You trust me," said Selena Gomez to the ecstatic tween fans who crowded into the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Wednesday night. "Your parents trust me. And I dont take advantage of that."
This was unusual language from a contemporary singer. It sounded more than a bit like Gomez a candidate for the affection of teenagers in sequins and red bottom shoes was running for office. The pop singer, who performs at the Prudential Center in Newark on Sunday, presented herself as a choice as safe as municipal bonds: a role model who believes, loudly, in self-determination for girls, and who favors glamour over sleaze. Hers would be the rare modern pop show that stuck to the high road. No stripper poles, foam fingers or intimations of underage sex just familiar sounds, flashy costumes, machine-pressed radio hits and lots of high-energy dancing that made great use of her spectacular head of hair.
Stick with me, Gomez seemed to be promising, and I wont embarrass you.
Gomez did not name names, and didnt have to. The parallels with Miley Cyrus, pops current provocateur, are too obvious to belabor. Like Cyrus, Gomez began her career as a beloved child actress; like Cyrus, shes attempting to make the difficult transition from kid star to adult artist. Cyrus is determined to make a name for herself by taking a hammer to her old life; Gomez wont grandstand like that. Instead, she reminded her listeners that theyre beautiful the way they are, and cautioned them against those whod tell them to sacrifice their poise for the sake of approval or attention. "One thing that I think is sexy," said Gomez, to cheers, "is class."
Yet class a loaded term that carries with it some undemocratic connotations better becomes a debutante than a pop singer. It suggests privilege, squeamishness and an unwillingness to get your hands dirty with the machinery of pop, which, as everybody knows, can often be quite grubby. Gomez appears to be an artist in perpetual arrival. That same quality can make her feel transient, illusory, constantly poised to make a mark of her own but too demure to actually touch the colored chalk.
At 21, shes got nothing but time. Yet shes been around for longer than you might think: "Stars Dance," the album shes touring behind, is her fourth. Before that, she presented herself as the frontperson of a band called the Scene, which was slightly unbelievable, but did have other permanent members. "When the Sun Goes Down," her final album with the Scene, was promising, but felt more incipient than realized. Several of the songs are tough to resist, however, and they provided many of her 90-minute sets most memorable moments the wicked "Bang Bang Bang," an exercise in the humiliation of an ex-boyfriend, the strutting "Whiplash" and especially "Who Says," a dart aimed at men who casually evaluate the beauty of the women around them.
On these songs, it seemed like Gomez was staking out some territory for herself and establishing a musical identity. "Stars Dance" gave it all back. "Come & Get It," which was saved for the encore, has been her biggest solo hit, but also marked the moment where the distinguishing features of her artistry become impossible to discern.
Like many of the tracks on the new set, the raincoat-slick "Come & Get It" feels like a Zipcar that could have been driven by anybody a song written for somebody else (probably Rihanna) and given to Gomez when its target passed. "B.E.A.T." channeled Ke$ha; "Write Your Name" felt borrowed from Britney Spears closet. The show bottomed out with "Like a Champion," a shameless Rihanna rehash complete with a "rum pa pum" fake-rasta chorus, performed in front of a glowing Jamaican flag.
Gomez compounded this identity crisis with covers and segues that were all over the map; many seemed to undermine the tone of the songs they flowed from: Gomez playful "Birthday" morphed into Rihannas salacious "Birthday Cake," and Iggy Azaleas grinding rap anthem "Work" popped up like a pimple on the face of a set that was otherwise Noxzema-smooth. Despite its inescapability, Gomez felt it necessary to perform a straightforward cover of Katy Perrys "Roar"; she followed it up with a tearful version of "Dream," a relatively unknown composition by singer-songwriter Priscilla Ahn.
Give this much to Cyrus: She is purpose-driven. You may not like what shes done with her image, but shes taken control of it with both hands. Gomez is still searching. At the moment when her musical personality should be snapping into focus, its becoming harder to define.
Shes figured out what she doesnt want to be, and thats half the battle. The other half could take awhile.