherous that few can walk it without stumbling.
It’s not just the microscopic scrutiny that comes with fame that’s so hard to handle; the money and license provided by fame is just as perilous. Just think of how much alcohol, drugs, fast cars and bad sex you had as an adolescent. Now imagine how much more you would have had if limited funds and parental restraint hadn’t curtailed your consumption.
When you think about it, it’s not surprising that so many teen pop stars turn into casualties, monsters or both; it’s surprising that some of them don’t. Judy Garland, Frankie Lymon, Tanya Tucker, Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown, Britney Spears and Justin Bieber—the list of teen-celebrity victims goes on and on. At least Garland, Tucker and Jackson made some brilliant adult music in the midst of their private agonies. By contrast, Brown ruined not only his own career but also that of his generation’s greatest vocalist.
That’s what makes the recent albums by the Harry Styles and Selena Gomez so fascinating. Both twentysomething singers have made records that reflect actual young adulthood and not some perpetual teenager’s fantasy of what coming of age would constitute.
You don’t become a grown-up, after all, by grabbing your crotch, talking dirty and wailing about how unfairly someone has treated you. That’s merely adolescence taken out of private spaces and paraded in public. You become an adult by accepting that life is an unpredictable tangle of desires fulfilled and desires denied, of good behavior and bad, of victories followed by defeats and of defeats followed by victories. Styles and Gomez get that.
Styles has turned 26 since he released his second solo album, Fine Line, in December. His newest songs are still obsessed with romantic relationships, but he no longer makes the teenage mistake of separating lust from consequences, happy satisfaction from angry disappointment, urgent desire from lingering feelings. It’s all connected in a mix that’s truer to reality than adolescent assumptions ever knew.
The lyrics hint at this perspective. “All the lights couldn’t put out the dark running through my heart,” he sings on the synth-pounding “Lights Up,” an assessment of one collapsing relationship. “I’m just an arrogant son of a bitch who can’t admit when he’s sorry,” he sings as a way of admitting exactly that on “To Be So Lonely.” “I don’t wanna make you feel bad; I’ve been trying hard not to act the fool,” he warns a potential new lover on “Sunflower.”
But the lyrics are mere signposts to the mix of moods in the music itself. The programmed beats of adolescent lust are still there, but they are overlaid by lush layers of harmony, built from both optimistic major chords and pessimistic minor chords. The melodies rise and fall with the temperature of each affair—sunny one moment, chilly the next. It’s the music more than the words that alerts us to the links between hopeful longing and wounded rejection, represented by pushy rhythms and reluctant keyboard interludes.
It’s as if the up-and-down nature of actual relationships—so different from the conquest-and-move-on nature of high school hook-ups—require more variety in tempos, more contrast within harmonies and more movement in vocal lines. The only reason Styles can pull this off is because his voice is flexible enough to shift from mood to mood and strong enough voice to flesh out each lyric suggestion.
The one-time teen idol of the boy band One Direction had devoted his 2017 solo debut to “dad-rock,” the sound of such ’70s pop-rock baby-boomers as David Bowie, Jackson Browne and Rod Stewart. On this new album, he refers to that earlier discovery of songs he’d “never heard, an old lover’s hippie music.” It was as if he was cutting loose from the sound of his own generation to try on the sensitive singer/songwriter and rowdy bad boy personas of a past era. And he pulled off both.
Having mastered those skills as few in his generation have, Styles has now integrated them into a framework that blends a modern-pop bottom—lean and clean in its precision—with a messier top of conflicting emotions and tension-and-release chord changes. It’s an impressive synthesis, and it suggests that he has moved beyond his teen-pop origins as few of his contemporaries have.
Just compare Styles’ Fine Line to the solo debut from his former One Direction bandmate Louis Tomlinson, Walls, or to Justin Bieber’s comeback album Changes, both released early this year. Tomlinson and Bieber each sound as if he’s still trapped in the persona that made him famous: the sincerely devoted heartthrob who is completely smitten with the woman he’s singing to, whether he’s trying to win her favors for the first time or regain them after foolishly losing them.
That character fulfills the romantic fantasies of millions of under-16 girls, a highly remunerative skill if you master it. Tomlinson and Bieber have the voices for the role: tender, unthreatening, supplicating, even if each singer is set against a very different backdrop.
Tomlinson uses quiet, piano-led verses to set the stage for grand choruses; bolstered by phalanxes of singers and instruments, those hooks deliver the starry-eyed promise. The production is ornate, but the rhythms and harmonies are simplistic; nothing is allowed to spoil the fantasy of a perfect love.
Bieber, by contrast, uses minimal melodies over skeletal, microchip beats to establish a conversational intimacy, but the manipulation of the listener’s fantasy is the same. Unlike Styles’ adult-sounding solo albums, nothing from Tomlinson and Bieber suggests that real romance is messy and frustrating.
One Direction with Selena Gomez at the 2013 VMAs. Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty.
Bieber’s ex-girlfriend, 27-year-old Selena Gomez, offers more nuanced music on Rare. Named after the Tejano superstar Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, the Texas-born Gomez joined the TV show Barney and Friends in 2002 as a 10-year-old at the same time as Demi Lovato. The two friends then moved on to Disney to work separately on a series of TV series, movies and albums.
After four tightly controlled albums for Disney’s imprint Hollywood Records, Gomez signed with Interscope and released 2015’s revelatory Revival. Various health issues prevented the follow-up from being released till this January, but when it arrived, Rare proved more understated and more conflicted than its predecessor.
She was so eager to please on the 2015 single “Good for You” that she promised to “wear that dress you like, skin-tight, do my hair up real, real nice.” On the 2019 single, “Lose You To Love Me,” her first-ever #1, she has wised up. “You promised the world and I fell for it,” she sings over spare piano chords. “I put you first and you adored it, set fires to my forest and you let it burn.” By the time the chorus arrives, she’s cut him loose. “I needed to lose you to love me.”
Such an epiphany is part of growing up. On the title track, she mocks her own naïve fantasies: “Saw us getting older, burning toast in the toaster,” she murmurs over a bare-bones bass’n’drum bottom. “My ambitions were too high,” she now realizes. She can’t expect the puppy-dog love of a One Direction or Justin Bieber single; real romance demands negotiation between two equal parties. “Why don’t you recognize I’m so rare?” she asks her self-absorbed lover.
Even more persuasive is the realization that the end of a love affair or a friendship is not the end of the world. You get up the next morning, and life goes on. That’s the attitude suggested by the casual momentum of “People You Know.” “We used to be close,” Gomez sings, “but people can go from people you know to people you don’t.”
What makes these songs work is not so much the lyrics as the music. These stories of affairs in crisis seem to invite big, over-the-top declarations of love or enmity on immense choruses, but Gomez resists that temptation at every turn. By refusing the easy path of diva vocals, the singer proves her maturity in the most convincing way possible.
When she sings “Vulnerable” over a skittery, minimalist beat, it’s her nervous, conversational vocal tone that makes her seem emotionally open, even more than the words that confess she “would tell you all my secrets. wrap your arms around my weakness.” No wailing star turn could ever be as convincing.
Gomez’s approach on Rare is unmistakably similar to the post-Nashville records made by her good friend and fellow non-diva, Taylor Swift. Both women sing as if there’s something they’re holding back, that they’re willing to give a lover or the listener a certain portion of their feelings but another portion they’re keeping for themselves. Nothing is more boring that a lover or artist you understand completely; you want to believe there’s always more to learn.
Neither Styles nor Gomez is as accomplished a songwriter as Swift, who never comes up short on memorable lines or earworm tunes. But Styles and Gomez have made such unexpected strides since they put their teen-celebrity personas behind them that it’s not unreasonable to expect their songwriting to keep evolving. They’ve already established themselves as those rare creatures: interesting adults who have emerged from adolescent celebrity intact.