“You get me higher than my medication,” purrs Selena Gomez on a new song called “Fun,” a bubble-funk fantasia that isn’t un-fun, exactly, though it does succeed in making fun sound exhausting. “Whew, fun!” she murmurs a few times as the chorus burbles with weary ecstasy, an ad-lib that doubles as a formal request for a nap.
“Fun” is bookended, on her excellent new album, Rare, by the slinky “Kinda Crazy” (“I think you’re kinda crazy / And not the good kind, baby”) and the sweetly defiant “Cut You Off” (which involves both cutting off a lousy ex-paramour and, as a post-breakup mental-health exercise, her own hair). Gomez is a 27-year-old pop star (as of Tuesday, Rare is her third straight no. 1 album) who radiates both veteran savvy and an awfully relatable veteran fatigue; “I’ll stay vulnerable,” goes the quietly triumphant chorus to the album’s second-best song, as delivered by a boldface celebrity who underwent a high-profile kidney transplant in 2017 and a TMZ-reported “emotional breakdown” in 2018.
Gomez has lived many lives in the past 13 years or so; she has forgotten more about Instagram-era pop stardom than most of her peers will ever know. Rare wraps up with the claustrophobic Kid Cudi team-up “A Sweeter Place”; my Spotify account recently jumped straight from that track to “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” a violently peppy 2008 pop-punk jam from Gomez’s very early Disney Channel heyday. That was easily the most jarring algorithmic experience I’ve had in years, and it involved two songs sung by the same person.
“Should be livin’ the dream / But I’m livin’ with a security team,” laments Halsey on a new song called “Still Learning,” an anxiously bouncy fame-as-prison lamentation that greatly succeeds at making pop stardom sound like no fun at all. The song is bookended, on Halsey’s restless and fascinating new album, Manic, by an eerie ballad to her future unborn child called “More” (“And when you decide it’s your time to arrive / I’ve loved you for all of my life”) and a lighter but somehow also harsher post-fame meditation called “929,” which fixates on everything pop stardom can’t begin to fix. (“And I’ve stared at the sky in Milwaukee / And hoped that my father would finally call me.”) Were it not for our old pal Eminem, Manic would be a lock as Billboard’s no. 1 album next week; along with Rare, that already makes two startling 2020 pop albums arguing that outlandish success is the most exhausting condition of them all.
A more frivolous connection between these two records, of course, is that they’ve both already spawned no. 1 singles about breaking up with two other famous pop stars. The best track on Gomez’s Rare by far is the stupendous power ballad “Lose You to Love Me,” all lush piano chords and pathos as isolation as relief; it’s my favorite song by anyone in months, and widely suspected to be a post-love letter to one Justin Bieber. Meanwhile, Halsey’s much harsher “Without Me,” which hit no. 1 all the way back in January 2019 and thus sounds a bit outdated on Manic, is addressed more or less explicitly to your other old pal, G-Eazy; same deal, perhaps, with her country-ish lope “You Should Be Sad,” whose chorus presents harshness as its own kind of relief:
But you’re not half the man you think that you are
And you can’t fill the hole inside of you with money, girls, and cars
I’m so glad I never, ever had a baby with you
’Cause you can’t love nothing unless there’s something in it for you
This is all celebrity trivia, of course, but as Taylor Swift (arguably) and Ariana Grande (inarguably) helped prove, celebrity trivia can be a crucial component of transcendent pop music. Rare is the better and, despite its fearsome list of producers and cowriters, more consistent album, an electro-pop funhouse that’s forlorn but not self-pityingly so, confessional but not exploitatively so. (The songwriting duo of Justin Tranter and lower-key pop star Julia Michaels, both present here on “Lose You to Love Me” and the bitingly bubbly “Look at Her Now,” are key players in Gomez’s newest and best phase.) She’s a book open just far enough. “Of course, there were a few moments in my life when I felt like, ‘Why? Why me?’” Gomez told the Wall Street Journal Magazine in early January, reflecting on her various public battles with various threats to her health. “But now I look at it as, ‘At least I can relate to more people.’”
That question of relatability animates Halsey’s Manic, too, which is a far wilder and more scattered affair, sonically and otherwise, swinging from ’90s alt-rock fury (the cry for help and/or phone sex “3am” sounds like every band at any year of Warped Tour breaking up simultaneously) to the space-country torch song “Beautiful Stranger” (which—how great—is Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born to its very lucious core). When she made the cover of Rolling Stone in July 2019, she described her early persona, honed on 2015’s Badlands and 2017’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, like this:
“Nobody knew me, so I could be anyone I wanted to be,” she says. And what she wanted to be was “just an amalgamation of other people I liked. A little Jagger, a little Alex Turner, a little Patti Smith, a little fucking Effy from Skins, a little Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and a little Winona Ryder, Girl, Interrupted. It was everything that spoke to my fabricated angst, you know?”
Which explains the lengthy clip from Eternal Sunshine’s Clementine right there on Manic’s opening track: “I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind.” Guest stars range from ’90s-angst deity Alanis Morissette to lower-key young pop star Dominic Fike to BTS rapper Suga. (Halsey has collaborated with the K-pop giants before; as for Suga specifically, as she explained to Beats 1’s Zane Lowe, “I knew that he would get what it feels like to be manic, to be introspective.”) The album’s through line, such as it exists, is Halsey’s determination to be as confessional as possible even if she risks exploitation, and by the time you get to the fame-kinda-sucks closer “929,” she’s throwing darts in every conceivable direction: “They said don’t meet your heroes, they’re all fuckin’ weirdos / And God knows that they were right / Because nobody loves you, they just try to fuck you / Then put you on a feature on the B-side.”
Pop stardom: Maybe it sucks? Sometimes it definitely sucks; Taylor Swift, for one, is about to release a full-length Netflix documentary with what looks to be a very similar thesis. Both Rare and Manic grapple with their respective terrible spotlights in heavily stylized ways that always feel sincere, or at least true to exceedingly charmed lives that in their particulars probably doesn’t resemble your own life in the slightest. To call either album relatable is a stretch if not an outright farce, but the struggles here are visceral, and painfully earnest, and often beautiful, and if not fun, exactly, they’re at least danceable.