[8 September 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
“This song would be perfect to do the robot dance to”, mused my eight-year-old son, referring to a track from When the Sun Goes Down. Out of the mouths of babes, etc…
Selena Gomez’s third album in 21 months smacks of cold calculation. Indeed, with few exceptions, it could have been conceived, designed, written and produced by a computer program, the only human input being those of Gomez’s vocals which are not Auto-Tuned.
Although her musical career developed as a secondary effect of her success acting on Hannah Montana and The Wizards of Waverly Place, Gomez has been among the most promising young female singers of her generation. Her voice is naturally rich and supple. Just as importantly, she doesn’t overdo it. She’s not pretending to be the next Janis Joplin or Hispanic American Aretha Franklin. Unlike some of her peers, she has not used Nashville, the Christian music scene, or substance abuse as a conduit to massive commercial success. Her singing is mercifully light on melisma.
No, Gomez has seemed content to score a massive single here and there, sell her half-million albums, and leave it at that. She doesn’t even seem embarrassed to be Justin Beiber’s girlfriend. And, in the big picture, that is a strength. To call Gomez, in the line of work she is in, “boring”, is like calling a pyromaniac boring because he refuses to light a match in a room soaked with gasoline.
Perhaps that’s the “problem”. Someone (or something) decided that Gomez, 19, needed to grow up. In modern show business parlance, however, this means dumbing down. Appeal to the most basic wants and needs in order to reach a wider demographic. After all, Selena, Lady Gaga sold more albums in one week than you have over your entire career. So, “growing up” apparently means more heavy breathing, more croaking, more hit-you-over-the-head dance rhythms, and saying “damn” a few times.
Gomez’s last album, A Year Without Rain, was hardly a world-shaker. But its more subtle dance-pop and power ballads made for a much more enjoyable showcase of the singer’s talent and appeal. Ironically, Gomez sounded more mature on that album, thanks in no small part to stronger songwriting. But another big factor was you got the sense of a teenybopper openly trying to sound like an adult. On When the Sun Goes Down you get a teenybopper posing as a dorm-hardened college junior, and we all know how convincingly that scenario plays.
Here you have 27 songwriters and eight production teams contributing to a total of 11 songs. Is this an album or Iron Man 3? Gomez gets a co-writing credit on a couple songs, as do Katy Perry and Britney Spears. But Spears didn’t even write for her own recent album, presumably to avoid the embarrassment of overwrought, fake-British-accent-flaunting would-be come-ons like “Whiplash”.
Yes, “Love You Like A Love Song” benefits from a great title, and the squishy Eurodisco rhythm is credible, catchy and even sultry. But it’s all undone by a stuttering, Max Headroom non-chorus. “Bang Bang Bang” is a fun piece of sass. In the world of When the Sun Goes Down, there’s no issue with uttering a line like “My new boy used to be a model / He looks much better than you” and then following it up with a “just the way you are” self-empowerment anthem like “Who Says”. That song, by the way, is the bait, a down-the-middle pop song that is catchy and straightforward—Gomez’s sincere delivery just getting the better of all the clichés.
Closer “Middle of Nowhere” (if you don’t count the gratuitous Spanish version of “Who Says”, that is) also manages some good old pop power, while remaining dance floor-friendly. But then you have the intolerable, tuneless grind of “That’s More Like It”, where Gomez’s demand to “Make me dinner / Bring it to me” is about as empowering as, um, subjecting yourself to 27 songwriters and eight producers for an 11-track album. “We Own the Night” is a perfect summation of what’s wrong with When the Sun Goes Down. It’s not so much a song as a collection of “live for today” platitudes set to a patchwork of of-the-moment production tricks and vocal tics.
The artwork for When the Sun Goes Down features would-be album covers in various styles representing various genres and time periods. There’s the black & white, suits’n'turtlenecks cheese of the British Invasion, dayglo angularity of the 1980s, etc. The graphic design displays more charm and creativity than any of the music inside the package. And that’s a small but unmistakable tragedy for this promising, likeable, talented young woman.