People used to try to dismiss Selena Gomez as a mere Disney moppet who stumbled into the pop-star racket. But nobody makes this many brilliant records by accident. Her 2020 single “Rare” is her best ever: She hiccups in her breathy ASMR whisper, a shy girl riding a bass line that’s pure confidence. Selena always sings about her feelings like she’s terrified of them, which is why some of us relate. She wants to run and hide, but the bass urges her to stay and fight. It’s yet another perfect song about getting bombarded with way more drama than one girl should ever be asked to handle.
Selena might seem like an enigmatic blank slate at times, but she’s stuck around for years, while so many pushier personalities just fade away. She’s assembled the makings of a classic greatest-hits album, from “Slow Down” in 2013 to “Hands to Myself” in 2015 to “Bad Liar” in 2017, always singing in her own awesomely contorted private language. You could never mistake her lyrics for anyone else’s. Her power move is to keep you asking “Wait, did she really say that? Why is she talking about the Battle of Troy? ‘Your metaphorical gin and juice’?” It just adds to her allure.
Lately, she’s had to face high-profile turmoil of the sort most people have the luxury of suffering through in private: lupus, a kidney transplant, breaking up with Justin Bieber several thousand times, dating the Weeknd. But she’s ready for it all. Her records come preloaded with positive messages about healthness and well-fullhood and self-empowertude, with an ever-escalating sense of “Seriously, this time I mean it.” (Who else would choose the title Revival for her second album?)
Once upon a time, the world saw Selena as a star doomed to be defined by her bad romance with Bieber. When he got roasted on Comedy Central, Nastasha Leggero expressed everyone’s sympathy for having to date him: “She is literally the least lucky Selena in all of entertainment history.” Some of us are still traumatized by their appearance together at the 2011 VMAs. He brought his pet snake. Selena stood by the Bieb on the red carpet while he introduced the snake to the cameras: “His name is Johnson!” You could see stoic agony all over her face, as she seemed to be silently asking, “How is this happening? Can I go home now?”
Over the years, Selena and her ex batted hit songs about each other back and forth, litigating their breakup-makeup drama all over the radio. Then he abruptly married someone else. But Selena sounds liberated — like she’s having the time of her life. So in “Rare,” she kicks her weirdly sexual toaster metaphors over that funk throb. She testifies about emerging from stormy personal tribulations until she’s “holding hands with the darkness and knowing my heart is allowed.” Which means . . . something? When Selena sings it, it means everything.
It’s an unlikely evolution for a child star who got her start singing lullabies on Barney and Friends. When she starred in the 2009 Disney Channel movie Princess Protection Program, she didn’t even get to play the princess — she was the ordinary American girl whose boring life made the right hiding place for drama queen Demi Lovato. Selena’s had to do all her growing up in the spotlight. As she’s said, “I was so used to performing for kids. At concerts I used to make the entire crowd raise up their pinkies and make a pinky promise never to allow anybody to make them feel that they weren’t good enough.” But like her audience, Selena got older and messier. “I’m looking into their eyes, and I don’t know what to say. I couldn’t say, ‘Everybody, let’s pinky-promise that you’re beautiful!’”
Now, on “Rare,” we listen raptly as she sings about being madly in love with someone she doesn’t like or respect too much. She’s sick of this — and she vows she’s never going to make the same mistake again. (Spoiler: She will, as soon as the next song starts.) Her voice is full of mixed-up confusion, but she battles on through the emotional chaos. That exquisite tension is what makes her hits play like a long-running saga about the impossibility of ever getting all those emotions under control. Well, maybe she could. But why would she want to?