Selena, Janet, Judith: Three Paths to Pop Enlightenment
Self-help, pop music style: “I’ve lived through my mistakes,” Janet Jackson intones at the start of Unbreakable, her first album in seven years. “It’s just a part of growing.” Selena Gomez kicks off her second solo LP, Revival, in a nearly identical place, talking about diving into the future, like life is one big infinity pool: “I’m reborn in every moment, so who knows what I’ll become?”
Their albums could be different stages in a pop-reincarnation cycle, and these two seekers have more in common than you might think. Both went pro by age seven, showed up in TV series around their 10th birthdays, and struggled to take control of their music as they came into their own. They fill their albums with confessions, come-ons and rallying cries about liberating the body and spirit (Jackson’s out to save the world; Gomez will settle for something more personal). Maybe they really are just at different steps along a continuum: Gomez at 23 capturing attention on her own terms for the first time, Jackson at 49 trying to figure out how to hold on to the attention she was born into.
The ballads on Gomez’s Revival are all killers, just one of its many compelling surprises. It’s among the first albums designed for the pop world Taylor Swift has created — that is, the songs gain voltage from a canny play with the singer’s celebrity, letting a tabloid target turn the tables. Is the whistle in the pointedly awesome “Kill Em With Kindness” supposed to sound like the hook from ex-boyfriend Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” And the guy in “Sober” who isn’t, but has love that’s just too good to leave — who’s that, exactly? Gomez works all this like a fan dance, where the flashes of emotion and sexuality make you feel you’re hearing something raw, whether you are or not.
Jackson mastered that dance long ago. Unbreakable is full of grooves that develop slowly, beats that change up like lovers switching positions, and keyboards that work subtle hot-tub-time-machine tricks, blurring the lines between the Eighties and right now. It’s gloriously out of step with current pop convention, which calls for insistent, wall-to-wall micro-hooks ready-made to be dropped into DJ sets. By comparison, Jackson has made a Kate Bush record.
The debut from another seeker, Judith Hill, is even more of a throwback: Back in Time throbs with Prince-produced Seventies funk and cosmic ballads. Hill is a former Voice contestant who was tapped by Michael Jackson as a background singer. The opening cut name-checks CeeLo Green, then invokes Malcolm X. It’s strange and bracing — the politics are as real as the singing. Hill, at 31, marks another step in the continuum: What’s all this attention really worth, anyway?
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