Selena Gomez, ‘Stars Dance’ (Album Review)

Selena Gomez

Selena Gomez isn’t exactly known for her powerhouse vocals or show-stopping choreography.

As a pop star, Selena’s greatest strength lies in her sugary-sweet charm and euphoric, lovey-dovey electro-pop offerings — from 2010’s “Naturally” and “A Year Without Rain,” to 2011’s “Love You Like A Love Song,” to 2012’s “Hit The Lights.” (The fact that she’s drop dead gorgeous doesn’t hurt, either.)

The (newly) 21-year-old songstress is a refreshingly breezy, under-the-radar foil to the other Disney pop princesses dominating the landscape: Unlike Miley, who’s been getting blazed in the studio and brainstorming ways to shake — err, twerk up the pop music scene and Demi, who’s crafting angst-addled pop-rock anthems that toe the line between appeasing young fans and addressing a particularly heavy past, Selena’s just trying to have herself a good time.

It makes sense, then, that Stars Dance has arrived just in time to become the album of the summer: It’s a light, frothy serving of perfectly danceable pop escapism — if only until the sun goes down.

Stars Dance is Selena’s first solo album, but her fourth overall: Her past three albums were billed as Selena Gomez & The Scene (The Scene being the actual troupe of musicians that supported her past three records behind-the-scenes.)

Without The Scene, Selena’s ditched the pop-rock shtick entirely — forget the guitar-driven sound of her past punchier cuts, like “Kiss & Tell” or “Sick Of You.” While she’d gradually been getting glossier with each new album, Selena’s now diving headfirst into full-on EDM this time around. It’s not that the shift in sound is a surprise to fans, though. Months before, Selena revealed the main influences behind Stars Dance: Her own movie Spring Breakers — a boobs, booze and dubstep-addled mindfuck, Skrillex and, of course, Britney Spears.

If it wasn’t already clear by now that Britney plays a strong influence in Selena Gomez’s career, it should be: The fact that she named her as a primary influence on the record. The In The Zone-inspired cover art. The “I’m A Slave 4 U”-inspired performance at the MTV Movie Awards. The fan-girl moments on Twitter. The list goes on and on.

Apart from the odd track here and there however (“Like A Champion” channels “The Hook Up,” for instance), there’s nothing here that sounds specifically like Britney. And yet, this album sort of is Selena’s version of In The Zone — the transition into adulthood, the newfound confidence and command of her sexuality and, of course, dealing with her own very public break-up with a very popular boy named Justin.

From the very first few Bhangra-infused seconds of “Come & Get It,” the lead single from Stars Dance that debuted in April, it was already obvious that Selena was exploring new territory. The sultry electronic track, an Ester Dean-scribed, Stargate-produced production (clearly penned with Rihanna in mind), sees Selena explicitly flaunting her sex appeal more than ever before. “I’m not too shy to show I love you…I got no regrets,” Selena tempts.

Not only are the lyrics suggestive, but they’re catchy as hell too: “Come & Get It” is masterfully deceptive in all its monotone splendor — the drone-like “na, na, na, na” and “eh, eh, eh” chants, the sustained flat note at the end of “so baby, whenever you’re readaaaaay” — it’s all one major pop earworm.

It wasn’t just the song, either: The accompanying image was a bit bolder, too. The flowing red sheer gowns, Indian-inspired headwear and Bollywood-infused performances added a touch of intrigue and mysteriousness to her otherwise bubbly persona — and also a few harsh accusations of cultural appropriation (naturally.)

“Birthday” kicks off the collection, and it’s one hell of a way to begin: “Tell ’em that it’s my birthday! / They don’t know, so it’s okay! / Tell ’em that it’s my birthday when we party like that!” she chants on the rowdy Mike Del Rio-produced opener, immediately diving into a cesspool of sex-starved moans and ridiculous ad-libs (“JAZZ IT UP!“). If anything’s a nod to Spring Breakers on the album, it’s this — which also brings co-star Vanessa Hudgens“$$$EX” to mind. It’s all so silly and sexy and SO YUMMAY at once. Party hard, baby!

“Slow Down,” the Cataracs-produced second single from the campaign, ironically speeds up the BPM. Lyrically, Selena’s still in seduction mode a la “Come & Get It” (“Breathe me in, breathe me out…so amazing!”), flirting and flaunting across neon lights and fog machines. It’s a pretty by-the-numbers dance-pop banger, but the tiny flare of personality — her studio ad-lib of “I-it’s The Cataracs” and that giggle at the end, plus a suitably fierce accompanying video, makes “Slow Down” one of the sharper offerings on Stars Dance.

But if there’s any outstanding highlight of Stars Dance, it’s the album’s namesake itself. “Stars Dance” is where the production gets most interesting, coated in dramatic strings, gritty dubstep grinds, electronica blips and yelps in the distance that channel Emile Haynie‘s work with Lana Del Rey. “I can make the stars dance if you want me to,” Selena seductively yelps on the spacey midtempo track, crafted by LA-based production team and longtime collaborators, Rock Mafia. It’s one of her most confident efforts yet: “Everything I touch turns to love,” she later purrs across the song’s shimmering bridge. In a live chat with Saturday Night Online, Selena explained that the title track was all about confidence, and a clear indication of “where I am right now.”

If “Stars Dance” is truly where’s at, she’s evidently in a very good place.

The confidence keeps coming throughout: “B.E.A.T.” is a banging blast — if not a fairly shameless lift of Dev‘s “Bass Down Low” (curiously, however, The Cataracs weren’t the ones behind the track), while “Like a Champion” (which samples “Champion” by Buju Banton) saunters along across a smooth reggae flow and encouraging, syllable-happy lyricism, sounding like a cross between the original Selena‘s “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” and Rihanna’s “Man Down.”

Along the way, Selena thrives on massive dance breakdowns: “Save The Day,” a zippy club anthem devoted to dancing the night away, glides across a Latin-tinged guitar bridge before exploding into a powerful blast of synthesizers and stuttering lyrical glee. And then, there’s “Undercover,” a down-low enticement with dizzying beat blasts that burst out of the speakers like any sweat-soaked, deliriously boozy night out at the club.

“Write Your Name,” one of the highlights of Stars Dance, feels both seductive and slightly twisted: “Take my arm, take my head / Make your mark like a man,” she demands above a dreamy electro-harp. And then, there’s that thundering chorus: “Write your name across my heart / Write your name over every part,” she eagerly demands, the occasional lick of that “Come & Get It” sitar coming through in between the beats. Who knew incorporating writing utensils in the bedroom could be so much fun?

selena gomez stars dance

But alas, it’s not all fun and games. (The stars aren’t always dancing, after all.)

Eventually, Selena addresses her widely publicized break-up with Justin Bieber — or at least, a break-up — across two broad break-up songs: “Forget Forever,” an almighty kiss-off anthem and “Love Will Remember,” a tender, wistful midtempo.

The former, which leaked months prior as “Rule The World”, is a teary-eyed stomper that sees the songstress throwing up her hands in futility: “Our love was made to rule the world / You came and broke the perfect girl!” she cries out, eventually giving way to a nasty beat drop. “Forget forever / Forget you ever knew my name!” she angrily declares.

“Love Will Remember,” on the other hand, is about as vulnerable as Selena’s willing to get on her new record. “We lit the whole world up before we blew it up / I still just don’t know how we screwed it up,” she sadly reminisces across the Rock Mafia & Dubkiller-produced, piano-led album closer. It’s a beautiful and bittersweet way to end the record.

If the album’s final track is too sad to handle, there’s always the buoyant bonus tracks, including the Dreamlab & JMIKE-produced “Music Sounds Better,” a purely Carly Rae Jepsen-inspired bliss fest, as well ads”Nobody Does It Like You,” which dives deep into dubstep (She did name Skrillex as an inspiration too, after all!)

Despite the somber ending, it still seems as though Stars Dance was made to sound more uplifting in the final hour.

Selena’s other Rock Mafia-produced break-up anthem “Sad Serenade,” one of the first songs she herself teased from this new era, didn’t even make the final album tracklisting — despite being one of the best songs from the Stars Dance era. (Fortunately, the song’s since made its way online in full, but that doesn’t make its exclusion from the album any less of an injustice.)

And an earlier version of “Love Will Remember,” which spilled onto the web earlier this month, had a far more personal touch at first: The demo included a rambling voicemail message in the song’s opening, left by someone who sounds a whole lot like a certain high profile pop star. (Then again, the decision to nix that heavy-handed intro was probably for the best.)

But then, unlike her BFF Taylor Swift, Selena doesn’t exactly seem to want to explore that personal path too intimately.

When Selena was asked what she hoped fans would take away from the record during a Twitter Q&A prior to the release of Stars Dance, she responded: “The transition that I’m making, and I honestly just want them to have fun with my music.” And that’s exactly what Stars Dance is: It’s a fun record, nothing more or less — just like every record she’s ever released.

Sadly, Selena’s not even planning to stick around the scene for much longer…at least, not for now. She already explained in several interviews that Stars Dance will be her last album for a while while she focuses on acting. (To be fair, Selena’s transition as an actress — between Spring Breakers and her upcoming action-thriller The Getaway — is proving to be an edgier endeavor than her music.)

So light up the moon and enjoy this while it lasts. Remember: Nothing’s forever. We’re just stardust.

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Stars Dance was released on July 23. (iTunes)

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