It would be great if they had an app for that – the moment when your kids bear witness as the stars they’ve idolized from a very young age suddenly morph into sexually active young adults; that moment when the comparatively safe and innocent set of a Disney tween sitcom gives way to “selfies” shot in nightclubs, widely broadcast social media faux pas, and far too public meltdowns.
Unfortunately, there isn’t one. What we do have in place of that imaginary app is a popular culture rife with contradictions, mixed signals, and blurred lines. Unless we’re willing to completely isolate our children from all of this – from television, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, free music streaming sites, and (let’s face it) perhaps even from going to school – we have to deal with it. And so do they.
For Selena Gomez, that moment came about 8 songs into her set at First Niagara Center on Tuesday. It was then, during the song “Birthday,” that the growing distance between the just-turned-21 star and her almost exclusively teen and tween and even younger audience was writ most large. All of a sudden, the comparatively innocuous teen-pop and electro-dance of the first portion of the set – replete with more esoteric, dreamy imagery – was taken over by the throb of sleazy nightclub tunes, with attendant gyrations from Gomez and the eight dancers accompanying her. Things turned decidedly sexual. And yes, it was weird.
Gomez, former star of Disney’s “Wizards of Waverly Place,” on again/off again love interest of Justin Bieber, and now dance-pop star, drew a crowd that appeared to be 90 percent female to the arena. Though these girls and young women (and their parents) didn’t come close to filling the place – it looked to be about 60 percent full – it didn’t seem to matter. They shrieked, they rushed the edge of the S-shaped platform that jutted out onto the floor of the center whenever Gomez sauntered onto it, and they made Gomez and her entourage feel more than welcome. In the midst of her “Stars Dance” world tour, the singer offered up a tightly choreographed set of some 20 songs, spanning her recorded output to date, which includes albums tracked with her former band, the Scene, as well as the recent “Stars Dance,” her first solo album.
Most of the set would have to be considered Madonna-lite, for anyone at all familiar with the queen of what we now accept as dance-pop. Of course, most Gomez fans most likely know Madonna only as that older woman who occasionally shows up in risqué outfits at awards shows, so to them, what Gomez is doing probably seems fresh, exciting and new. That it is none of these things has no bearing on their enjoyment of it, nor their perception of Gomez as a talented artist who somehow speaks simultaneously to and for them.
Things kicked off shortly after 8 p.m., as the house lights faded to black, and a massive video screen dwarfing the stage beneath it ran a short film that depicted Gomez falling asleep atop a map of the stars in her bedroom, and entering a dream in which she faced a four-walled room with a white door in each wall. When she opened one and walked through it, the real-life Gomez appeared atop the towering staircase, and the band – a four-piece combo and two backing vocalists – hit the downbeat for the power-pop grinder “Bang Bang Bang.” The crowd produced a unison shriek that came close to drowning out the music itself, and we were off.
The earlier Selena Gomez & the Scene tunes favored pop-rock arrangements, but Gomez didn’t waste much time getting to her newer material, which finds her re-imagined as an electro-pop/EDM artist. “Like A Champion” boasted a Bangra-like groove that suggested an affinity with Madonna’s “Ray of Light” period. “Stars Dance” followed a similar arrangement. “Write Your Name” found Gomez at the very edge of the S-shaped platform, the flowing white chiffon she’d favored early in the set having given way to an outfit that suggested what it might look like if you put a Radio City Rockette and a stripper in a blender.
The show was driven by choreography and costume changes, and though the band appeared to be playing to a click-track fed to them through in-ear monitors, compared with many similar modern dance-pop shows, Gomez’s gig felt more organic and genuine. There were no explosions, no absurd stage props, and very little to distract attention from Gomez and her dancers, all of whom hit their marks without fail.
It’s impossible to know whether the tears Gomez cried at the end of the ballad “Love Will Remember” were real, or whether the moment was scripted, but the singer’s audience responded with a vocal form of empathy. Gomez returned the favor with a between-song rap that aligned her with her audience as a person who’d struggled through the social pressures of high school and wrestled with personal insecurities. The message she delivered can be boiled down to “Be yourself,” and it’s a tough one to argue with. Not as frankly sleazy as modern-day Miley Cyrus, and clearly not the innocent tween of “Wizards of Waverly Place,” Gomez seems to occupy the middle-ground. Which probably suited the parents who escorted their kids to Tuesday’s show just fine. Musically, however, there really isn’t much about Gomez that’s special. And despite her efforts to tone down the racier stuff, there were moments during Tuesday’s show where many of those parents were probably wishing there was an app for that.