“Kerosene beauty queen” / “If you’re the flame, I’m kerosene” — a couplet soaked in potential fire, lit up in very different ways by two of the pop world’s shiniest stars. The former line is from Demi Lovato’s “Wildfire,” off of new album Confident; the latter is from Selena Gomez’s “Body Heat,” off of new album Revival. (Now a best seller.) Both women are the leading figures of a particular kind of new pop star paradigm: Vulnerable to the extent that they are believably candid in discussions about growing up with fame, heartbreak, and sexual fluidity; traditional in the sense that their media presence stays safely within the marketable realm of “relatable and inspirational.”
Their main “messages” can be boiled down to one word each, and those words are their album titles. But though they exist within the cyclical pop world debutante culture, their image and sound evolutions stand on their own, and blaze a new path through the “not a girl, not yet a woman” terrain.
I grew up occasionally watching Sonny with a Chance and Wizards of Waverly Place, the shows that launched Lovato’s and Gomez’s careers respectively. I followed their friendship; their “feud” with Hannah Montana’s Miley Cyrus, another member of their Disney class; their respective Disney film breakouts (Camp Rock and Another Cinderella Story). Then . . . silence, as I went to college and they leaned on their sweet teen personas to continue their careers.
Though it was Cyrus who first forcibly broke out of their shared Disney mantle, it isn’t as though Lovato and Gomez haven’t had their share of growing pains. What they’ve done is transmute the struggles of their adolescent years (eating disorders, drug addictions, body dysmorphia, debilitating illness) into deftly crafted pop tunes that play to their strengths. For Lovato, that’s a newly claimed boldness that has her both stepping out in prototypical superheroine gear and unleashing her considerable voice over the biggest and baddest beats of her career; aka, Confident. For Gomez, that means shedding the baggage of her most public relationship and channeling chilled out, friendship-fueled bliss vibes; aka, Revival. Though both albums are laced with fiery rebirth imagery, Lovato’s take on it is more spontaneous combustion, whereas Gomez emerges from flame, and then like steel being quenched, takes her cooler form.
What both women have in common is a desire to reclaim their own stories, not, as in most “not a girl, not yet a woman” cases, to reinvent themselves into a largely adult male-crafted iteration “adulthood.” Concurrently, Lovato’s stint on shows like The X Factor and Gomez’s relationship with Justin Bieber acted, unwittingly, almost as distractions for the general listening public; it was easy to pass off their perceived talent versus actual cultural cache as the tail end of their Disney-boosted careers, and both certainly could’ve coasted on that association for the rest of their lives.
Yet without performance art and/or “shocking” gimmicks, how could two artists who’ve already had, what are on paper, respectable and perhaps not “deserved” post-ingenue careers transcend those very same premature legacies? “Love You Like A Love Song” and “Heart Attack” were among their respectable additions to the one-off pop hit catalogue; neither artist’s career seemed poised for the kind of reboot they’ve since pulled off. The answer, for them as performers and artists but also as people, is anchored in a movement that started off as a challenge and became a mantra: Body positivity.
Taking a cursory look at Google Trends, there was no such thing as body positivity as a topic of conversation until the summer of 2013. Around that time, Lovato released Demi; Gomez released Stars Dance. Both women seemed to genuinely be doing well, but if you weren’t a hardcore pop fan, it was easy to dismiss their music from within the crowded “female diva” field. There was Beyoncé with her queen status (soon to accept coronation for her fifth, feminist manifesto album); Rihanna was riding high with Unapologetic; Lorde was just about to drop Pure Heroine. The landscape was crowded, so how do you stand out?
For both Lovato and Gomez, the answer was to speak to the challenges and criticisms they’d received within the relatively rarefied world of modern child celebrity. While much of their previous music and personas had this diva lite feel to it (like they’d stumbled into and were now playing dress-up with some other pop star’s metaphorical closet), they were going to get specific about their struggles and both subtly and opaquely superimpose self-care mantras into their lyrics. The opening lines on Confident: “Are you ready? / It’s time for me to take it / I’m the boss right now.” The same on Revival: “I dive into the future / But I’m blinded by the sun / I’m reborn in every moment / So who knows what I’ll become.”
Their music and images now weren’t just about “surmounting personal issues”; they were about responding to direct attacks about their weight, body shape, and personal decisions on social media and on gossip sites. (Ex. here and here.) They were no longer content simply providing their voices and bodies for consumption and reworking; why not link the two not in a play for male gaze reception, but instead for female empowerment? Even a song like Gomez’s “Good For You,” which is at its heart a coy seduction tune, is laced with the knowledge that yeah, she knows she’s the sh-t. Literally, before she is for you, she’s good.
Now, both women have huge teams of people working with them, but Lovato and Gomez have clearly shaped and embodied the manifestations they preach in their music. (And, no one begrudges male pop artists for the help they have in crafting their albums and personas.) Part of this is due to the rise of Instagram and other direct-to-fan connections; part of this is due to the ease at which fandom can spring up around the “everyday person,” such as a Vine personality or a YouTube maven, let alone someone who’s been in and out of the public spotlight for years.
Without body positivity as an anchor for their music, Lovato and Gomez might have produced catchy enough work on their own. With it, they’ve emerged as leaders in a conversation that, despite its buzzword clarity, does have significant ramifications for those of us who grew up second-guessing our bodies in the face of music and media that suggested that the only way to be anyone at all was to either strive for a perfection that doesn’t exist, or seek approval from other people rather than light themselves up from within.
Ultimately, that is what both albums achieve. Confident is an explosive burst of energy set to body-shaking, EDM-fueled jams and white-hot blades of vocal emoting, Lovato tacitly atoning for her past mean girl proclivities but not apologizing for the self-ownership she’s finally settled into. (Hear: “Confident,” “Cool for the Summer,” “Stone Cold.”) Revival is a much more sensual album, meant for slower and more subtle moves and sensations borrowed from cooler (as in temperature) genres like vocal trance. (Hear: “Hands To Myself,” “Good For You,” “Me & The Rhythm” and its broad Annie overtones.) The former is the music you play when you’re powering through a rough day, getting that job/award/recognition you wanted, or sweating it out on the dance floor; the latter is the music you play when you’re pouring yourself a glass of wine as you wear your comfiest clothes, dancing in your pajamas with your hairbrush as a microphone, or putting/taking off your makeup.
The songs are snapshots of the turbulence of being a young woman in a culture that both places you on a pedestal and then snipes that you should be grateful to be there. They are good, and more importantly, they make you feel good, for you.