Selena Gomez undergoes a ‘Revival’
Matthew Munhall | Monday, October 12, 2015
When considering the narrative arc of Selena Gomez’s career, the most obvious parallel is Faith, the character she played in “Spring Breakers.” Despite her strong Christian roots, good girl Faith is not entirely opposed to engaging in some spring break hedonism, but only up to a point. She is game for partying and excessive drinking but hops on a Greyhound home as soon as her best friends get in too deep with a gang of South Florida drug dealers.
Gomez herself has behaved similarly in her transition from teen idol to adult pop star, maturing without blatantly trying to rebel. Unlike Miley Cyrus — who has spent the past two years singly focused on taking a sledgehammer to the image of Hannah Montana — Gomez has taken a more gradual approach to shedding her Disney Channel past.
“Revival” — Gomez’s second solo album (she previously released three albums with her backing band The Scene) and her first away from Disney-owned Hollywood Records — reflects this progression. The album opens with a spoken word intro, on which Gomez muses in whispered tones, “I’m reborn in every moment, so who knows what I’ll become.” This ethos underpins “Revival,” which, from its sound and lyrical content to its behind-the-scenes narrative, is about Gomez transitioning into adulthood on her own terms.
Gomez’s last album, 2013’s “Stars Dance,” felt like an album full of Rihanna castaways; the Swedish production duo Stargate even admitted they had originally written “Come & Get It” for Rihanna. “Revival,” in contrast, seems meticulously crafted for Gomez’s sensibility. She has neither the strongest nor the most memorable voice in pop music, so instead she has smartly surrounded herself with interesting production from Hit-Boy and Rock Mafia. Her relative anonymity as a singer becomes a non-issue when surrounded by strange sonic touches — an approach that Jason Derulo has followed to satisfying results over the past few years. On the scale of pop experimentation, “Revival” isn’t as bonkers as Cyrus’ recent “Dead Petz,” but it’s more interesting than her best friend Taylor Swift’s middle of the road “1989.”
The forward-thinking approach to pop is most apparent on “Hands to Myself,” a highlight produced by Swedish pop maestro Max Martin and his proteges Mattman & Robin. Martin pairs The xx’s muted minimalism with his signature focus on big pop melodies, much the way he did with The Yeah Yeah Yeahs on “Since U Been Gone” a decade ago. The steel drum-driven “Me & the Rhythm,” also produced by Mattman & Robin, seems like Top 40’s take on Jamie xx’s “In Colour.”
Gomez seems to have taken a page out of Swift’s book when it comes to songwriting, allowing the tabloid narratives about her personal life, especially her on-again, off-again relationship with Justin Bieber, to inform her music. When she sings “You don’t know how to love me when you’re sober,” it’s difficult not to instantly think of a certain teen heartthrob with a penchant for bad behavior. It’s a savvy promotional strategy, of course, but because the results are often quite emotionally affecting it never seems like a gimmick.
These two strains — innovative pop production and celebrity gossip subtext — coalesce best on “Good for You,” one of the year’s best pop singles and her biggest hit to date. While it is ostensibly about trying to look for good for a love interest, it comes off as utterly lonely and despondent. Over a beat of finger snaps and hazy synths, Gomez’s breathy vocals relay sadness, and she would sound like a Lana Del Rey pastiche if her performance weren’t so great. In Gomez’s hands, it becomes a meditation on how draining it is trying to be a “marquise diamond” and the constricting standards society places on young women’s appearances, especially those in the spotlight and under constant scrutiny in the supermarket checkout aisle.
Like Bieber’s recent output, much of “Revival” has a vaguely Christian subtext — both Gomez and her ex frequently attend services at megachurch Hillsong in Los Angeles. “Kill Em With Kindness” seems to be quite literally about turning the other cheek in the face of cruelty. Closer “Rise” is even more explicit in its spiritual message, underscoring its call to “rise with your mind and make your higher power proud” with a gospel choir. The rebirth suggested by the album’s title is not just personal, but spiritual, even if being told to “close your eyes and change your life” seems perhaps too simple a solution.
Sometimes on “Revival” the hit-making machine threatens to swallow Gomez whole. “Same Old Love” was co-written by Charli XCX and Gomez captures her bratty sneer to a T — to the point that it wouldn’t be all that shocking to learn that the final version kept the vocals from Charli XCX’s demo.
For the most part, though, Gomez is fully in charge of her artistic evolution. The album’s lone ballad, “Camouflage,” also serves as its emotional climax. While the song is about the end of a relationship, it can also be read as a contemplation on Gomez’s own personal evolution. “I got so much s**t to say,” she sings in the chorus, “But I can’t help feeling like I’m camouflage.” It sounds like the lament of someone who has spent the past decade being managed by others. On “Revival,” however, Gomez is no longer camouflaged — she finally gets to speak everything that’s on her mind.
If you like: Taylor Swift, Jason Derulo
Tracks: “Good for You,” “Hands to Myself,” “Camouflage”