by Ben Tuthill
vs. Partisan Politics
America is in the early stages of an election season, which means the conversation about “authenticity” has been pushed to the Lana-Del-Rey-in-2010-level forefront. American politics and pop music mirror one another in more ways than one, but perhaps their greatest similarity is their shared struggle with believability. A political platform may be worlds apart from a pop song, but there’s much to be learned from their battle with public disconnect and their shared means of overcoming it.
We can watch the struggle play out in the major pop music “duel” of the past few weeks, Selena Gomez’s Revival vs. Demi Lovato’s Confident. Selena and Demi, “Barnie & Friends” co-stars and graduates of the same class of Disney Channel University, have grappled with branding issues from the start: Selena has never matched up with her happy-go-lucky sweetheart role, and Demi has never embodied the post-emo tough girl that her hand tattoos imply. Nevertheless, both they’ve managed to craft believable identities in spite of their strained relationships with their poorly conceived brands.
Selena strikes me as a teen-pop Martin O’Malley, totally uncomfortable with her platform but oddly endearing because of it. Her girl-next-door role is at odds with what we know of her personal life; her messy relationship with America’s favorite teen megalomaniac, a lifelong battle with lupus. As a result she’s never been able to embody the carefree pop sexiness that her brand demands. At times it seems like she embraces the divide (her robotically disinterested karaoke performance for Love You like A Love Song); at others she just looks like she wants to leave and go home (the miserable sexiness of Good For You).
Michael Haussman’s surprisingly moving clip for Same Old Love is her best video yet. Selena, feeling introspective en route to a performance, stops her limo in the rain and runs down the street to stare into the lives of everyday New Yorkers. She pauses at the window of a girl who looks a little bit like herself, then circles back to the club, where she positions herself behind the curtain, clears her throat, and performs the final chorus to ecstatic cheers. She smiles at the end, but she couldn’t look less satisfied.
Selena’s brand might be sunny sexuality, but the real persona (the one we actually experience) is a girl who gets no joy out of being famous; who’s been dragged through a miserable and highly publicized romance since she was 18; who included a voicemail before her video for The Heart Wants What It Wants that sounded so painfully genuine that it might be real. Her resigned participation in her role, paired with her refusal to actually embody it, has made her one of our most compellingly believable pop stars.
Demi takes the opposite tack, embracing her brand with almost maniacal enthusiasm. Like Selena, Demi’s personal life has been complicated (drugs, eating disorders, hospitalizations) and marked by a disinterest in fame. But instead of rejecting the brash, bad-girl brand that seems to contradict it, Demi throws herself into her public role like her life depends on it. If Selena channels Martin O’Malley’s awkward half-grin, Selena channels Bernie Sanders’s turned-up-to-ten pony-petting fury.
There’s nothing particularly neat about Demi Lovato, and it works for her. The Atlantic‘s Spencer Kornhaber put it well when he wrote that “intentionally or not, she breaks with the Beyoncé-style pop ideal of flawlessness”. The stand-out moment of Demi’s career so far was the performance of her ballad Stone Cold on SNL last week. Her voice was a mess (cracked, strained, on the verge of blowing out) but it was hands down one of the most moving performances of 2015. Even if she hadn’t started crying halfway through, it still would have been incredible.
For pop music fans who are getting tired of insubstantial female empowerment, Demi Lovato comes as a relief. Her lyrics are poster slogans (“What’s wrong with being confident?”, “Don’t be scared if I’m your body type”) but her commitment feels 110% genuine. She risks driving people away with her enthusiasm, but no one is ever going to question that she believes in what she’s doing. She sounds like someone who’s wanted to be here doing exactly what she’s doing for her entire life, and whether or not her platform is especially good it’s wonderful to hear her doing it.
In the end, Demi and Selena succeed by accepting their brands but refusing to let them overwhelm their personas. Selena steps back and lets the absences speak for themselves. Demi picks up her shotgun and screams through anything that resembles a restraint. While other stars struggle to disguise the obvious artificiality of their brands (Taylor Swift, who is so clearly the pop music Hillary Clinton) or go to great lengths to retain their absolute purity (Beyoncé, who transcends the American political arena), Demi and Selena revel in their brands incongruities and allow their personalities to fill in the contradictions; resulting in something that resembles, against all odds, authenticity.