Rare, Selena Gomez’s sixth album and first since 2015, arrived at the perfect time. It was released in the first full week of the first month of the first year of the 2020s — a time when New Year’s resolutions are still alive, and the stakes only higher as we start a whole new decade.
For those taking stock of their emotional lives, Gomez offers a snapshot of her emotional growth. The 27-year-old singer documents the incredibly tumultuous period since her last record: Handling a public relationship and breakup with The Weeknd, receiving a kidney transplant from her friend Francia Raisa, checking into a treatment center for mental health issues related to lupus and body shaming, and briefly reuniting with her most famous ex, Justin Bieber, only to later witness his engagement and marriage to Hailey Baldwin. She has had a lot to process on this journey towards maturity and has used her songwriting to document each turn. The problem is, unlike fellow pop singers who rip lyrics from the pages of their journal (yes, I do mean Taylor Swift but also Robyn, Camila Cabello, and Halsey), Gomez seems to struggle with revealing too much.
“Lose You to Love Me,” Gomez’s first No. 1 Hot 100 single, may be the album’s most revealing song. While she won’t outright tell us it’s a song about processing her relationship with Bieber and how she moved on, it clearly is precisely that. The emotion in the song, which comes mostly from the minor key chords and not from Gomez’s voice, reaches a fever pitch when she invokes the idea of learning to hate someone you used to love. What makes it so attractive universally, however, is Gomez transparently laying down what it took for her to realize she was in a relationship with someone who she loved more than they loved her. It’s the self-help adage by Eleanor Brownn: you cannot serve from an empty vessel. It paints a portrait of a woman learning, the hardest way, that happiness comes from within and isn’t something someone else gives you. The power of the song lies in Gomez’s voice; strong and soaring, it gives her an air of detachment from this lesson, telling us it’s behind her.
It paints a portrait of a woman learning, the hardest way, that happiness comes from within and isn’t something someone else gives you.
Gomez touches on breakup themes in the album’s other singles, “Rare” and “Look at Her Now,” the former coming across as something she’s still trying to convince herself of (“I’m not gonna beg for you / I’m not gonna let you make me cry”). These are not deep, introspective looks at her life after love, but affirmations for self-esteem. The latter evokes that “aha” moment one feels when they no longer feel the emotional ties to a person or situation that once had a hold over them. Singing it in the third person gives her more distance, and the saucy “Mmm mmm mmm” chorus is a strong “no fucks to give” statement. “Cut You Off” and “Ring” get into that emotionally immature mindset even further — they’re both fun pop bops, but lack the emotional heft of “Love Me.”
The thing is, even on the songs at the deeper end of her self-examination on Rare, Gomez is holding back to protect her privacy. We expect performative songwriting from women today which is a pervasive double standard in music. Men are allowed to skip the details and even, as John Mayer might tell you, looked down upon for revealing too much personal information. Gomez prioritizes her privacy, a lesson she’s learned from two extremely public relationships, lived out loud on Instagram and in gossip magazines. Without dropping breadcrumbs, Gomez is left with platitudes like “If my love was like a flower would you plant it, would you grow it?” in “Vulnerable” and “I need to let my mind rest (my my my) / While my body reflects” in “Let Me Get Me.” Gomez is threading a fine line between confessional songwriting, in which women are expected to give up their deepest, darkest secrets, and protecting her mental health by drawing a line around her privacy.
It leaves the listener feeling like a true connection to Gomez is possible, but to ask for one by asking her to divulge more would be a cringe-worthy and selfish thing. If Gomez were functioning as the Brené Brown of her generation, she’d be telling us more about power in “Vulnerable” and not simply her commitment to the idea of staying vulnerable.
Gomez is clearly still searching for herself and her voice. The awareness she’s gathering is still informing what kind of storyteller she will become — consider Rare a first step towards taking the throne she deserves in pop music.