"The Heart Wants What It Wants"
Who is Selena Gomez? That's not a trick question. Obviously, she's a very successful 22-year-old actress and singer. But more often than not, when her name turns up in the media, it's closely linked to her perpetually on-again, off-again, on-again relationship with a certain 20-year-old Canadian heartthrob.
Ms. Gomez recently admitted that she struggles to disentangle her sense of who she is from her messy emotional enmeshment with Justin Bieber. In an interview with Ryan Seacrest, Gomez confessed, "I think the biggest problem I had this year ... is identity. I was trying to figure out what I'm doing, and that was the first time I was constantly being kicked down for doing that. When I didn't know, I just wanted to say, 'This is what I want, this is where I am in my professional life, things changed in my personal life, things changed in my heart—everything.' ... I made some decisions that weren't great as well, and so did he, and that's why we went through all that to only make us better."
Selena recognizes there's an element of toxicity in her relationship with Justin. But just knowing isn't enough to make a clean break. After all, the heart wants what it wants, as the old saying goes.
Which is exactly the sentiment expressed in Selena's song "The Heart Wants What It Wants," a fresh single from her greatest hits collection For You. Though Gomez got her start on Disney Channel's Wizards of Waverly Place, this song finds her a long, long way from a Disneyfied happy ending. Instead, she's magnetically—addictively—drawn back again and again to a tortured, tempestuous relationship with someone who fills her heart ... and breaks it.
"This is a modern fairy tale," Gomez declares matter-of-factly about halfway through the song. "No happy endings/No wind in our sails." So why does she keep coming back? To put it bluntly, the couple shares a compulsively compelling physical connection. She sings, "But I can't imagine a life without/Breathless moments/Breaking me down/Down, down, down/The bed's getting cold and you're not here."
When Selena and her man aren't in bed, however, things seem pretty bleak. "There's a million reasons why I should give you up," she admits. Elsewhere she says of this guy's heart-shattering tendencies, "You got me scattered in pieces/Shining like stars and screaming/Lighting me up like Venus/But then you disappear and make me wait."
In a cracking, telephone-like voiceover before the track's video, we hear Selena talking tearfully and disjointedly about how hard things are, all the while excusing her beau's bad behavior. "When I was on stage, and I was thinking of—I felt like, I know, I know him, though. And I know, that, I know his heart. And I know what he couldn't do to hurt me. But I didn't realize, that I, I, feeling so confident, feeling so great about myself, and then it just be completely shattered by one thing. By something so stupid. But then you make me feel crazy. You make me feel like it's my fault. I was in pain."
That prologue leads into somber black-and-white images of Gomez trying to put on a brave face (through frequent tears) as she cozies up to her self-involved boyfriend in various party scenes (where we see her and others drinking beer and champagne). Sexually oriented lyrics correspond to flashbacks showing the couple having sex in a car (we see her in a bra on top of him), on top of a bar, etc.
It's a wince-inducing portrait of a woman deeply entangled with someone who just keeps hurting her as she just keeps coming back for more. "The heart wants what it wants," Selena argues repeatedly. As for the suggestion that maybe it's time to call it quits, well, Gomez's hardened response to that wisdom is brusque: "Save your advice, 'cause I won't hear/You might be right, but I don't care."
With regard to that question of who Selena Gomez really is, then, she suggests that her identity is inextricably linked to the man she loves, no matter how badly he treats her. And she wants to believe that giving her heart permission to feel whatever it wants—even if what it wants is self-defeating and self-destructive—is an empowering message for young women in a similar place. "It's something that I feel like girls need to hear, and it's something I'm willing to share with people," she told Seacrest. "Honestly, music is an expression, and if you will be that voice for these girls, there are some people that feel this. This is universal."
Universal or not, the question young fans (along with their parents) need to grapple with is whether Selena Gomez's romanticized rationalizations for staying in a degrading relationship are going to help them figure out who they are ... or whether such suggestions ultimately reinforce a reckless message, one that glamorizes losing one's identity in dysfunctional emotions masquerading as honesty and empowerment.