Great pop stars don’t just make catchy songs or good beats. A truly great pop star transforms personal upheaval into marketable bliss, and, if she does it right, her listeners will sense the stories in the songs aren’t straight bullshit.
Until this point, Selena Gomez had made a handful of great pop songs. The Wizards of Waverly Place star-turned-pop-megaforce started out the same way many of her Disney/Nickelodeon peers did: with albums that felt more like throwaway “Fight Song” fodder (“Who Says” had corny talent show act written all over it) for Peak Disney Channel Era adolescents than serious radio pop. There was a glimmer of real potential on one of her first major hits “A Year Without Rain,” a bit more on the 2011 Euro-funk banger “Love You Like A Love Song.” Then, at 2015’s tail end, she shared “Hands to Myself,” a sexy, contagious, certified pop-radio banger that proved the former Disney star was “all grown up,” as the celebrity media is so fond of saying. The song is admittedly delightful.
But even in those rare pleasant moments throughout Gomez’s early career, we were never any closer to learning about the woman inside the songs. Then, throughout the middle part of the last decade, Gomez cancelled tours, citing health issues. She later revealed a lupus diagnosis, for which she underwent a kidney transplant. In 2018, she checked into treatment for anxiety and depression. She unabashedly shared her experiences with the media and her fans, steadily gaining Instagram followers—165 million, as of this writing—in the process. Now, in 2020, she’s talking about other items of great personal meaning: her mental health (“I had low self-esteem…but I feel so empowered because I’ve gained so much knowledge about what was going on mentally,” she recently told WSJ magazine), and high-profile breakups with fellow music superstars Justin Bieber and The Weeknd. And, finally, to some degree, that vulnerability plays a role in her music, too.
Gomez’s new dance-pop record Rare is quite a bit of fun, and it feels refreshingly more honest than anything she’s released before. The sharing begins on the album’s first single, the majestically forthright “Lose You To Love Me,” a song about exactly what you’d imagine: Sometimes you have to lose people (i.e., very famous lovers) to learn a little more about yourself. Last year, Charly Bliss’ Eva Hendricks sang “I can barely keep myself afloat when I’m not saving you” on pop-punk rager “Capacity.” On “Lose You To Love Me,” Gomez has a similar issue. “You promised the world and I fell for it / I put you first and you adored it,” she sings. Her airy vocals are grounded by the sturdy piano, then uplifted again with a chorus of what sounds like 100 voices. There’s also a song literally called “Vulnerable,” where Gomez vows to open up. She makes good on that promise throughout the record, even when it occasionally sinks into a predictable pop stupor.
Rare is most effective when it glistens. The title track flirts with bongos and satin production, yielding a slinking salsa number. “Rare” is the catchy, in-your-face, independence anthem Taylor Swift wishes she had made with “ME!” Gomez lets reasonably loose on the sleek, Robyn-inspired “Dance Again,” a house jingle that works like the best of club remedies (“I kickstart the rhythm / All the trauma’s in remission / No, I don’t need permission”)—can’t you imagine hordes of heartbroken souls getting down to those words? There’s some Latin flounce on “Let Me Get Me,” a song that allows for the “mind” to “rest” while the “body reflects.”
We’re back in a pulsing club again on “Crowded Room,” in which Atlanta rapper 6LACK provides a neat adversary to Gomez’s flossy soprano. Kid Cudi is the album’s other feature, on “A Sweeter Place,” a scrumptious slice of dancefloor release. A Cudi/Gomez team-up shouldn’t really work, but it does. Like Cudi’s HAIM collab “Red Eye,” it matches swirly synths to escapist desire, and it’s never fully clear if that longing is an emotional or a sexual one. It might be the best song on the album.
Selena Gomez showed up with Rare to let us know she’s still here, even though it has been five years since her last album. There have been so many times throughout her career when the media or haters made Gomez out as pop’s weak link. But she is clearly no such thing. Gomez is a force, an artist who continues to fight her bad odds, and is finally letting us get a little closer to the battle.