"I just want to celebrate and have fun with you all tonight, OK?" Selena Gomez confessed to the crowd Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
OK? I guess. Do people go to Selena Gomez shows in 2016 to have a good time? Last year's Revival is a great album, but it's not particularly fun. It's awkward, self-conscious, occasionally painful — very clearly a "working through things" album, as all major 2010s pop records should be.
In a better world, the current Revival Tour would be a sort of a Selena-guided group therapy session with occasional "you can do it!" throwbacks tossed in for good measure. This wouldn't stoke ticket sales, though, and no one wants their big night out to be spoiled by actual feels. "You guys are really loud! Thank you!" Selena said, grinning.
OK fine. We'll have fun.
It didn't necessarily work. Selena's got the spectacle down — great dancing, giant inflatable roses, drawn-out costume changes. She went through four or five outfits, which were the dominant topic of post-concert analysis (the last one, an iridescent leotard with a hooded denim robe, seems to have been the crowd favorite).
This was all exciting, but it played an odd contrast with the lyrical material. With the addition of a couple early career classics and a conspicuous cover of Eurythmics classic "Sweet Dreams," Selena performed a run-through of the better part of Revival. Her execution was clean and the audience ate it up, though most of the cool-toned angst of the record was lost.
Maybe this speaks more to a passionate millennial male reading of Revival than it does to Selena's performance on Tuesday. But isn't "Good for You" a resigned lamentation about gender expectations? Isn't "Kill 'Em With Kindness" about the futility of just smiling like everything's all right?
By all accounts, no. Pain was far from the stage last night. Bieber breakup banger "The Heart Wants What It Wants" wasn't even on the setlist. So "Same Old Love" was a celebration anthem, "Good for You" was a family fun singalong, and the pre-apocalyptic drone of "Kill 'Em With Kindness" was an excuse to roll around the stage on exercise balls.
Selena isn't an especially gifted performer. She's at her best when the audience is singing along and the bass is loud enough to mask the lack of high notes. It's telling that when she came to the pre-drop "I mean I could but why would I want to?" line in "Hands to Myself" — her one instance of recorded phrasing genius — she held the mic out to the audience.
What matters, though, is that the audience complied; they sang the break perfectly. Being a good pop star is about getting people to do what you want them to do, not actually sounding great yourself. Selena's fans do what she wants, and they adore her. Even though they express that love by taking Snapchats instead of actually dancing, you can feel that the love is real.
The most vocal outpouring of that love didn't come during any of the hits, but near the end during the Hillsong Worship cover "Transfiguration."
"This song helps me to get through when times are tough," Selena said, moving toward a piano. That inspired one girl in the crowd to scream "I love you Selena!," straining her voice into previously unimaginable octaves.
As "Transfiguration" transitioned seamlessly into the criminally underrated ballad "Nobody," Selena's lack of emotional rawness was made up for by the audience's palpable sense of solidarity. For once it felt like they were paying rapt attention and hanging onto every word.
So, do her fans — the devoted Selenators — have her back during this uncomfortably emotional album cycle? At least in Minnesota, they seemed a whole lot more into it than they were her poorly realized chair dance for "Good for You."
It makes good sense that the less orchestrated moments would be the best. More than any of her peers, Selena acts how someone you know would act if they accidentally ended up being a pop star.
There's something painfully real about her — the artifice of the machine around her is obvious, but the woman at the center doesn't quite fit. She seems uncomfortable onstage not because she doesn't know what she's doing, but because she's so clearly one of us.
"I think all of you have seen my ups and you've seen my downs, that's for sure," Selena said early in the show. "But you've all been there with me through it all."
It's a canned line — Jon Pareles quoted it in his review for the New York Times earlier this month. But she canned it well, and her audience confirmed it. They're here for her, even if it's evident that here might not be the place that she wants to be.
There's a certain sadness in that. Selena never let onto it last night. She never missed a beat and made it through the entire show with a grin. But sometimes a grin tells a whole lot more than a confession.
Critic's bias: I'm familiar enough with her work to have an opinion about last night's arrangement of "Love You Like a Love Song" (I hated it).
Random notebook dump: What is wrong with people who buy $10 Selena-branded glow sticks? Why I am I writing this seriously while drinking a $13 pint of Grain Belt?
Overheard in the crowd:
Out-of-place father: "Do you think Anne Frank would have been a Selenator?"
Teen daughter: "Probably."