The divergence

music beat

The divergence

Selena Gomez wanted to control the music. “Do you have an auxiliary cord?” the grown-up tween idol asked her driver on a recent Monday afternoon, queuing up a Spotify playlist and reaching into the front seat to crank the volume on a Christian rock song. One Direction, Nicki Minaj and the indie group Chromatics followed.

Gomez, like seemingly every other 23-year-old in the country, scrolled inattentively through Instagram and agreed to order sushi via an app as she rapped along to Drake under her breath (Trigger fingers turn to Twitter fingers...)

If she hadn’t recalled her stint, at the age of 7, on Barney & Friends, it was almost possible to forget Gomez’s child star bona fides: four seasons of a popular Disney show, Wizards of Waverly Place; four studio albums under the company’s music arm, Hollywood Records; and a soul-draining teen romance saga with Justin Bieber. But that’s all in her past now — sort of.

In an attempt to declare her rebirth as an independent, confident adult woman, Gomez has recently released ‘Revival’, her first album for Interscope. Yet while the music’s thematic awakenings (personal, professional, sexual) are meant to supplant her previous personas — tidily packaged goody-goody in her work, baby bird with broken wings in the tabloids — the songs are also savvily exploiting those same public stories and preconceptions.

As Gomez sings on the album’s opener: “What I’ve learned is so vital/More than just survival/This is my revival.”

The risk, however, is getting bogged down in past associations that threaten to eclipse her obvious growth as a performer. So Gomez must mine her experiences while trying to avoid a pop star identity that’s only refracted through others, be it Bieber or Taylor Swift, her longtime industry BFF who also sought in recent years to own the ugly chatter about her relationships with a new sense of agency and emphasis on female friendship.

The run-up to the album had to be carefully considered: The lead single, Good for You, featuring a sly verse from ASAP Rocky, is a statement of self-worth and sexual power as breathy come-on, conjuring none of Gomez’s ghosts. Only after its unexpected summer success did Interscope release the more obvious single Same Old Love, a defiant but wounded kiss-off about a trampled heart.

When that was set to begin the campaign, “I was like, that’s not right,” Gomez said. “That’s not going to be my narrative. Not right now.”

While she plans to address her past, she is hyper-aware of how she has been perceived. “It’s all part of my story,” Gomez said while not quite relaxing in a Beverly Hills hotel suite before boarding the SUV to rehearsal. “I’m growing and changing. I was in a relationship, and I was being managed by my parents, and I was still under Hollywood and Disney, and I was being held to this expectation of being the good girl.” She continued: “I knew deep down that this wasn’t what I wanted to do — being exhausted of forcing something that wasn’t right, even in my personal life. I had to have moments where I was crying and I was like, ‘Why am I not in love with what I do?’ I was forced to get uncomfortable for a while in order to make the decisions I made.”

Even more liberating than leaving Disney, Gomez said, was letting her mother go as a manager last year, an experience she called “very awkward” and likened to “a kid going to college.” But suddenly decisions like posing almost naked on the cover of ‘Revival’ became easier, she said.

Still, she took to a new path tentatively. Rather than shattering her Disney halo and leaving loyal fans, known as ‘Selenators’, behind, Gomez matured in fits and starts, always referencing her past eras.

Nearing breakthrough

In 2013, she starred in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, a neon Florida fever dream of guns, sex and binge drinking, but she played Faith, the corrupted church girl with cherub cheeks and quivering lips, who runs away before things get truly deranged. Her mother brought her the raunchy script. “She was like, ‘It’s the last season of Wizards, and no one will hear about it — it’ll be underground and give you a lot of street cred’,” Gomez remembered. She laughed. “That’s not what happened.”

Hang-wringing over her role in the film erupted instantly. “I had this weird moment where I was at the Toronto Film Festival, and during the day I premiered Hotel Transylvania” — an animated film, rated PG — “then at night I premiered Spring Breakers,” she said. “Of course there was controversy: ‘Oh, she’s in a bikini, and she’s a role model’.”

But the adult part played just enough against type, putting Gomez on new industry radars, including that of John Janick, now the chairman and chief executive of Interscope. “I thought it was the perfect thing for her to do,” he said of Spring Breakers — “a natural progression” without “completely abandoning what she came from.”

After Janick popped into a recording session to meet Gomez in 2013, the pair started a year of discussions about taking her music career in a similar direction. “It was always about empowering her the right way, but making sure you’re not jumping 10 steps ahead,” he said. Gomez’s album ‘Stars Dance’, released the same year by Hollywood, was another baby step toward an adult career and featured the Top 10 hit Come & Get It, her biggest song to date.

Before signing with Interscope in December 2014, Gomez took a bigger stride toward independence with a final, contract-fulfilling single for Disney. The Heart Wants What It Wants begins with a tearful monologue and addresses her relationship with Bieber all but explicitly. “My public life was doing all the speaking for me, for a moment,” Gomez said. While the gossip press “made it their mission to make me seem meek and small,” she added, “I translated that into my music.”

Her openness carried over to sessions for ‘Revival’. Along with producers and songwriters of the moment, Gomez — who is listed as executive producer and has writing credits on six songs — worked with a slew of young women, including Charli XCX (Same Old Love), Julia Michaels ( Revival, Good for You) and Chloe Angelides (the is-it-Bieber anthem Sober).

Justin Tranter, another ‘Revival’ songwriter, said that Gomez was realistic about playing into the gossip.

“Those questions do come up while writing,” he said. “Of course we don’t want everything to feel like it’s feeding into the tabloids, but also we need the song to win. She’s smart enough to know that.” Gomez is careful now to balance her camera-ready self with a more low-key version. In August, she gamely posed with Swift’s girl gang of models and actresses at the MTV Video Music Awards.

‘Swift’ comments

“Taylor is a lot more trusting than I am,” she said. “I have trust issues, given my situation. She’s very open, so she brings out this other side of me.” But after a night among starlets, Gomez returned home to the celebrity suburb of Calabasas, to eat cookies with her two roommates (a realtor and a nonprofit employee.)

“In the last two years, I’ve seen Selena start to make her career her own,” Swift said. “She’s separated her opinion out and prioritised it above anyone else’s. Her childhood was defined by working hard, with the major business decisions primarily being made by others. The coolest part of watching her grow up has been seeing her gradually take the creative reins and start to steer the ship.”

Gomez said she’s getting used to the autonomy. “I definitely remind myself that I’m in control,” she said. “I feel like ultimately if I sit down and I think about a decision I need to make, it’s really within myself. I make the decision. Everything goes through me.”

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