On the title track from her 2015 album Revival, Selena Gomez gives a short spoken-word introduction. “I dive into the future, but I'm blinded by the sun,” she says. “I'm reborn in every moment, so who knows what I'll become?”
Just over four years later, Selena has introduced us to that next rebirth: Rare, which dropped on Jan. 10. And much like people make the same failed New Year’s resolutions every year, it turns out this new Selena is thinking about a lot of the same things, lamenting a lot of the same mistakes, and pledging a lot of the same promises at doing better next time. The songs on Rare often run just askew from Revival, recognizing their past and retrodding their ground. She pushes the emotional boulder up the hill, but it rolls back down before it can reach the top. In that young adult journey of learning how to live, what could be more relatable than repeating ourselves?
Selena’s career is the ultimate example of maximum relatability, a metric that comes up often when discussing the accomplishments of women, from politicians to pop stars. At age 27, she’s still the people’s pop star. Prepped for mass capitalist consumption since she began her career on Barney & Friends, Selena has been part of some of the biggest cultural machines: children’s television, Disney, celebrity relationships-as-publicity. But her public perception has largely avoided the stigmas of these associations — in large part because in a world where celebrities are always pretending to be just like us, Selena kind of, well, seems like she actually could be.
In the past decade, Selena has managed to live under a massive spotlight while maintaining some version of a normal life — a 2016 GQ profile stated with some amount of awe, “She’s spent the past year and a half being roommates with, for lack of a better word, civilians—Courtney (a non-profit employee!) and Ashley (a real estate broker!). They had a house in Calabasas and did normal sh\*t: watched movies, had sleepovers.” Years later, they’re all still friends; in 2019, she was a maid of honor at Courtney’s wedding. Musically, she makes a lot of songs that are probably about Justin Bieber, but she’s the protagonist of that story, the one you root for — plus, you can sing them like they’re your own anyway.
Rare, a competent mainstream album, is a muted club-pop record with the kinds of blurry songs that play during the party scene of a coming-of-age drama as the outsider heroine makes her way through the crowd and the clutter. Those scenes all feel purposely similar; whether in Booksmart or To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before or Lady Bird, it’s always basically the same party. The similarities prove the point: anxiety, loneliness, and dancefloor euphoria are universal.
Selena’s album feels like a nod to something like that idea, because the songs on Rare don’t really cover new feelings, though sometimes they introduce new feelings about the old ones. The album follows a path set by Revival: bad behavior in love (“Sober” and “Same Old Love”), mourning and an ensuing moment of clarity (“Camouflage”), a clean break free (“Revival”), and a confidence anthem on the dance floor (“Me & My Girls” and “Me & the Rhythm”). On Rare, the pattern is the same, if elevated with smoother expressions of those feelings in the lyrics. There’s bad behavior on “Rare,” which is addressed and analyzed in “Lose You to Love Me,” which produces results on “Look at Her Now.” Selena then vows independence and “therapy” through movement on songs like “Dance Again” and “Let Me Get Me,” which itself nods to the vicious cycle of “Camouflage,” when she sings, “Me and the spiral are done/Burn this camouflage I've been wearing for months.”
The parallels are so obvious that there’s almost a pain to them in the midst of how enjoyable these songs are to listen to. It’s the same kind of cringe when you sit down with friends you’ve had for years only to find yourself repeating the same heartbreaks from a decade ago, ones you’d sworn you’d gotten over. You make progress, but maybe you don’t actually ever get over anything. You say you won’t forget, but you allow the same kinds of people in anyway.
Still, there are some shifts in perspective. In 2015, Selena sang, “I'm so sick of that same old love, that sh*t, it tears me up.” As a fan pointed out on Twitter, the Rare counterpart happens in “Cut You Off”: “How could I confuse that sh*t for love?”
That kind of compelling whiplash is part of what makes Selena primed to thrive in a music environment that prizes singles. The surprise one-two punch of “Lose You to Love Me” and empowerment sequel “Look At Her Now” was a delicious drama in two acts. In the years between her two albums, she released a slew of infectious, sharp pop songs — “Bad Liar,” “Fetish,” — and also chose smart features, like “It Ain’t Me” (with Kygo) and “Anxiety” (from frequent collaborator Julia Michaels’s album).
In album form, Selena’s curatorial instincts with her songwriting partners take on a bleaker feeling against the backdrop of their extremely listenable beats. But hey, these are bleak times. And sometimes you have to keep singing the same song over and over and over again, in the hopes that someday the lesson will stick.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue