By Mikael Wood
4:03 PM EST, November 7, 2013
The name on the ticket was Selena Gomez. But inside Staples Center, it was hard not to think of another Disney Channel veteran moving from kiddie-TV fame to grown-up pop celebrity.
“Every day, I get told I’m not sexy enough,” Gomez said about halfway through her concert Wednesday night at the downtown arena.
The onetime star of Disney’s “Wizards of Waverly Place” was introducing her song “Who Says,” a feel-good pep talk in which she insists, “I wouldn’t wanna be anybody else.” And though it was artless, her delivery sparked the desired reaction: shrieks of excited approval from several thousand girls ages 8 to 12.
A positive message effectively deployed? No doubt -- particularly the bit where Gomez, 21, rhymed “Who says you’re not star potential?” with the more pointed “Who says you’re not presidential?”
Yet this self-affirmation also felt, less happily, like a rebuke -- not just of the Hollywood power brokers presumably urging Gomez to show some skin, but of 20-year-old Miley Cyrus, the former “Hannah Montana” sweetheart who lately has shown more skin than most.
A few months ago, the performers seemed simpatico: Two young women experimenting with their images, figuring out how to address the reality of aging within a show-business framework designed to conceal it.
Gomez had used her acclaimed role in Harmony Korine’s violent, sex-drenched “Spring Breakers” as a kind of stepping stone to “Stars Dance,” the relatively edgy album of clubby pop tunes she released in July. (It’s her first solo disc following several billed to Selena Gomez & the Scene.) And Cyrus was drawing attention with the rambunctious hit single “We Can’t Stop,” in which she proclaims, “Only God can judge us.”
But that was before the world -- or at least the schoolmarms tasked with providing its entertainment coverage -- turned on Cyrus, who set off an absurd wave of moralizing with her aggressively raunchy appearance on August’s MTV Video Music Awards. By the time Cyrus put out her album “Bangerz” last month, she’d become a cautionary tale, an example for other artists to define themselves against.
That’s how Gomez appeared to think of her old friend Wednesday. But much of this largely dull, uninspiring performance seemed to contradict that position; its signs of life arrived in the moments when Gomez was channeling the same reckless spirit that drives “We Can’t Stop.”
She was strongest in “Birthday,” a pounding electro-rave cut from “Stars Dance” in which she sang of “feeling fine and free / Crashing into you, crashing into me” while accompanied by images on an enormous video screen of a chaotic (though notably alcohol-free) party in some dimly lighted basement. At the end of the song, the music morphed into Rihanna’s appealingly harsh “Birthday Cake,” and that occasioned the tiniest of twerks from Gomez, whose dancing otherwise emphasized pumping fists and whipping hair.
The singer projected a similar defiance as she rapped the lyrics of “B.E.A.T.” -- “It’s a big, bad world, but I ain’t ashamed” -- over a drum pattern that drew on the clattering hip-hop variant known as trap; here again, she interpolated a bit of another, riskier song, in this case “Work” by the Australian MC Iggy Azalea. (In both instances, Gomez judiciously trimmed some salty language from the originals.)
“Love You Like a Love Song” had a welcome trace of mischief, its slithering synth-pop groove revving up out of a jazzy intro that sounded like the beginning of a James Bond theme. And Gomez gave her summer hit “Come & Get It” the throb it requires.
Yet the rest of the singer’s 80-minute set -- which included the blank “Undercover,” a witless cover of Katy Perry’s “Roar” and the dreary “Love Will Remember,” widely thought to describe her breakup with Justin Bieber -- was flat and hemmed-in, as though she’d decided what the show must avoid without figuring out how to replace it.
Implicitly characterizing Cyrus’ recent behavior as a product of behind-the-scenes manipulation -- something, of course, it may well be -- Gomez promised liberation instead. But this didn’t feel like freedom.
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