Strolling into The Hazelton Hotel in Yorkville, I text Selena Gomez’s publicist.
Minutes earlier, as I was parking, she had texted another warning. The message was similar to one she emailed the night before. It was written with a declarative, pay-attention-dummy urgency, the kind often favoured by despots in fear of an uprising.
“Just want to stress again how important it is to not ask any Bieber questions or anything even relating to relationships. It’s all about the music today.”
Right. The music.
Gomez is in town to talk about her new album. The rules of engagement are as follows: 1. I have 10 minutes to ask my questions. 2. These questions must dodge the superficial ephemera that often propel the 20-year-old into the gossip cycle: her looks, her friends, her clothes and, most frequently, her on-off-on-really-off relationship with Justin Bieber.
But there’s a problem: it’s the last day of May and the new album won’t be released until July 23 (this story was written under embargo). With the exception of “Come and Get It,” a track released early as a video, I have not heard “the music.”
So before this highly controlled swap of treacly platitudes masquerading as “an interview” can unfold, I’ve been asked to arrive an hour early to sample “the music.”
A copy of the new album is somewhere in the hotel. It is being guarded with feverish precaution, as if the 11-track recording is actually the Mona Lisa on a touring exhibition in a city prone to solar flares and exploding water pipes.
The publicist greets me in the lobby with a weary smile.
She leads me up to the fourth floor, where a quadrant of suites are booked and handcuffed reporters will come and go all afternoon under the ironclad control of several Gomez handlers, including a grizzly-sized bodyguard who gives me a menacing once-over, as if pondering the best way to snap my neck in the event I accidentally blurt out a taboo query such as, “Selena, do you prefer Kierkegaard or Nietzsche?”
“Nice to meet you,” says another publicist, as the elevator doors open.
He tells the first publicist to “keep the door locked” and “the volume down.”
She nods. He grins. I am confused.
What he means becomes clear moments later when I’m led into a suite where two other men are waiting with their own set of rules. The CIA might consider retaining the Selena Gomez PR machine for all future operations in dance zones.
“We need your recording devices,” says one man, as the other sits in a high-back chair, tapping away in silence at his phone.
I drop my bag on the desk and chuckle.
“Sorry, what did you say?” I finally ask, after noticing nobody else is laughing.
“We need your phone, your tape recorder, anything else that can record,” says the first man. “You also can’t take any notes. But I won’t take away your pen.”
“You can take mental notes,” adds the second man, without a hint of irony.
Reluctantly, I hand over my phone and digital recorder. The first man drops them in a padded envelope and scrawls my name on the front. Then he opens the door and hands the envelope to a gofer, who presumably runs it down to the hotel basement where a K9 unit trained to sniff out Top 40 contraband will determine if I’m allowed to leave the hotel alive.
The new CD is slipped into a DVD player. Music spews from the Panasonic flat screen speakers. For the next 30 minutes or so, I slump at the desk like a prisoner of war during an interrogation in an Auto-Tuned language I don’t understand.
Limited to mental notes, all I can really tell you about the new album is that the second song sounded like the fourth one. Or maybe the fifth one sounded like the seventh one. Around the ninth track, I was tempted to risk a lifetime ban from Universal Music and grab my pen — not to take notes, but to repeatedly stab myself in the cochlea.
There was a strong beat throughout, the kind of rhythmic thumping one might expect from an approaching T-Rex. The lyrics, the ones I could decipher, seemed autobiographical, especially the last track, which clearly sounded like a personal memo to a former boyfriend who may or may not rhyme with “Weston Leeber.”
But who knows? It’s possible Gomez was warbling about sangria and pedicures.
Let the record show: listening to 60-90 seconds of 11 overproduced pop songs while trying to formulate insightful mental questions under duress in a strange hotel room is not dissimilar to trying to lose weight by binging on carnival waffles.
When “Come and Get It” plays, I turn to the first man and ask what the song is about. Come and get . . . what?
“I’m not sure,” he says. “Pizza?”
Eventually, the music stops, the door opens and my gadgets are returned.
Next, I am frog-marched into another suite, past the gigantic bodyguard and more handlers who are loitering near a bathroom that no doubt contains a two-way mirror, emergency mascara and a Taser:
“Selena, tell me about the time you and Justin —”
Then the moment of truth.
Around the corner, like a glossy apparition, Gomez is flopped on a couch. She’s wearing a blue top and black leather pants. A bouffant tangle of dark hair rests atop her delicate face. She is so lithe, so shockingly petite, it almost seems like someone shrunk her down with a space gun.
“Stars Dance is my fourth album,” she says. “It’s definitely the hardest I’ve ever worked on a record before.”
So how is the new music different from the old music?
“Before I would hear a song,” she says. “I would like it and then play it and that would be that. This time I got to call producers and writers myself. I got to tell them what I was feeling, where I was in my life, what I wanted to sing about.”
Let me ask you something, I say, desperately trying to come up with something to ask. If someone were completely unfamiliar with you, how would you describe yourself?
“I’m super laid back,” she says. “I’m from Texas. I love my family. I still live with my parents. I drive the same car that I’ve driven since I was 16. That’s who I am.”
And as a performer?
“As a performer, I just love to make people smile. I just love to make people move and dance. There’s not really much more to it.”
A few minutes later, I move from my chair and dance back to the elevator. Before closing the door behind me, the bodyguard says, “Have a nice day.”
There was not really much more to it.