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Selena Gomez, Halsey, and the possibility of a relatable 21st century pop star

Halsey

Halsey Associated Press

Smart people tend to hate the word “relatable,” and who came blame them? It’s a clunky term for a suspect concept, summoning images of adults who have no time for any novel or film that doesn’t flatter and reflect their own experience.

But pop music can’t dodge the relatability question. Listening to pop has always been, in part, an exercise in developing empathy through projection, with every “I” and “me” spacious enough to provide anyone who feels like they’ve been overlooked the sense of being seen. In the process, you learn that your most secret, special, individual romantic crises are so commonplace that the language in which people sing about them became clichéd before you were born.

Celebrity complicates that relationship, though. Can a Taylor Swift song truly be about you anymore, or are listeners just vicariously dabbling in someone else’s larger-than-life adventures, enjoying a kind of Marvel blockbuster of the heart? Still, at a moment when too much of our cultural energy is spent projecting rich inner lives upon attractive famous people, two new pop albums have found ways to be emotionally useful to us commoners.

Both Selena Gomez and Halsey generated buzz for their latest albums with gargantuan ballads about celebrity exes: Gomez’s purportedly Bieber-bye-bye-bidding “Lose You to Love Me” and Halsey’s kiss-off to alleged rapper G-Eazy, “Without Me.” As half of one of the microscopically analyzed pop couples of the previous decade, Gomez can’t keep each lyric from feeling like a roman à clef, but Rare at least diffuses that impulse. Halsey, still not quite a household name, has thrust herself into autobiography on Manic, but in a way that encourages listeners to indulge their own idiosyncrasies.

One way that Rare lives up to its title is that in a time of major pop statements, it is, unfashionably, just a collection of songs, its pleasures mild but durable. Rare is an intimate album that fantasizes about acting out publicly. The lyrics sound less like private talks than practice conversations, the dialogues you imagine with future lovers and exes that never quite materialize as expected.

Gomez is no world-class belter: When her songs crest, her voice pixilates into electronic crystals, like an elaborate firework preceded by only a silent explosion. Even on her big hit ballad, she’s artfully upstaged by backup voice trickery. Instead, Gomez finds her voice through adapting to the environment of each successive track. She’s self-absorbed in a positive sense, in thrum with the electronic sensuality of giving herself over to the groove that’s borderline autoerotic. She’s not assertive; even confident seems a little overstating it. She sounds comfortable, and the album’s lack of features creates such a focus on her that when 6lack sidles into a verse on “Crowded Room” (and not inappropriately), it’s startling.

And yet, there are times you could even forget you’re listening to a Selena Gomez record, which might disappoint some. But where Pitchfork’s Quinn Moreland complains that some of these tracks “feel like they could be sung by anyone,” I’m relieved. Transforming yourself from celebrity to anywoman is a hell of a feat, and a lot more useful to non-celebrities falling in and out of love.

Halsey’s at an awkward stage of fame: not quite tabloid fodder yet able to fill hockey arenas. So while Gomez plays peekaboo with the spotlight, the Jersey girl born Ashley Frangipane puts her madcap trauma at center stage on Manic. The first track’s even called “Ashley”; the closing track, “929,” is an autobiographical look back at her career, including bits of learned wisdom like “Nobody loves you/They just try to fuck you/Then put you on a feature on the b-side,” and which is named for the time she was supposedly born—though she later reveals that she lied by three minutes, as though just to prove what a weirdo she is.

Manic is an album spiked with pop-culture references. A snippet of Kate Winslet’s dialogue from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind introduces “Clementine” (named for Winslet’s character in the film); a clip from Jennifer’s Body where Megan Fox explains why it’s OK to kill boys prefaces a song called (what else) “Killing Boys.” John Mayer appears both literally, via an ecstatic voicemail congratulating Halsey on her No. 1 hit, and figuratively, when Halsey queers and sexes up his softcore pillow talk with “Your pussy is a wonderland/And I could be a better man”—after which Alanis Morissette chimes in with “Cause he and she is her/And her and he are loved/And I have never felt the difference.”

The Alanis cameo makes sense, because Halsey shares her idol’s gift for an awkward pretension that’s somehow even more endearing when it fails, while also working a variation on Alanis’ vocal swoop. Acerbic and breathy, so consistently electronically modulated that the effects now feel inseparable from her identity, Halsey’s voice also artfully garbles lyrics so that when I first heard “I don’t want to Uma Thurman your ass any more” I first heard something about “her thumb in your ass,” since that wouldn’t be out of character either.

Manic moves into the ’90s alt-pop reconfigured space opened up by Billie Eilish’s When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? last year. Eilish’s brother/producer, Finneas, even has a credit here. And the toy-piano chamber-trap production on “Clementine,” courtesy of XXXTentacion collaborator John Cunningham, has a Fiona Apple singsong to it, adorned by manically shouted backup vocals of “I don’t need anyone!” Producers Lido and Greg Kurstin, who helmed her two previous albums, appear only sporadically.

Sometimes Halsey falls back on therapy-pop lines like “I’m still learning to love myself” that I’m sure neither Alanis nor her therapist would consider sufficiently thought through. But usually she gets weirder (“Wish I could see what it’s like to be the blood in my veins”) or funnier (“In my world, I’m constantly, constantly havin’ a breakthrough/Or a breakdown, or a blackout/Would you make out with me?”

There’s something cannily self-protective about Selena Gomez, and there’s something deliriously extra about Halsey, and both seem like recognizable human responses to the messiness of love and sex and gossip and impulse control everyone staggers through in their twenties. With Rare and with Manic, each makes a case that pop may still retain some relevance for your humdrum life and mine.