Kudos to anyone who predicted that, in the year 2017, music critics of all backgrounds would unite behind the common cause of a Selena Gomez single.
“Bad Liar,” Gomez’s latest radio offering, has turned the 24-year-old arena headliner into something of a blogosphere darling since its May 18 release. Built around the bass line from Talking Heads’ 1977 breakthrough hit “Psycho Killer,” “Bad Liar” has received nearly unanimous praise from critics, some of whom have described the song as Gomez’s best to date, nearly a decade into the former Disney star’s music career. Along with glowing reviews from Idolator and The Singles Jukebox, The New York Times raved about Gomez’s “clever approaches to rhythm,” while Rolling Stone described the song as “smart and streamlined.” Even Pitchfork, which had never reviewed a Gomez song or album prior to “Bad Liar,” deemed it “fizzy fun” and honored it as a Best New Track.
The praise stands in relative contrast, historically, to Gomez’s album reviews — her three full-lengths have yielded an average of 64 out of 100 score on the review aggregator Metacritic — which have most often portrayed her music as “competent and entirely impersonal,” as the Guardian review of 2013’s Stars Dance album put it. Unlike fellow Squad members Taylor Swift and Lorde, Gomez has never been able to pair her popularity with critical adoration, and has yet to notch a Grammy nomination; her songwriting, musical scope and vocal range have all been dismissed or outright disparaged over her career. But “Bad Liar” may have unlocked a new level of appreciation for Gomez, from those standing on the outside of her millions of fans and (sometimes) objectively highlighting her weaknesses. The single’s avalanche of good press feels like a turning point in Gomez’s artistic career.
And still, “Bad Liar” is not a hit. Not yet, at least.
Gomez has morphed into a dominant force at Top 40 radio since leaving behind backing band The Scene and going solo — she’s had seven top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, beginning in 2013. She’s also been able to connect in a variety of different styles, from the revved-up electro-pop of “Come & Get It” to the aching R&B of “Good For You” to the synthesized flirtation of “Hands To Myself.” Since its release nearly a month ago, however, “Bad Liar” has started (relatively) slowly, reaching a No. 27 peak on the Hot 100 chart and quickly retreating outside of the Top 40 (the song spends a second week in a row at No. 45 on this week’s tally, chart dated June 24). In contrast, “It Ain’t Me,” Selena’s collaboration with star DJ Kygo that preceded “Bad Liar,” reached No. 12 on the Hot 100 in its first full week of tracking in early March, and has been a top 20 mainstay ever since.
There are encouraging signs that “Bad Liar” is going to get bigger, especially at Top 40. On the Radio Songs chart, the song reaches a new peak by leaping 47-38, and also moves up one slot to No. 15 on this week’s Pop Songs chart. “Bad Liar” is trending upward, but it’s still a long way away from ubiquity, despite being widely championed; last month, multiple radio PDs told Billboard that it would be a defining song of the summer. Why hasn’t it become one yet?
“It has more to do with the songs that are already up and running and haven’t moved out of the way,” says Erik Bradley, music director of WBBM-FM (B96) Chicago. Indeed, the top of the Hot 100 has been largely static for weeks, with songs like Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like,” Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” and The Chainsmokers & Coldplay’s “Something Just Like This” all residing in the Top 10 for 10 weeks or more. “Despacito,” the multi-lingual mega-hit from Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber, has spent six weeks at No. 1, sliding into the top of the chart as outside-looking-in hits like James Arthur’s “Say You Won’t Let Go,” Julia Michaels’ “Issues” and Imagine Dragons’ “Believer” have been boxed out of the Top 10.
“Songs like ‘Shape of You’ and ‘Something Just Like This’ are lasting longer than people thought they would,” says Bradley, “and [pop radio] only has so many slots.”
One of those slots is already being occupied by Gomez herself, with “It Ain’t Me” coming in at No. 15 in its 17th week on the Hot 100. In a strange time for female artists on the pop charts, “It Ain’t Me” has endured as an example of what traditional success looks like at mainstream radio in 2017. The blueprint of the song — EDM producer with a big fan base, pop artist with a bigger fan base, a sing-along hook and a synth-driven breakdown — is similar to that of DJ Snake’s “Let Me Love You” (feat. Bieber), The Chainsmokers’ “Closer” (feat. Halsey) and Zedd’s “Stay” (feat. Alessia Cara), all smashes over the past 12 months. As Gomez’s first song as a lead artist since 2015’s Revival, “It Ain’t Me” has continued the success of that era by offering fans her most danceable song since “Slow Down” in 2013.
Nothing about “Bad Liar” is traditional, but its unpredictability gives it a special spot in Gomez’s catalog. The Talking Heads sample is brilliantly utilized as the backbone of Gomez’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics, while her coyness creeps toward sexual frustration alongside the tightness of the bass. Like “Hands To Myself,” “Bad Liar” is uncluttered, but better harnesses its empty space with strong wordplay (“In my room there’s a king-size space/ Bigger than it used to be/ If you want you can rent that place/ Call me an amenity”) and a yearning that builds toward its slippery chorus.
And Gomez’s delivery truly is something to behold — she has never managed the contours of her voice as she does here, racing through the verses in a nervous murmur that any infatuated twentysomething can understand, and letting out a sensual howl on the bridge when the tension becomes too much to bear. It’s a virtuoso display of control, and critics have picked up on the subtlety that makes the song stand out.
The last few times a major pop artist has released a single with a structure that’s either left-of-center or downright weird — think Lady Gaga’s “Perfect Illusion,” Katy Perry’s “Bon Appetit” or Lorde’s “Green Light” — the commercial results have been disappointing. With Gomez on a prolonged hot streak and wtih an enormous hook to back up its critical accolades, “Bad Liar” may be the one to break that streak. The release of a must-see new music video, in which Gomez channels Nutty Professor II: The Klumps and plays four roles, on Wednesday (June 15) will help its streaming totals as well. Directed by Jesse Peretz, it’s the type of visual that encourages sharing (yes, your Facebook followers WOULD want to see Selena Gomez wearing a mustache and bowl-cut wig) and has earned over 10 million YouTube views in a bit over 24 hours. The dividends have been immediate, with “Bad Liar” already jumping back into the top 10 on iTunes following the clip’s release.
“I feel really positive about it,” says Bradley, adding that the song could take off “sooner than [you might think], even. I could see it really start taking off imminently. It’s hard to force-feed new songs in there, but I’m still extremely bullish on the fact that that song has a big future.”