COVER STORY: The Many Triumphs of Selena Gomez
The pop icon on first Spanish EP Revelación, the power that comes from honoring her heritage and her unbreakable bond with her fans
For a lot of teens in the early 2010s, Selena Gomez was a key part of the pop culture experience. Whether it was discovering her via Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place or getting to know her better through her first solo studio album Stars Dance, her positivity was a balm to the angst-fueled years of many. She and I are the same age, so seeing her onscreen or listening to her music helped eliminate a lot of the loneliness of my own coming-of-age journey. She became a beacon of hope and empowerment and remains a positive influence in my life today.
I can’t help but tell her this when we finally get to talk, and her response is incredibly heartwarming. “Thank you for saying that,” she says. “Hearing it means more than you can ever know.”
As one ages, the challenges increase and Gomez was not exempt to this rule. Over the years, the 28-year-old has seen it all–from vicious media scrutiny around her every move and personal life, to a battle with the autoimmune disease lupus that eventually led to a kidney transplant and took a massive toll on her mental health. Gomez eventually cut short her 2016 tour for her second studio album Revival and remained largely out of the public eye for the next couple of years, choosing to also take a step back from social media and focus on herself. Of course we did see singles and collaborations over the years with Kygo and Charlie Puth, as well as the groundbreaking “Taki Taki” in 2018 which saw her join forces with DJ Snake, Ozuna and Cardi B, but it wasn’t until 2020 that we’d see her return to music full-force with a third studio album.
Rare dropped in January 2020 and was a powerful, positive start of a new artistic era. She took the opportunity to define herself as a musician and build the identity she always wanted. She dove headfirst into new and exciting projects, like working with South Korean pop group BLACKPINK on the flirty “Ice Cream,” and planning and executing numerous other ventures in film, television and the beauty industry.
Gomez is one of the most influential pop culture icons of our time. In addition to her work as an actor, singer-songwriter and activist, she’s an executive producer on the immensely popular 13 Reasons Why and Netflix’s Living Undocumented. Over the pandemic she launched her own reality show Selena + Chef, an endearing and vibrant series that sees her attempt to cook dishes by award-winning chefs from across the globe as said chefs instruct her over video call–all to hilarious results. But more than the factor of having a successful TV show, it was the program’s goal of giving back that gave her the most joy. “The best thing about doing the show has been the fact that we’ve raised over $360,000 for some amazing charities,” she shares. “That makes me feel very proud.”
During our last conversation in 2020, she told me about how her experience in quarantine pushed her to become more aware of everything happening in the world. “I feel like I got the opportunity to learn a lot about my country in ways that I never have before,” Gomez had explained. “I feel like I’ve gained a sense of knowledge and a sense of feeling good about saying what I’m saying, and I feel good about what I’m standing by, and I’m not going to let other opinions conduct what I feel personally.” Whether it’s her music, her television projects or her activism, she has stayed true to these words.
Gomez involved herself in politics, encouraging young people to vote and learn more about their own country. She hosted conversations with now American Vice President Kamala Harris and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams to discuss the power of voting. Her advocacy to stop cyberbullying and the spread of fake news online made her an integral voice in the fight to make the Internet a less toxic space. She used her massive presence on social media to call out Big Tech honchos like Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Jack Dorsey, Sundar Pichai, and Susan Wojcicki, urging them to improve security on their websites and shut down trolls, bullies and hate speech–she did all of this while working on Revelación, her newly-launched beauty brand Rare Beauty, and several acting projects.
But more than anything else, 2020 gave Gomez time to focus on her bond with her Mexican heritage, fueling her creative drive and igniting a need to pay tribute to that side of her –all of which became the building blocks for Revelación, her first ever Spanish-language EP. She explains it was a goal she had dreamed of achieving for nearly 10 years. “I am thankful I waited though because it would have been a completely different project 10 years ago,” she confesses. “The last couple of years kind of naturally lead to the timing feeling right. Working on “Taki Taki” and then meeting (Puerto Rican producer and songwriter) Tainy when we worked together on “I Can’t Get Enough” together… I was really inspired to finally do it.”
In this conversation with Rolling Stone India, Gomez goes in-depth about everything that inspired the creation of Revelación, the importance of understanding your culture and where you come from, her unbreakable bond with her fandom, plus all the exciting new projects that she has coming in 2021.
You’re about to release your first Spanish language EP Revelación–how long have you been working on this record and why did you feel that now was the right time for you to release a Spanish album?
It’s been about a year since I started working on it. Pretty much after the release of Rare, I went back into the studio feeling very inspired. I have been talking about doing an all-Spanish project for about 10 years and for one reason or another it didn’t come together. I am thankful I waited though because it would have been a completely different project 10 years ago. The last couple of years kind of naturally lead to the timing feeling right. Working on “Taki Taki” and then meeting Tainy when we worked together on “I Can’t Get Enough” together… I was really inspired to finally do it. Tainy and I started exchanging ideas back and forth and it went from there.
Before you announced this record, there were murals of you in Mexico with the song titles “De Una Vez” and “Baila Conmigo”– while the world was getting excited and speculating, what was going through your mind? Were you nervous about how your fans would react to a Spanish album?
It’s always a bit nerve-racking before releasing any music, because as artists we put so much of ourselves out there. I have to say for this EP specifically I was the most nervous I have been in a long time, because my heritage means so much to me and I have wanted to do this for my Latin fans. I wanted it to be perfect. When I saw the reactions to the murals, it really made me happy to see how excited they were. We didn’t do a lot of teasing of the project before we officially announced it, so I think when the murals went up it was very unexpected that my new music was going to be in Spanish.
What were some of the key points of inspiration that fueled the creation of Revelación?
I wanted everything to reflect what is important to me and capture the sensibility I have always treasured from the Spanish speaking side of my family. When it came to the creative and visuals it was important to me that we use Spanish speaking creators from the video directors to the photographers. I wanted to explore the magical realism that has always been part of the Mexican and Latin American culture, whether it be in art or telenovelas, and I wanted that sense of a supernatural world captured. I hope the message of hope comes across.
What do you hope your fans take away from Revelación? Is there a particular message that you hope they hear?
What I love about this music is that you don’t have to understand Spanish to feel something. I wanted the songs to spark an emotion whether you could understand what I am singing or not. I hope everyone listens with an open heart and mind. I also think it amazing when anyone who doesn’t speak Spanish seeks out the translations and realizes they were drawn to a certain song and after learning what the words meant they still have the same feeling.
Which track on the EP do you personally connect with the most?
I always hate answering this question because it changes constantly. For me, “De Una Vez” was the perfect way to introduce everyone to the new music. It’s such a beautiful song and I love the message. We all have the pain and the scars from various experiences we go through in life, but it’s really how we heal ourselves. Right now, maybe I’d say “Vicio” or “Buscando Amor.”
Was there anything you learned about yourself during the process of making this album that surprised you?
We started recording the EP right before Covid shut everything down. I had to adjust once we had to quarantine and I couldn’t go into the studio anymore. It was a difficult exercise for me to try and be creative with my collaborators when we couldn’t all be in the same room together. I really hated it at the beginning and there were times I just canceled a session because I didn’t want to try and work over Zoom again. I thrive on the creative process of being with everyone in the studio. That by far was the biggest challenge for me, but ultimately I had to accept the challenge.
How did you go about choosing your collaborators for this project? Were these artists those you had in mind for a long time, or was it a process of looking for the right fit for a particular track?
I had worked with Tainy before and we really hit it off and that’s how the project began. Everything else happened organically, after I finished recording “Baila.” I knew I wanted a male voice on it and when I was introduced to Rauw (Alejandro)’s music, I knew it had to be him. He has so much soul in his voice and it’s quite sexy. Snake and I had worked together before and we kept talking about doing something together again and this felt like the perfect fit. The track we did, “Selfish Love,” I threw a bit of English into the lyrics.
I’ve been asking a lot of artists of color this question and I would love to get your input as well–globally, more musicians are making the effort to portray their heritage and language in pop music and bring it to the fore of their artistry. Why do you think this is happening and why is it something the world needs at this point in time?
There is this amazing sense of pride artists are having for their heritage. Maybe we are just paying more attention to it? I think it’s always been there. Not sure if it’s all of the access to music through streaming and the Internet we are exposed to different genres, cultures and artists that would never get played on the radio, so maybe that has something to do with it. I must say I miss traveling so much though. Arriving in a new country and hearing their music and eating local cuisine are two of my favorite things.
We’re also seeing fantastic cross-cultural collaborations between artists across the world– like you did on “Ice Cream” with BLACKPINK. What is the best part of working with artists who come from a background and culture so different from yours?
First off, I absolutely love them so much. They are pure joy and fun. For me it was an opportunity to step into their world. My music and aesthetic tends to be darker and moodier. When we shot the music video it was out of my comfort zone to immerse myself in their world of bright colors and fun. It was freeing in a sense.
With “Baila Conmigo,” you’ve said it’s about connecting with each other despite this surreal situation the world has been plunged into this past year. How did the pandemic affect you as an artist and your perception of the power of music?
I touched on this earlier, but yes was incredibly difficult for me to record music and feel creative at the beginning of the pandemic. My faith in the power of music has never wavered and I think you can see how artists adapted to getting out their music despite the limitations. Music has always been a uniting force and it will continue to be.
Outside of the language, what is the biggest change in your artistry that we will see with Revelación as compared to Rare? Are the thematic elements within each album vastly different from one another?
I wouldn’t say there is a change in artistry but I’d say there was a new sense of power I felt singing in Spanish. As an artist I want to constantly push myself, and I felt like I have done that consistently over the last six years. I am not afraid to take risks or do the unexpected. The themes on Revelación are about strength, love, forgiveness and moving on.
With Rare, you bared your heart to the world and let us see so much. Was that a frightening process, and is it easier now to show the world a lot of yourself once you finish releasing a liberating record like that?
I am very proud of that album and it’s not a frightening process because when I am writing and recording music it’s such an insulated safe place for me. You don’t really think about the world listening to it at the time you are writing it – it’s very easy to separate the two. At the end of the day, I just want to be honest and come from my heart though. The frightening part comes right before you release it and realize the world will have insight into your life, your thoughts and will dissect every word.
Looking back at where you first began with your music as Selena & the Scene, then solo with Stars Dance to now with Revelación, how do you think your own sound has evolved over your career and what about your artistry are you personally most proud of?
I definitely have changed and grown as an artist. I am like anyone else and kind of cringe at the thought of my younger self but I suppose that’s the natural path of life isn’t it? We get older, we evolve, we learn. I do have a fondness for those days and the innocence we all lose. There’s many things I am proud of. I’ve grown as a writer with my music and I am incredibly proud of the projects I am producing. Living Undocumented, a doc-series I produced for Netflix, is something I am extremely proud of and think it helped humanize undocumented people living in the U.S.
You work on so many different projects throughout the year—what is the key to balancing such a jam-packed schedule without burning out?
That’s a good question. I try and not look at my schedule too far ahead because then it seems overwhelming. That seems to work best for me and I’ve also learned the power of using the word ‘no.’
“We all have the pain and the scars from various experiences we go through in life, but it’s really how we heal ourselves.”
If you do face a point of burn-out, what motivates you to pull yourself out of it?
Whenever I finally do get a break after a couple of days I get really antsy and am ready to get back to creating something. I am motivated because I truly love what I do and I cannot imagine doing anything else.
Who has been your favorite artist you’ve worked with so far and who is an artist you wish to work with the most?
I loved working with Cardi B on “Taki Taki.” I want to do something with her again. There are many artists I want to collaborate with but I hate putting their names out there… You get asked about it all of the time and then there’s too much pressure to make it happen. Every time I’ve worked with another artist, it’s happened in an organic way and that’s the way I like it.
Your music makes me feel stronger and more confident, like I’m not alone in what I am going through. Who are some of the artists who do the same for you?
Thank you for saying that. Hearing it means more than you can ever know. I am such an old soul. I find strength in listening to Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Carol King and Ella Fitzgerald. These women’s voices go straight to my heart.
What is the most moving moment you’ve ever had with a fan?
Hands down I have the most amazing fans. They stuck with me through my darkest times and truly motivated me to be better and work harder. One of my favorite things is when I get to connect with my fans in person. Yet another reason this pandemic has been hard for me. They’ve told me very personal things going on in their lives. Sometimes they’ve even said they haven’t told anyone else. It’s not lost on me the connection I have with my fans. I hope they know how much they mean to me.
What is the best piece of advice someone has ever given you? Is it still something you follow today?
Absolutely! If you are the smartest person in the room you are in the wrong room. I love being surrounded by people that are interesting and challenge me. During the past election year in the U.S,. it was so refreshing to see how all of my friends were engaged and we would talk about the issues and why we felt passionate about specific causes.
Let’s talk about Selena + Chef— what has been the best thing about doing a series like this?
Well I clearly I still have a lot to learn, but I am having fun despite making a complete fool of myself on TV. I’ve had a lot of people say to me they’ve liked seeing my personality which is always nice to hear. The best thing about doing the show has been the fact that we’ve raised over $360,000 for some amazing charities. That makes me feel very proud.
Like we’ve discussed before, you’re also a an accomplished producer, starting with 13 Reasons Why then going on to Living Undocumented, then Selena + Chef and now the upcoming In the Shadow of the Mountain, among others. When did your interest in production first begin and what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced while entering this section of the entertainment industry?
It really did start with 13 Reasons Why. When we originally got the rights to the book it was for me to star in and then I aged out by the time I would have had time in my schedule to star in it. The process of seeing it through from the very beginning and the different adaptations… It was going to be a feature film, then we turned it into a series and it was a fascinating process. The biggest challenge is how long it takes to get projects made and released. There are so many layers and people involved. When I make music you have so much more control of how and when it’s released, so being a part of the business side of film and TV projects has been a lesson in patience.
When it comes to acting, what is the most important factor in deciding which characters you choose to play in film or television?
I have to feel connected to the character on some level and believe there is a story to tell. I am filming a TV series right now in New York and I can honestly say being on set brings me the most joy. I didn’t realize how much I missed it.
What has been the most rewarding acting experience of your life so far, something that resonates with you even today?
Working with Harmony Korine in Spring Breakers is something I will never forget. It was a pivotal time for me. The TV show I just mentioned I have the honor of starring opposite two comedy legends– Steve Martin and Martin Short, in our new series Only Murders in the Building. Words really can’t describe how amazing it is listening to their stories. This show is really funny and has so much heart I cannot wait for everyone to see it.
Do you think you would ever like to direct a film or television show? If yes, what kind of story would you like to explore?
I’ve learned to never say never so you never know. Maybe I would start with directing one of my own music videos. As far as stories, I am drawn to the stories of communities and people who need a voice or topics that are not getting enough attention. That is what inspires me.
You’ve also been a powerful voice against online hate, cyber-bullying, malicious comments and misinformation on social media. What is the biggest challenge when it comes to tackling this problem, and what do we need to do if we want to see effective change?
The biggest problem is getting the heads of these social media companies to acknowledge their involvement in this and actually doing something about it other than giving lip service. Until then we are kind of on our own to fight it. That’s why I’ve used my platform to shine a light on the misinformation. We are affected by this even if we aren’t aware of it. It’s frightening.
Is there a way anyone can ever completely be themselves online or will we always be bound by hate and vitriol and forced to alter our voices? On the flipside, is it better not to put so much of who you are out there?
I think you should always be yourself whether it’s online or real life. There is a sense of oversharing online. I do miss the mystery of how life was before social media.
What is something that you wish more people knew about you as an individual?
I think people probably know way too much about me at this point. I do hope my heart and how much I care about people and want to make a difference. At the end of the day that is all that truly matters.
Let’s talk a little bit about India, because you have such a powerful fanbase here. Do you think you would ever like to visit and if yes, what do you want to do the most?
I love my fans in India. Their passion and outlook on life inspire me. First of all, I cannot wait to travel again and India is at the top of my list. About seven years ago, I went on a mission for UNICEF in Nepal. Afterwards, I was able to go spend a couple of days in India. What an amazing country. I got just a taste of it and want to go explore more. All of the stunning temples blew me away. I am definitely ready to go back and spend more time.
Are there any other goals you would like to accomplish in 2021?
Get more sleep! I say that but I love what I do and don’t want to stop. I am looking forward to some upcoming film and television projects I am producing. I launched my Rare Beauty company last year and was overjoyed with the response to the products and our message of celebrating your uniqueness and being kinder to ourselves. We will be expanding into other global territories this year. This is very exciting for me, as I’ve spent the last three years pouring myself into launching this company and I honestly couldn’t be happier.
Stream Selena Gomez’s ‘Revelación’ below: