The cover of Selena Gomez's new album 'Revival'
Despite the fact that we boys all got boners as soon as eight years old, and the whole of adolescence is basically a hormone-fuelled bender with the one express aim of snogging someone, youth sexuality will always be a super taboo subject. You just don’t talk about it. Our contradictory, puritanical attitudes to sexuality were neatly summed up last month when a 17-year-old boy in North Carolina was charged for having explicit pictures of his own penis on his phone. To add insult to irony, he was charged as an adult.
In a typically warped reflection of these attitudes to sex, one of the only ways we’re willing to recognise that children have sexual urges is by stifling them. At 13-years-old Selena Gomez proudly wore a purity ring to announce that now she had started thinking about sex, and dating fellow virginal Disney star Nick Jonas, she was not going to be having any. A purity ring not only announces elective chastity, but sullies those that don’t make the same choice.
We know the traditional narrative from this point, the baby-faced Christian Disney star becomes gradually more sexualised, in a series of “all grown up” reveals that bleakly prey on their perceived childhood innocence, until they end up at an extreme caricature of sexuality - whether that be unhealthy relationships leading to an out-of-control rampage of self-destruction (Britney, Lindsey) or empowerment through sexual emancipation (Miley, Christina, Demi sort of). Either way - all these stars who once promised their purity come to be defined largely by sex, and with each attempt to be more legitimate in the male gaze of the music industry, they have to push boundaries a little further, their sexuality their only commodity - so you get leather chaps in a thai sex den or swinging naked on a concrete block.
For the most part, it seemed as if Gomez was heading the same way, after she dissolved her excellent but rather PG-13 faux-emo band Selena Gomez and The Scene. Her debut single - “Come and Get It” was as forward a sexual come on as you can imagine, Gomez painting herself as the always available pit stop for an unknown gentleman, basically promising a no-strings attached bunk up. “You ain't gotta worry, it's an open invitation/I'll be sittin' right here, real patient/All day, all night, I'll be waitin' standby” she coos like the Grub Hub of coitus. At around the same time she appeared in Harmony Korine’s fluoroporn masterpiece Spring Breakers, strolling through drug-fuelled orgys in a bikini. The message could not have been more clear if she’d graffitied “I HAVE A VAGINA AND IT’S IN USE” all over Waverly Place.
Soon after that rumours emerged that she was doing drugs or in rehab, it seemed like Selena was sticking perfectly to the child start script, entering the grim breakdown portion of her seemingly inevitable slide into unhappiness. But this week, in a startling interview given to Billboard - Selena revealed much of her time away from the spotlight was spent in hospital, being treated with chemotherapy for lupus. Speaking about the press that had said she was in rehab for drugs, she says, “I wanted so badly to say, ‘You guys have no idea. I’m in chemotherapy. You’re assholes,’ ” she says. “But I was angry I even felt the need to say that. It’s awful walking into a restaurant and having the whole room look at you, knowing what they’re saying. I locked myself away until I was confident and comfortable again.”
The interview is timed with today’s release of her album Revival. On the cover, Selena sits butt-naked, hinting at an “all grown-up” type record. And for sure, it’s an album with sexuality as its central theme, but far from “can’t keep my hands off you” TV attraction - instead it’s a surprisingly honest, sometimes grizzly account of real love and romance.
It starts on opening track “Revival”, where a cerebral rather than sexual emancipation takes place. “I feel like I've awakened lately, the chains around me are finally breaking, I've been under self-restoration, I've become my own salvation,” sings Selena, her voice track distorting at the edges, as if cracking at walls she’s been kept in for too long.
In the most part the record traces both successful and failed relationships, and their often unspoken aspects. Take “Sober” - a song about the spark of attraction fleeting when the booze runs out, Gomez bemoaning “But you don't know how to love me when you're sober/Why is it so different when we wake up?/Same lips, same kiss, but not the same touch”.
Or “Hands To Myself”, at first glance a more typical song about sexual desire, Selena hints at a darker undercurrent. On the official lyrics that Selena provided to Genius, there is the lyric “cause all of the doubts and the outbursts, keep making love to each other”, and that fits with the romantic confusion of the track. But on the record Selena seems to modulate the lyric to be “all of the downs and the uppers” suggesting a relationship wound up in drugs and mental health, a take supported by the following line “my doctor say you’re no good”. It’s one of the many moments where Selena’s hurt vocal suggests there’s two narratives at play - a surface and a more hostile truth.
“Good For You” the A$AP Rocky featuring single, rocks back and forth slowly on an unchanging beat. It might seem like a natural follow on to “Come and Get It”, Selena pledging her entire existence for another’s satisfaction - “I just want to look good for you/Let me show you how proud I am to be yours” - but where the old song is offering someone else satisfaction, this is much more about feeling yourself, seeing yourself in the third person as a sexual being, something that happens a lot later in life than attraction. The result is one of the most genuinely sexy songs of recent times. Selena even says of the video, “I didn’t want a damn guy in there. It’s about how I feel. Yes, it’s sexual and captivating, but that’s what makes a woman. We have that over guys. I love looking at women. I’d rather look at a woman than a guy.”
Of course, Selena Gomez didn’t write all these songs alone, and the presence of Max Martin, Bibi Bourelly and Benny Blanco among others make sure that these all-too-real emotions are placed in tidy, future-conscious pop packages. But reading the Billboard interview it seems that many of the songs did come from a visceral and honest place. Talking about the themes around the record she says things like ““I’m so fucking nice to everybody, and everyone is so vile to me.” and “ Just because it’s not plastered everywhere doesn’t mean I didn’t have my rock bottom. I’ve had my moments, and it’s almost unsafe for me to even talk about them.” These are songs that feel like they’ve come from a place of genuine hurt, and she’s taking real ownership of them.
Selena is fortunate in that she is very famous without people knowing that much about her - she went out Bieber, she’s mates with Taylor, she was in that spring break film - that’s basically it. And so Revival feels especially genuine in its attempt to create an identity of more substance for Selena.
In some leaked texts (that Bieber’s manager claims are fake) between Bieber and Selena that emerged last year, Selena told her ex-boyfriend “U r a drug addict, U need help” and “U need to listen to Scooter and go to rehab”. In response Bieber sends her repeated pics of his erect penis and ends up saying “Cum on baby” before giving up with a “Enjoy life WITHOUT ME BITCH!!! fuck you.” Whether those messages were real or not, this record feels like a girl calmly deleting that number, switching off her phone and going out into the world of normal humans, leaving behind the “irreprochable to ill repute” path travelled by her contemporaries and instead trying to find something real.