To open one of my classes a few weeks ago, I asked my students to comment on the following list of female performers: Kelly Clarkson, Ariana Grande, and Taylor Swift.
The feedback was interesting, not entirely surprising, and questionably representative of the overall teen perspective on these women. I will share that a fair number of the kids had no idea who Kelly Clarkson was, that Ariana Grande was viewed as a little annoying, and that Taylor was, well, fabulous. I’ll forgive the kids for not loving Kelly, after all, “Breakway” came out when they were in Kindergarten, but it was an amusing reminder that I’m getting old.
On the heels of that clever icebreaker, this week Selena Gomez drifted back into my consciousness when I heard “The Heart Wants What It Wants” for the first time. It’s so Selena. It’s got the same sort-of-mysterious, somewhat-spicy, kind-of-haunting melody that makes her style distinct. Consider the Indian feel of “Come And Get It” and the dancey/trancey Parisian feel of “Slow Down” and you’ll see how this song fits into that mold.
Listen, I acknowledge the fact that my non-trained ear evaluating the lyrical and musical styles of Disney-made princesses like Ariana and Selena is a little absurd. But let’s call a spade a spade, guys my age listen to exactly the same music that teenagers listen to; read this great piece about dads who take their daughters to Taylor Swift concerts if you want to know more about that.
The reality is that Selena has evolved from a cheesy TV star, to a cheesy music star (“Love You Like A Love Song”), to a carefully-constructed, baby-faced, safely-provocative performing artist, to the latest iteration, which upon further review seems brutally honest and pretty legit. Compare “I, I love you like a love song, baby/And I keep hitting re-peat-peat-peat-peat-peat-peat” circa 2011 and “This is a modern fairytale/No happy endings” from 2014. That’s more like it. She’s starting to brood like Tove Lo.
Selena certainly isn’t the first to follow the youthful-innocence-to-mature-cynicism trajectory in her writing- my girl Taylor has definitely done the same thing (see “Love Story” 2008 to “Blank Space” 2014). But going all the way back I’m going to make a wild leap and declare that both of them are following in the footsteps of King Solomon.
According to tradition, King Solomon wrote three books of the Bible- The Song of Songs when he was young, Proverbs when he was an adult, and Ecclesiastes as an old man. The sequence makes sense. When we are young we are all about love, when we’re in the prime of our lives we think we’re smart and wise, and when we’re old we realize how pointless this whole endeavor of life is since we all die in the end. The comparison between youthful exuberance and naivete to the rueful commentary of the futility of life and love is a narrative that has stood the test of time.
Seems like Selena’s figuring out that the archetype still sells after 3000 years.