Rare, the new Selena Gomez album (out since January), juxtaposes large emotions with a small voice. The pop singer’s quiet, understated vocals seem vaguely unequal to the songs, whose wiry, dance-floor energy demands drama, excess, catharsis. The resulting cognitive dissonance is a formula for delight.
Over the past half-decade, Gomez has repeatedly discarded masks and refined her detached pop style. Sleek, coiled, marked by ping-ponging echoes across synthetic expanses, her songs fit standard teenpop/R&B codes while excising the genre’s usual false cheer to achieve a cold minimalism. In 2015, she dropped Revival, the most clinical of electropop maneuvers; with it, she shed her Disney-princess image for adult sexuality, a development reflected in the music’s gleaming surface.
For the following five years, she went on a semi-hiatus, releasing only the occasional radio single while evading the spotlight. If anything, the songs from this period are even sparer than those on Revival — for instance, “Bad Liar,” a shifting bundle of skipping, clicking percussion tracks wound tight around each other, has no melodic elements other than Gomez’s singing and the zigzag bassline (which samples “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads).
For years mainstream pop has been hollowing out, moving toward slower tempos and smoother textures, but usually this correlates with a draining of energy. Instead, Gomez uses empty space as a stimulant, a way of accentuating a song’s sinewy rhythmic core. She makes room for dancers to get loose. Revival now sounds transitional, immersed in the whooshy keyboards of atmospheric R&B softcore, while on Rare, the beat drops. Behold her dance album, a nervous flurry of sly kinetic motion.
Skeletal and feather-light, Rare locks into a groove with blunt efficiency. The basslines have a rubbery malleability; the album’s breathy background exhalations and occasional bursts of candy-colored synthesizer share a sensibility with Taylor Swift’s Lover and Harry Styles’s Fine Line. These are straightforward electropop exercises that borrow the textural palette of tropical house, which has become unfashionable in the world of EDM proper but has permeated mainstream pop like a big spot of rainbow bleach radiating in every direction.
“Vulnerable” demonstrates the power of restrained gestures, as pattering synth bass, as well as the electronic polish applied to Gomez’s voice, echo through a cavernous space; given such stillness, a tiny, flushed keyboard hook is enough to convey endless yearning.
Megastars have a tendency to frame their stylistic changes as spiritual rebirths, especially if, like Gomez, the star has been on hiatus. After a long period of suffering and growth, these songs announce: “I am whole again.” (The recent use of the word “comeback” just to signal an artist’s new album reflects this.) That’s Gomez’s message on Rare, but the beats complicate things; by singing about her emotional flowering in quasi-therapeutic language over sinuous drums, she sounds like she’s dancing her way out of her constrictions.
On “Look At Her Now,” she whispers a tale of romantic loss and recovery that is punctuated by aching electronic sighs. The song’s streamlined stop-and-go motion suggests she’s approaching a moment of catharsis that hasn’t arrived yet, producing spiky friction from a stuttering loop of her own voice (“Mm-mm-mm mm-mm-mm mm-mm”). “Dance Again” glides with poised confidence, riding a bassline whose squeaky bounce seems made of stretched leather. “Feels so good to dance again,” she sings — this is the album’s thesis.
In The Village Voice, Greil Marcus once wrote of the Pet Shop Boys: “I don’t understand, just don’t get, the people who say the singing is flat, wimpy, pallid, emotionless, and so on. It’s anonymous — like all the best early punk voices.” When I read these lines, I think of Selena Gomez, who is often accused by pop critics of being unable to sing. It’s more complicated than that; she is a skilled soprano with a three-octave range who chooses to sing in a flat, breathy monotone, as if clumsily attempting to sound sensual — or even parodying the conventions of sensual pop singing. Yet her gawkiness makes her sound like a real person: This could be you.
“Rare” coasts over several interlocking electronic and acoustic drums — thwack, rattle, snap, clonk! — as she delivers a tirade against an inattentive lover, listing all the reasons she herself is special. There’s a tension between such lyrics and the talky, amateurish singsong of her delivery. The electronic flip in her voice when she sings “Saw us getting older/burning toast in the toaster” (her metaphor for disengaging from the relationship) precisely captures the daft, wobbly heartache.
A prevailing convention in mainstream pop is for music this spare to make room for a wild, showy vocal performance: for example, Ariana Grande’s similarly airy beats frame her expert swoops, gasps, and other shows of technique. This explains the current preponderance of piano ballads and solo acoustic numbers on the radio, which grant a singer your solemn, undivided attention. But Gomez’s big piano ballad, “Lose You to Love Me,” is as weird as her upbeat songs. A dramatic assertion of her recovery from a breakup, tipping over into grandiloquence as a full choir appears to sing the final chorus with her, it’s rendered joyful and endearing by the cracks in her voice (“Set fires to my fooooorest”); by contradicting the strength she professes in the lyrics, her vocals add emotional depth.
Similarly, the restrained electroclicks on the album’s other ballad, “Crowded Room,” generate a slow burn that throbs mildly until the chorus, when Gomez suddenly jumps an octave higher with a most indecorous enthusiasm. At the end, her voice multiplies, as her lower and higher registers sing valentines to each other. It’s the silliest and subtlest of self-love anthems.
Hence, the importance of rhythm. Dance music suits an awkward singer — you can listen in real time as she learns to have fun. In the language of pop, this process codes as a discovery of self through a discovery of community. On Rare, the beats keep needling her, coaxing her out of her shell, insisting that she move. It feels so good to dance again.