There’s no question that Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber are the power couple in teen pop music, a duo with a veritable empire of hit songs, fanatical followers and cross-media exposure between them. The one with the higher Q rating is obviously Bieber—his is the name that your grandparents know, the one with the iconic haircut, the super-famous friends and the power to turn reasonable middle-school-aged girls into bloodthirsty maniacs with a single wink. Yet with the pending release of her fine third album, When the Sun Goes Down, posted on YouTube today, the question has to be asked: Is Selena Gomez actually a better pop artist than Justin Bieber?
For all his fame and celebrity, The Bieb is to date a little lacking in the future-classics department when it comes to his music. Nobody who lived through the onslaught of “Baby” will ever be able to fully get the song out of their heads, sure, and other songs like “U Smile” and “Somebody to Love” are catchy and sweet-natured enough in their wide-eyed innocence to be enjoyable, but the great majority of Bieber hits thusfar (“One Time,” “One Less Lonely Girl,” “Eenie Meenie,” “Never Say Never“) have largely been insubstantial and forgettable. Bieber’s incredible swagger and transfixing stage and video presence, passed down from generations of heartthrobs before him, can carry even the most trifling of pop songs to the top 40, but it’s difficult to imagine any of his hits besides “Baby” remaining mainstays on radio ten years down the road.
Moreover, still less than fully-formed at the age of 17, Bieber lacks a signature sound, hopping between genres to show his impressive diversity but not demonstrating a particular mastery of any of them. A desire to be all things to all music fans—he’s a pop star, but he’s also got hip-hop moves and hip-hop friends, and really, he’s just a good-natured, down-home sort of country boy at heart (recent Rascal Flatts collab “That Should Be Me” even won a CMT award)—has led to Bieber failing to cultivate a signature style or sound, resulting in much of his recent music feeling oddly anonymous. He wants to be Justin Timberlake, able to dictate the terms of his own music and career without being beholden to anyone or anything, which is noble, but JT spent a long time in basic dance-pop before he started doing whatever the hell he felt like, giving him an identifiable core style to fall back on and build from. Bieber appears to be jumping ahead of schedule in that regard, and it’s to his music’s detriment.
Meanwhile, Selena Gomez has carved herself out a nice little electro-pop niche, separating herself from her Disney peers both in terms of the consistency of her sound (aside from a couple mid-tempo numbers, most of When the Sun Goes Down is in the pulsating dance vein of prior hits “Naturally” and “Round and Round“) and the quality of her songs. Opener “Love You Like a Love Song” has one of the year’s best dance hooks, a bleating synth-bass throb underneath the chorus that pairs perfectly with the song’s minor melody and memorable sentiment. “Whiplash,” co-written by Britney Spears, outdoes Brit’s own “Womanizer” with its playful, seductive and surprisingly energetic shuffle, and would be the most fun song on the top 40 the second it was released as a single. Even “Middle of Nowhere,” buried at the album’s back end, is a fantastic crying-at-the-disco anthem that anyone from Katy Perry to Lady Gaga would be proud to call their own.
Throughout the album, Selena sounds poised, understated and in complete command of her role as budding dance-pop vixen. Even the couple of songs on the album that deviate from her soon-to-be-trademark sound still feature Selena at her best, like the catchy motivational ballad “Who Says?”, and the even better “We Own the Night,” a perfect, understated summertime ode to young love’s power to make you feel immortal—a relatable sentiment even if that someone of yours wasn’t the most lusted-after high-schooler of the 21st century. Relatable is a key word for Selena on this album, since for all her celebrity—which, while not quite on Bieber’s level, is still formidable—she still makes a point to keep her songs applicable to non-famous teenage girls as well, more like an electro-pop Taylor Swift than a wannabe Britney or Christina, without any anti-paparazzi anthems or songs about the glamorous life.
While it sounds glib to say for two artists as young as they are, the nearly-19-year-old Gomez comes off over the course of When the Sun Goes Down as just being way more mature than her 17-year-old guy. Gomez seems to know her musical strengths and plays to them, with the quiet confidence of a professional, and without the obvious presence of the Disney machine breathing down her neck. Bieber, on the other hand, approaches music these days with a hyperactive need to always be trying new things, doing more, getting bigger. Justin’s singles, increasingly handicapped with guest stars (Ludacris, Usher, Sean Kingston, etc.) and higher production values, frequently come off as blustery and distracted, the sound of a pop star whose musical voice is not yet distinctive or polished enough to flourish on its own. By contrast, all of Selena’s collaborators on Sun are behind the scenes, and the music generally stays in the same lane, allowing the star’s natural style and personality to shine through and making for music that’s much simpler and more compelling.
Gomez might not ever be as world-conqueringly popular as her teenage paramour, and Bieber might indeed be more talented in terms of the number of things he can do as a pop artist—it’s doubtful Selena would be able to take on the Busta Rhymes verse from “Look At Me Now,” or riffing a solo on the drums before lifting off into one of her performances—but it seems to us like when you’re talking about the music alone, Selena is a cut above Justin at the moment. A confident, skilled performer with an appealing go-to sound and the ability to step outside her comfort zone, Gomez seems ready to take the leap from being the cream of the Disney crop to being one of the best young pop stars out there, period.
But don’t worry, Justin—girl does have a couple years on you. We’re sure by the time of My World 3.0, you’ll have made it a real contest again.