Selena Gomez, Taylor Swift and the Reality of Imperfection

By most measures, Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift are remarkable women. Intelligent and capable, they’ve succeeded through innate talent, hard and sustained work, ambition and vision. Both are the kind of mega pop stars who inspire convulsions of adulation and tears. Crowds surge and part in their presence. They’re graced with a radiance that seems almost exclusive to celebrities, with skin so incandescent it needs no filter.

But they are not perfect. Nor, importantly, do they pretend to be. A recent Apple TV+ documentary, “Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me,” offers an unsparing portrait of Gomez, now 30, and her experiences with bipolar disorder, lupus, anxiety and psychosis. On her latest album, “Midnights,” Taylor Swift, 32, sings about her depression working the graveyard shift, about ending up in crisis. “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me / It’s me, hi, everybody agrees, everybody agrees,” goes the song “Anti-Hero.” “Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby / And I’m a monster.”

This combination of external flawlessness and emotional vulnerability feels like a feature particular to contemporary female pop stardom. On one screen we see impeccable glam, expertly choreographed and costumed performances and startling displays of luxury. On the other screen, admissions of anxiety, PTSD, panic attacks and sleeplessness.

What does it mean that many of today’s female pop stars, not only Gomez and Swift, but also Adele, Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, openly express their struggles with anxiety, depression and panic attacks? Megan Thee Stallion has written a song called “Anxiety” and created a website dedicated to mental health. Even Rihanna, paragon of cool confidence, has admitted to the occasional bout of anxiety. Many stars admit in posts and interviews that the rapacious public scrutiny — the followers, the backlashes, the manufactured outrage, the criticisms, the haters — gets to them.

Some may criticize celebrities for oversharing their woes, but the impulse is certainly in line with a noted increase in mental health issues — and a heightened awareness and openness about those challenges. Nor is this exclusive to pop music or to women; in competitive sports, athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka — and among men, the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and the N.B.A.’s Kevin Love — have been similarly candid about the pressures of performance.

For Gomez, the effects have been brutal. The fragility on display in Alek Keshishian’s documentary is at times difficult to watch, despite — or perhaps because of — the tremendous appeal of the young woman at its center. With humility and self-deprecation, Gomez describes physical and emotional pain that can overwhelm her. “I get the voice that comes in my head that says that you missed this. That sucked, that sucked,” Gomez tells her team after an onstage rehearsal. “The pressure is just overwhelming because I want to do the best I can and I’m not.”

Imagine that same relentless scrutiny — if not in quite the same proportions — and self-doubt without the benefits of fame, success, wealth and beauty to offset the burden. In the recent book “Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (And Adults are Missing)” Emily Weinstein and Carrie James document what they call “Comparison Quicksand.” They quote girls saying things such as, “On social media everyone seems like they are far better and far ahead than me, which is stressful and makes me feel behind, unwanted and stupid.” And: “I scroll through my Instagram and see models with perfect bodies and I feel horrible about myself.” For teenagers who are susceptible to insecurity (and one wonders which ones aren’t), Weinstein and James write, “going on social media can activate the ‘dark spiral.’”

“Somebody made a comment and it involved me, and then for two days I felt bad about myself.” That sounds like any young woman talking about social media, but in this case, it’s Selena Gomez in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, evidently referring to a comment by the wife of former beau Justin Bieber. A similar random online post can have the same effect on anyone — just without the celebrity ex-boyfriend. The scale may be smaller, but it’s still the entire world to the average teenager. Weinstein and James point out that on social media, “hostility is also enacted in front of — even for — an audience.” “When you go home you can’t get a break from drama or bullying,” a 12-year-old told Weinstein and James.

One chapter in another recent book, “Girls on the Brink: Helping Our Daughters Thrive in an Era of Increased Anxiety, Depression, and Social Media” by Donna Jackson Nakazawa, asks, “Is This a Toxic Era for Girls?” and offers an immediate answer, “Yes, and it’s worse than you thought.”

It’s hard even on the toughest and most determined, and Selena Gomez is both those things. Born to teenage parents, she started working at a young age and never stopped. In the film, Gomez comes across as both admirable and sympathetic. When she hugs someone onscreen, whether weeping fan or old family friend, she wraps her arms fully around them and holds close. You feel her embrace from the other side of the screen.

This may be precisely what fans today respond to.

It’s worth nothing that back in 1991, Keshishian directed the documentary “Truth or Dare” about another very different pop star, Madonna. Under the headline “No One Ever Called Her Shy,” The Times’s critic noted its subject’s “inexhaustible bravado.” At that time, pop singers like Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and Janet Jackson tended to project toughness over vulnerability, a position of not caring what other people think versus caring possibly too much. Perhaps they felt the need to project a strength only recently won. The resulting image could be inspirational, if daunting and unrealistic in its own ways.

It may be that each generation gets a slate of pop stars attuned to its own aspirations and insecurities. Young women may be able to better relate to today’s pop stars — for better and for worse.

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