Selena Gomez is very good at a specific type of song that I don’t quite know how to describe. Every track on her new album Revival has this intangible quality, this strange shimmering something that makes it hypnotizing. This is a pop album, but it’s somehow darker and slinkier and quieter than that phrase implies. It’s not slow, exactly, but all of these songs have a very consistently downtempo feel. They have pacing, but it’s almost metronomic, not the spiraling arching verse-bridge-chorus of a Taylor Swift song. This is more subdued, and controlled in a different way. It lends itself to a sort of flow, an immersion in an endless river of syncopation, and you look up two hours later and you’ve listened to the album four times in a row without realizing. I don’t necessarily want to dance to this album, but I want to buy it on vinyl and lie on my floor staring at my ceiling while I listen to it, only moving when the needle eventually spins into silence. I could spend an entire day that way, with this album, I feel like. And that is valuable to me in a very different way than something bigger and louder and more would be valuable. Sometimes it is harder to be quiet; sometimes it takes everything you have to speak your heart quietly, in measured phrases, with venom in your words but not your voice. Kill ’em, kill ’em, kill ’em, she lilts, and she sounds like she’s tipping you a wink as she finishes …with kindness.
There is a specific and (for me, at least) very difficult kind of power in being quiet, in not repeating yourself, in making someone work to hear what you’re saying. Me, I’m not good at this – I’m always shouting, gesturing, making myself heard because I’m afraid no one will try to listen. I’m afraid of no one leaning in, mouthing what, I didn’t catch that, silently willing me to put my lips against their ear. I’m afraid no one wants to hear what I have to say that badly and so I yell it at them, I keep the box closed and maybe the cat is still alive, would they ask me to repeat it would they care would they not, and I admire Selena Gomez so much because she has beaten this monster that eats me alive. I am going to try not to talk about every single track on this album but I need to talk about “Hands To Myself”. She’s almost whispering when the song opens, can’t keep my hands to myself and right away we’re sucked into this minimal synthy beat, this breathy plea, so come on give me a taste. The chorus swells but she’s still in control – even when she’s closer to belting she’s still quiet somehow, still measured, still precise, and then the verse starts again and she’s back to that low whisper, and the chorus of her own voice behind her only highlights just how soft and naked that vocal line is. Has anyone ever said I want it all I want it all so implacably, so plainly? The best part of the song, though, comes at 2:40, when she flexes just a little bit, can’t keep my hands to myself bigger and louder and then without a warning the whole song contracts to the pinpoint of her voice – I mean I could, but why would I want to? I feel like that’s not not Selena’s whole thing, honestly. I could, but why would I want to? I could talk shit about Justin to the press, but why would I want to? I could make every song on this album an Adele-esque belting yowling number, but why would I want to? I could be another way than the way I am, but why would I want to? I don’t want to.
I feel like she really came into this groove (heh) with “Love You Like A Love Song”. All of her singles since then have had this same trancelike draw, this feeling of… of effortlessness, somehow, I think. They’re mesmerizing, for lack of a better word. That staccato heartbeat of a song, I keep hitting re-p-p-p-peat. In that way all of these songs have a pulse and my own heart follows them when I listen. Syncopate my skin to your heart beating, she says, and I feel it in my veins, the way it pulls my blood like the tide. The current of this album is strong and swift and steady, and it sucks me under, throbs under my skin. This is so calculated, and I mean that in a good way – this is a hypnotist in peak form. This is the sinuous dance of a cobra as it moves toward prey. It’s quiet and even but it feels like when you speak very calmly because you’re afraid you will cry or laugh or scream. It is total control, a mastery of self and emotion, and it is then directing that control outward. Selena isn’t a belter, she’s not screaming at the top of her lungs; even when she’s showing emotion she’s doing it in a way that feels the exact opposite of casual. It’s not an accident when she lets a card show here and there. And there are flashes of that, quick bright bursts of energy up out of the steady rhythmic flow.
“Me & My Girls” is a good example of what this album is about, the way that it manages to control itself even while it makes you want to dance. I want to dance to “Me & My Girls”; it’s maybe the only track that I can say that about. But it makes me want to dance in like, a line of beautiful girls all doing the same thing. It makes me want choreography. I wouldn’t just bop around if this came on in a club, I’d want to have a routine ready. It lends itself to that, all of this – that same feeling of controlled, directed energy. Intentionality. The trumpet line and the verses are quick and feisty but that thudding metronomic backbeat never stops. It feels somehow matter-of-fact, is the closest I can get to describing it. If it were possible for a dance song to be matter-of-fact it would be this one. If we want it we take it; if we need money we make it. I know I’m making you thirsty. These lines are delivered almost in a monotone, Selena’s voice only pitching up slightly on each final word, and when she’s joined by the chorus for you like to watch when we shake it. How interesting it is, to me, that she basically speaks I don’t need a man. This is the barest fact of the song; me and my girls, I don’t need a man. It is almost harsher to be dismissed in this way, this declaration that carries no more weight than if she had said it’s raining out tonight. It’s not worth any more inflection; she’s certainly not giving it any more thought than that.
The thing about being quiet – the thing about being in control, about controlling yourself – and, by extension, the thing about this entire album, is that it is a form of power. When you are controlling yourself you are being controlled, and I know that seems stupid and obvious but what I am getting at is this: when you control yourself you take away anyone else’s ability to control you. Salome dances her dance of the seven veils and no one can take their eyes off her. By choosing when and where to reveal the dark raw parts of yourself you rob that darkness of something that would drain you if you let it. Selena sings and her voice is smoke and honey and you forget that she’s baring her soul, you hear the smooth ripple of to think you were my everything and you hear that pain and it is sharp and exquisite but it is sublimated somehow, millions of tiny fizzing bubbles in the cold clear flow.
The crux of Revival is this: You do not owe it to anyone to make it easy to hear you. You do not owe an explanation of yourself to anyone that would force you to give it. I dive into the future, she says on the title track, but I’m blinded by the sun. I’m reborn in every moment, so who knows what I’ll become? She says it simply, plainly. Reborn in every moment. We are all of us constantly shifting, changing, growing, and no one can or should force you to pin yourself down. And if you decide to speak your heart, to offer a window into the shape you are in, do it quietly. Do it with structure and forethought and confidence, on your own terms. Do it with the composure and purpose and calm measured strength that saturates this album. The crux of Revival is this: When you speak quietly you find out who is actually listening.
I still don’t care for the A$AP Rocky verse in “Good For You”. I think it disrupts the flow of an otherwise perfect immersive experience. I think it is interesting also to note that the official video for the song does not contain that interlude.
Revival is out now from Interscope Records.