Pop music, historically speaking, isn’t kind to maturity — doubly so when it comes to women. You need only look as far back as the late 1990s and early 2000s for ample evidence of this: Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera — the Helen and Clytemnestra of tweenaged Y2K bubblegum pop — were both doe-eyed innocents forced to undergo something like a ritual humiliation in order to become adult pop stars.
Britney’s metamorphosis was particularly fraught, and included a detour into a full-on public meltdown, and her mental troubles were hinted at on 2003’s In the Zone, but in full flower by 2007’s Blackout. Christina simply shed the subtext and put sexuality front and center on her 2002 LP Stripped.
All of this to say: Being taken seriously as an adult after having been successful at a younger age is a challenge for women in pop music, which is why it’s so refreshing and remarkable to witness two homegrown talents — Dallas-raised Demi Lovato and Grand Prairie-born Selena Gomez — so deftly navigate the transition from fresh-faced youth to hard-won adulthood.
Lovato and Gomez are each wrestling with different challenges. Lovato has dealt with sobriety and eating disorders, while Gomez has grappled with health issues, including lupus, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression, as well as a string of high-profile relationships, most recently with Justin Bieber.
Rather than succumb to tabloid frenzy or sanitize what’s transpired, each woman has — in this age of damn-the-torpedoes transparency — leaned into her respective narrative, which has, in turn, informed and enriched the most recent music they’ve released.
Gomez’s third solo album, Rare, released at the top of the year, is an extraordinary document of personal turbulence and acceptance, coated in a riot of up-to-the-moment sounds. Pulling from R&B, electronic music and a bit of Latin pop, Rare doesn’t quicken its pulse often, instead pulling the listener in closer to savor Gomez’s restrained, often sensual vocals and the seemingly infinite layers of sound.
More than anything, it’s a pivot to a sustainable path forward that doesn’t require Gomez to be anyone other than herself — call it achieving respectability on her own terms, not the industry’s.
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Lovato, who first shifted everyone’s perspective with 2017’s full-length Tell Me You Love Me — the album anchored by the fantastic, stomping single “Sorry Not Sorry” — has released a handful of astonishing singles thus far in 2020, including “I’m Ready,” a new single with Sam Smith, last week.
But it’s “Anyone,” the track Lovato performed at the Grammy Awards in January, in her first appearance since a 2018 relapse, that shakes off the bravado of her 2017 record and locates a shattering vulnerability: “A hundred million stories/And a hundred million songs/I feel stupid when I sing/Nobody’s listening to me,” Lovato sings during the chorus, as bleak a confession as you’re likely to hear from an A-list pop act.
The comparatively up-tempo “I Love Me,” released last month, is no less ruthless, as Lovato sings of being “a black belt when I’m beating up on myself,” and yearns to be able to love herself for who she is, however flawed.
Taken together, the pair of singles create a striking portrait of a woman processing her emotions in near-real time, less concerned with sustaining a career than ensuring she’s in one piece for tomorrow and all the days after that.
Given how cruelly straitjacketed previous generations of female pop stars were — light sacrificed at the altar of lust — it’s gratifying that the genre has evolved, however slightly, to allow stars like Gomez and Lovato to mature into the next phase of their artistic journeys with something resembling grace.