MAY 29, 2020
LIKE SO MANY NONPROFITS AND LITERARY COMMUNITIES, MANY OF LARB’S FUNDRAISING SOURCES HAVE BEEN UPENDED. IN ORDER TO CONTINUE PROVIDING FREE COVERAGE OF THE BEST IN WRITING AND THOUGHT, WE ARE RELYING ON YOUR SUPPORT NOW MORE THAN EVER.
At first listen, Selena Gomez’s “Lose You to Love Me” seems an unlikely song to top the Billboard Top 40. Its sparse piano accompaniment and lack of percussive elements aren’t unheard of in contemporary pop but would usually be heard backing up a powerhouse vocalist like Adele or Beyoncé. Instead, Gomez’s vocals are hushed, conversational, defiantly unspectacular. So what drove the song to number one? What are listeners responding to? Gomez’s skill doesn’t lie in her vocal acrobatics, but in her ability to deliver a song with unnerving intimacy. It’s no wonder. The lyrical message of “Lose You to Love Me” is drawn from Gomez’s personal life, her voyage toward self-actualization after a rough breakup with one Justin Bieber, being diagnosed with lupus, and coping with the pressures of the spotlight.
The “topline” of “Lose You to Love Me” — its lyrics and melody — were written by Gomez with the duo Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter. The song’s music was composed by the Swedish team Mattman & Robin, with additional production by Billie Eilish’s brother Finneas. Together, these musicians translate Gomez’s private woe into public catharsis, and listeners get to tap into her emotional confession every time they turn on the radio. Gomez is a singer who has been criticized for “not having the range,” and it may be true — she’ll never hit a Mariah Carey–esque vocal cadenza. But she possesses the uncanny ability to pick songwriters who can spin her personal life into universal balladry, and the gift to sing those songs with unerring honesty. As such, she might represent better than anyone what a new breed of pop stars will look and sound like as they respond to a musical and economic landscape shifting under their feet.
The relationship between pop and the larger world is nothing new. As polymathic musician David Byrne outlines in his book How Music Works, pop music always reacts to the technological and commercial pressures of its day. In the 1980s, drum machines became inseparable from the musical genres they helped create: the TR-808 and hip-hop, the TR-909 and techno, or the Linn Drum and Prince (yes, Prince is his own genre). What technological innovation will become synonymous with the 2020s? Byrne’s prognostication was that headphone listening would usher in a new sonic era. A decade later, his prediction might be coming true. According to Quartz, in 2010 headphone sales outpaced speaker sales for the first time — creating a structural shift toward private, away-from-public listening. Byrne says that listening this way creates a solitary soundtrack, a “substitute for our interior voices.”
In January, Selena Gomez released her third studio album, Rare — a work best heard on headphones. Its songs are at once diaristic and intensely mediated. Lyrically, they address Gomez’s relationships (“Lose You to Love Me”), self-acceptance (“Look at Her Now”), and living in the public eye (“Vulnerable”). Co-writer Justin Tranter reports that “Gomez would text before songwriting sessions to see “what she wants to talk about and what she’s going through,” then the rest of her team would take that raw emotion and process it into pop confectionary. This confessional mode of songcraft is reinforced by Gomez’s vocal style, itself a combination of authenticity and artifice. Producer Ian Kirkpatrick, Gomez’s collaborator on “Look at Her Now,” says that “her voice is soft and kind of delicate, it just sounds like she’s talking to you, her voice is very personal.” In an unusual, wordless chorus, she sings, “Mmm, mmm, mmm.” Each time, it sounds like she’s humming right into your ear. To heighten the effect, Kirkpatrick had her sing “close on the mic … it adds to how personal the song is.” Gomez recorded the chorus’s “mmm”s without any musical accompaniment, just her murmuring on a studio couch. Afterward, Kirkpatrick chopped up her natural “mmm”s to fit the beat. The final product feels like it was made just for her — and all of us listening on our headphones.
Besides headphone listening, there is another technology shaping Gomez’s sound on Rare: social media. It lurks in the background but remains inescapable. In How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, artist Jenny Odell writes that “the invasive logic of commercial social media” has contributed to a blurring of the public and private spheres. We see the “cult of personality and personal branding” every day in our feeds: makeup tutorials, exercise tips, mukbangs. Threaded with advertisements and clandestine “sponcon,” our daily routines become inseparable from commercial activity. Now, for a post to appear non-commercial it must pass appear relatable. Relatability is essential for pop stars like Gomez, and difficult to achieve when you’re the fourth-most followed account on Instagram.
Gomez told NPR that her album’s title came as a reaction to this moment, “where everything is based on your looks and social media and there are so many different channels telling people what they should look like.” Nonetheless, to promote her record she needed to find a way to rise above the noise and still come off as authentically herself. In the lead-up to her album release, Gomez (and presumably her social media team) posted a week’s worth of Polaroid-style candid bedroom shots to Instagram. Gomez wears an ’80s-style T-shirt with the album title “Rare” cheaply airbrushed over a heart-shaped sunset scene. The same photos appear in the lyric video for her song “Vulnerable.” There, she confides: “I would tell you all my secrets.” Her song “Crowded Room” seems to even wink at our desire to connect despite social media. The track’s music is filtered out into the background. Inaudible voices echo in the distance, but Gomez’s hushed lyric is bright and clear: “Baby it’s just me and you / Just us two / Even in a crowded room.”
Gomez’s confessional writing represents an aesthetic approach impelled by larger forces in the music industry. Today’s pop musicians are no longer just artists, they’re what Leslie Meier calls “artist-brands.” In the book Popular Music as Promotion, Meier writes how, in order to offset revenue loss from physical sales, record labels pursued sponsorships, TV placements, and new merchandise strategies, turning their artists’ identities and intellectual property into commodities. Gomez’s Instagram informs us that Rare isn’t just an album, it’s also a beauty line, “coming Summer 2020, only at Sephora.” Meier contends that “the hub of the music industries’ various revenue streams is now the recording artist’s image and reputation,” not the music they create.
Even as this state of affairs might appear to be another deflating development of late capitalism, there are benefits to the rise of confessional pop. Journalist Amanda Arnold argues in The Cut that the increase in artists’ “speaking out about their own struggles with anxiety and depression is a shift worth celebrating.” Confessional songs succeed because audiences relate to the intimate details of their favorite musician. The bigger the pop star, the more revolutionary the revelation. In an interview with Zane Lowe, Gomez shared that making her album was liberating, because its confessions served her fans: “The agony, the confusion, the self-doubt […] I went through that for something like this for other people.”
Gomez is far from alone here, with the Washington Post reporting that more artists are opening up about the mental health challenges associated with celebrity. Her ex-boyfriend, Justin Bieber, shared his own inner demons on his new album Changes. Taylor Swift’s Netflix documentary Miss Americana offers a voyeuristic look into the psychological effects of fame, with Swift revealing how she developed an eating disorder. SZA told Rolling Stone she suffers from depression, and sings about the soul-crushing work of her multiple day jobs on the song “Broken Clocks.” Demi Lovato opens up about her struggles with addiction, sobriety, and relapse in her song “Sober.” The success of these tracks is hinged upon the artists’ personal narratives, and each has manifested positive social change by destigmatizing common afflictions.
But this songwriting style can also have negative consequences. Gomez wrote about her personal struggles during a period of retreat from the public eye. On the song “Let Me Get Me,” Gomez sings about how therapy has helped “burn this camouflage I’ve been wearing for months.” Now she must maintain popular momentum by exposing her private life to the world. This cycle of retreat, personal exposure, and relentless promotion can’t be good for pop stars’ long-term health. In addition to the mental challenges of public life, there are very real concerns for stars’ physical safety, as obsessive fans have been known to cross the line. What’s more, there’s a gendered division to artists’ public self-immolation. As Kristin Lieb argues, female artists “must harness the power of personal narrative to construct, maintain, and extend their career lifestyles.” Male stars, by contrast, can remain comfortably anonymous. No one is asking to hear the details of Adam Levine’s personal life on his next record, for instance, but Katy Perry’s latest single is all about her recent marriage.
Popular songs have always been personal, but not necessarily autobiographical. Confessions were long the domain of rock, soul, country, and other genres. Pop represented the bastion of artifice, an impersonal hall of mirrors for listeners to get lost in. With pop’s swing toward the confessional, it’s worth asking if our soundtrack of personal liberation means putting the artists we adore at risk. There is a cognitive dissonance when an artist’s personal confessions impede his or her own pathway to mental health. What solutions could exist? Writing about the manufactured authenticity of social media in her book Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino affirms that “the self is not a fixed, organic thing but a dramatic effect that emerges from a performance.” Focusing on the skilled performance of Gomez and her talented collaborators on Rare, rather than trying to find the figure at its center, might be the most responsible way to listen to the new sound of pop.
Charlie Harding & Nate Sloan are the co-hosts of the Vox.com podcast Switched on Pop and longtime musical collaborators. Nate is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Southern California. Charlie is Executive Producer of the show and a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter. Their book, Switched On Pop: How Popular Music Works And Why It Matters, was published by Oxford in December 2019.