“This is the part where I break free,” Ariana Grande sang last year in one of her biggest hits — a brilliantly self-aware line. Grande was a former Nickelodeon child star turned 20-something pop idol, a celebrity narrative arc so familiar that we, the pop-consuming audience, can recite its beats by heart. (It’s also familiar enough to inspire great parody; on the first season of BoJack Horseman, ex–child star Sara Lynn proclaimed her adulthood with the subtly titled club banger “Prickly Muffin.”) We know how it’s worked in the past: Clean-cut artist develops devoted tween fan base, then, with great hubbub, declares independence. They fire their managers, who were either their parents, Svengalis, or (worst-case scenario) some combination of the two. They get a statement haircut. They record songs full of imagery about busting out of chains, cutting their strings, stripping naked. Sometimes they also pose naked, in an artful photo shoot that conveniently doubles as a metaphor for aesthetic purity. For maximum impact, this change happens so quickly and theatrically that it’s as though a smoke bomb has gone off and our star has emerged from the cloud transformed. And that is our cue to gasp, as though we did not see that part coming.
Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato are both 23, and both at that standard “Break Free” moment in their careers. They’ve also released new albums within a week of each other, titled Revival and Confident, respectively. (Gomez’s came out last week; Lovato’s is out today.) But do not let this coincidence confuse you. Although Gomez and Lovato have enough in common that an adult with slightly different priorities than mine could be forgiven for having difficulty telling them apart — they both began their careers on Barney and Friends, for one particularly poetic example, and later starred in separate Disney shows — their talents and respective charms are actually quite different.
Selena Gomez — born in Grand Prairie, Texas, to Tejano-music-loving parents who, yes, named her after that Selena — has until now had some trouble cultivating a distinct musical personality. Her voice does not exactly jump off the radio and announce, “HI, IT’S ME, SELENA GOMEZ.” Even her biggest hits, the vaguely bhangra-indebted “Come and Get It” and the hiccupping ballad “The Heart Wants What It Wants,” sound like they could have been recorded by anybody. She has sometimes struggled in the shadow of her peers, in finding a way to assert that she’s more than just Bieber’s ex and Taylor’s BFF. But, starting with her unexpected turn in Harmony Korine’s hallucinatory Spring Breakers, it began to seem — well, best-case scenario — like there’s a weirder and more interesting side of her that she’s been holding back.
Demi Lovato, on the other hand, does not hold back. Constitutionally. Her songs have a glorious sense of excess about them; her hooks are volcanic eruptions of vowels. “You make me bloo-ooooooo-oooooow,” she sang on one of her biggest hits, 2013’s quaking “Heart Attack.” She’s been a staple on pop radio for the past few years (my two favorite hits of hers are 2011’s “Give Your Heart a Break” and 2014’s “Really Don’t Care”) because her voice sounds tailor-made for it — even in this moment of hypercompression and EDM-inspired volume, Lovato’s full-throated wail still pops. But what makes Lovato more likable than your average oversinger (say, Jessie J) is that her theatrics always feel imbued with a palpable vulnerability. Her personal struggles and triumphs (over eating disorders, depression, and addiction) feel present in her songs, where feelings careen dangerously close to the edge. Lovato is, bless her bleeding heart, our most emo pop star.
Or at least those were my takes on these two going into their new records, but both have upended my expectations. First and foremost, Gomez’s Revival is a pleasant surprise. It’s a fun, airy, light-on-its feet pop record that inches a little closer to telling us who Selena Gomez is, if not exactly shouting out the answer. Which makes sense because Revival proves Gomez to be more of a whisperer than anything. There’s an alluring, come-hither quietness to this record; finger-snaps trump kick drums, whistled melodies instead of synth solos. Gomez isn’t a powerhouse vocalist, but Revival is her first album to carve out an aesthetic in which her sorta-sleepy tone makes sense, finding kindred spirits in the aqueous R&B of Tinashe or slinky languor of Lana Del Rey. Aside from the great, cooing single “Good for You,” highlights include the playfully hushed “Hands to Myself” and the surging power ballad “Sober.” “You’re saying all the things that you’re supposed to, but you don’t know how to love me when you’re sober,” she sings on that track, which is begging to be released as a single or — better yet — turned into a he-said/she-said mash-up with the Weeknd’s “The Hills.”
Revival showcases a transformation in Gomez’s sound, but not every song has caught up to her new aesthetic. Some of the more up-tempo numbers sag, like one in which she unconvincingly declares, “We are survivors,” while sounding like she might doze off before the hook is over. “Body Heat” and “Me and the Rhythm” indulge in the sort of J.Lo-esque pep Gomez seems to have grown out of; there are also way too many spoken-word interludes delivered with way too little conviction. At times, Gomez is still something of a vocal chameleon. I like the new single “Same Old Love,” but Gomez sounds so much like co-writer Charli XCX on the hook that I refuse to believe the latter isn’t singing an uncredited backing vocal. Still, Revival sets the bar a little higher for the elusive Gomez. I may not be entirely sure who she is yet, but I’m a little more interested in hearing her figure it out.
Lovato’s Confident, on the other hand, is a bit of a disappointment. It certainly starts strong — the FLOTUS-approved title track and the slick radio hit “Cool for the Summer” are a swift one-two punch. But over its course Confident becomes a labored listen in a way that Lovato’s other records were not. It pivots rather exhaustingly between offense and defense. “I take the blows like a champion,” she declares in one song. Then, a few tracks later: “Knuckles out and a guard in my mouth, and I’m hungry for the next round.” This is an album made from the rib of Katy Perry’s “Roar.” (I hardly need to tell you that another one of its songs is called “Lionheart.”) And then the trap-pop dud “Kingdom Come” is like “Dark Horse 2.0,” if Juicy J were downgraded to Iggy Azalea. Yep, she’s back, emerging from her hiatus to contribute a verse that sounds like a spoken-word reading of a BuzzFeed list entitled “29 Things That Literally No One Needed to Be Reminded About the ’90s” (“You know Family Matters, what’s Carl without Harriet …[unintelligible Iggy Azalea words] … Mary-Kate and Ashley.”)
And yet, even amid all of Confident’s combat metaphors, something about Lovato’s over-the-topness remains compelling. “I’d do anything for you,” she belts out on the “Wrecking Ball”–esque “For You.” “Nail my heart to the ceiling! Put my fist through a wall!” It’s quintessential Demi — pushing a little past her own edge. And that’s the same reason I love “Stone Cold,” a wrenching ballad that sounds like “Someone Like You” delivered in the register of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” The amount of pathos she extracts from the line “You’re dancing with her while I’m staring at my phone” must be heard to be believed. Confident too often assumes a calculated fight stance, but when she takes the gloves off and the mouth guard out, Lovato can still muster the vulnerability to break your heart.
Spotty as they are, though, both of these records work pretty successfully as declarations of independence — mainly because they refrain from trying to shock us with how “adult” they are. “Everyone has found their identity in a really interesting way,” Gomez said, in a recent interview, of her Disney cohorts Lovato and Miley Cyrus. “We didn’t come out as these robots that looked and dressed the same.” It all makes me wonder if the internet has eliminated the need for the scandalous-on-purpose Break Free album, the definitive musical statement that practically screams, “I’m not a little girl anymore.” (Miley’s recent pseudo-rebellious album felt inevitable, even superfluous, if you’ve so much as glanced at her Instagram in the past year.) Gomez and Lovato both excel at social media (Instagram in particular), and now that a pop star must be present online even when she's out of the spotlight, maybe that allows for her maturity to be something more gradual, controlled, and unique to the individual. We don’t need albums to tell us that Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato are adults now. We’ve been watching them break free of their pasts, little by little, post by post.