selena gomez is changing what authenticity means in pop music
How the most followed person on Instagram, and former Disney star, has managed to win creative independence when so many former child stars have failed.
The first track Selena Gomez released after spending three months in a Tennessee treatment center last year began with the bassline from "Psycho Killer" by Talking Heads. It was self-aware, a little funny, and cool. "Bad Liar" seemed to signal both that Gomez was not going to shy away from addressing her struggles (in one visual for the song, she still wore a "Fall Risk" bracelet from a recent hospital visit) and also that if she wanted to sample Tina Weymouth, she would sample Tina f***ing Weymouth. Jesse Peretz, producer of Girls, directed the track's 70s-inflected video, while photographer Petra Collins captured Gomez in a separate pink-lit visual (the hospital bracelet image), in which the singer gazes straight into camera with a tear-soaked face. That same softly sexy and unfiltered aesthetic — a clear departure from amped-up past productions like "Come & Get It" — is visible too in Gomez's new Collins-directed video for "Fetish."
Gomez has been a professional performer since she was seven years old. After doing the pageant circuit as a kid in Texas, she landed a role on Barney & Friends and was quickly absorbed into the Disney machinery, starring in G-rated movies and releasing three pop albums. But somehow — despite these squeaky origins, later dating one of the most obsessed-over musicians on Earth, and accumulating an Instagram following of 123.2 million — one of the words that comes up most in relation to Selena Gomez is "authentic."
Since her coming of age, when her Disney show Wizards of Waverly Place ended its run, Gomez has fought publicly for her independence. Instead of launching straight into a career as a fully adult musician, as her fellow Disney alum Britney Spears had, she took a year off from music to do something no one expected: star in a Harmony Korine movie about bikini-clad teenage girls wreaking havoc on a Florida resort town. "The reason why I wanted to be part of Spring Breakers," she told i-D in 2013, "was that artistically [...] it would be a good opportunity for me as an artist to step into a whole new light."
Gomez's character in Spring Breakers seemed true to her own brave-but-good-girl persona. It was "the right thing for me to play, a good match of actor and role," she said in an interview with The Guardian, "I love Faith and relate to her." It was a very relatable role. The moment when Faith boards a bus out of St. Petersburg to safety is one of the most powerful portrayals of relief in recent cinema history. It marks the point at which Faith truly understands that holding up a drug dealer's mansion in a neon-pink ski mask is just not who she is.
Gomez's adult career has been characterized by similar self-preserving decisions, necessitated both by public scrutiny and battles with her health. In August 2013, after being diagnosed with lupus, she left the tour for her debut solo album, Stars Dance, to prioritize her treatment. And in August 2016, struggling with anxiety and depression (both sometimes side effects of lupus), she again decided to cancel tour dates to take care of her own well-being. This time, she stopped posting on her social media.
Choosing privacy is not easy when you're the most followed person on Instagram. The sense of transparency and intimacy that social media creates is partly responsible for Gomez's army of Selenators — a tool for broadcasting her relatability to millions — but it is also often a barrier to true authenticity. Going offline, while she spent 90 days in group therapy, was perhaps the most honest decision Gomez could have made. "You have no idea how incredible it felt to just be with six girls," she later told Vogue, "real people who couldn't give two shits about who I was, who were fighting for their lives. It was one of the hardest things I've done, but it was the best thing I've done." (Her choice to partner with Petra Collins on her new imagery feels exactly right: Collins's blemishes-tears-and-all approach to photographing women is an antidote to the stylized world of Instagram.)
"People so badly wanted me to be authentic," Gomez explained in an April cover story for Vogue, "and when that happened, finally, it was a huge release." In December 2016, when she made her first public appearance after her second stay in rehab, she gave a viral speech at the AMA Awards about the dangers of not being open about her private battles. "I'm not different from what I put out there," she told the magazine, "I've been very vulnerable with my fans, and sometimes I say things I shouldn't. But I have to be honest with them. I feel that's a huge part of why I'm where I am." Director Donna Gigliotti, who has worked with Gomez, told Vogue that the singer's fans "love her because she is so generous and so authentic."
Being "authentic" is often a strategy as much as a lived reality in pop music. Musicians including Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus have all recently made moves to strip back their public personas to reflect something we are supposed to understand as more innately them. The idea of "authenticity" is muddied further by the slew of marketing studies that promise the millennial generation responds to and "demands authenticity." It can, in some cases, be an empty buzzword rather than a truth.
But Gomez is of our generation. She understands firsthand the grossness of phony marketing ploys, airbrushing, and autotune. She recently told an interviewer, "When you're, you know, 15, 16, 17, you're going to be easily influenced by these adults who are saying, 'This is what people are going to want to listen to. Do this song. Work with this producer.' The older you get, the more you get like, 'No, I don't actually get inspired by this. This is not me. I don't feel like I'm being authentic. I don't want this.'"
"When I was in my little tutu on stage, that was my time to be doing that, because that's genuinely how I felt," she continued. "Now, I see these 20-year-olds who are going through the same thing I'm going through, I know what they're experiencing. It's almost like I would be lying if I was sitting there saying, 'Life is great. It's great! It's awesome!' [..] Your 20s are so complicated. You're evolving."
In Gomez's current stage of evolution, she is a CEO, executive producer, and artist in control of her own image. "When I got out of the facility, I was very creatively frustrated, because I didn't know where I wanted my stuff to go," she said recently, "I felt very glamorized on the last run. And I think with this next chapter in music, I wanted it to feel just a little more raw." And, as she sings on "Fetish," you can "take it or leave it."
Text Alice Newell-Hanson