This year has been a coming-out party of sorts for Selena Gomez. Like Britney and Christina before her, she's undergone a tightly controlled transformation from teen star to decidedly more mature performer. On the heels of her starring role in Harmony Korine's racy Spring Breakers, Gomez's rebranding continues with her new album, Stars Dance. Judged purely on its attempt to market the singer to a slightly older audience than her Disney Channel tween base, the album can be qualified as a success, as it boasts a harsher, edgier sound than that of her previous efforts; on every other front, it's a lazy, bloated, and occasionally offensive album that lacks any remnant of personality or creativity.
Mostly reveling in the whirs and wobbles of dubstep, the entirety of Stars Dance is an often exhausting, impenetrable block of sound. The opening track, "Birthday," starts off as a barebones party anthem, complete with handclaps and a sing-along hook, but devolves into a mess of pitch-corrected vocals and overbearing synth lines. "Forget Forever" looks to build accelerating kick drums and a soaring vocal line into an epic chorus, but instead chugs along at the same wearisome pace, with a muddle of synths and blips battling it out for attention. Stars Dance never finds that sweet spot between amped-up club banger and catchy radio pop, instead opting for an all-out aural assault.
Gomez often gets lost in the mix and fails to construct a fleshed-out pop personality. It's not that she can't execute a solid hook here and there, but rather that she lacks the confidence and ability to elevate the material above paint-by-numbers pop. On songs like "Save the Day" and the "Tik Tok"-inspired "B.E.A.T.," Gomez adopts different personae, but such shapeshifting doesn't add any diversity to the album; instead, it feels like an attempt to cover as many contemporary trends as possible. The result is an incoherent, rudderless effort.
Even more problematic than the overbearing production and the general lack of standout songs is the cultural appropriation on display. "Like a Champion" boasts a dancehall vibe, which is all fine and well until Gomez adopts a horrendous Jamaican patois during the chorus. The tabla-infused lead single "Come and Get It" exhibits similar issues, emptying its Indian influences of any apparent meaning by treating them as mere sonic decoration. Gomez and her producers pilfer specific cultural signifiers without providing meaningful context, which shouldn't be surprising on an otherwise forgettable and often grueling pop album.