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15 June 2017

Selena Gomez is the latest pop star to queer the high school music video trope

She plays both a student and her own lesbian teacher crush in this video. (Oh, and her mother. And maybe her step-dad? It’s confusing.)

By Anna Leszkiewicz

The video for Selena Gomez’s Talking Heads-sampling slow burn “Bad Liar” was released yesterday. Like all good videos about simmering desires and forbidden loves, it’s set in a school at summertime. This time, we’re in a Seventies all-American high school, where an awkward, double denim-clad Selena tries to go about her usual day (chemistry class, basketball, dinner at home) but finds herself distracted by a crush. Look, she’s so preoccupied she’s bumping into other students all over the place!!!

This is where any straightforward sense of plot ends, though – Selena Gomez plays four different characters in this movie – the aforementioned brunette student, a lady with feathery blonde hair (who later appears to be a teacher at the school), a man in a brown suit (who is seemingly a teacher – or headteacher – at the school but also the first Gomez’s father – or step dad?) and her own mother.

The plot as I read it seems to be that student-Gomez is watching (step?) father-Gomez hitting on lady teacher-Gomez with increasing frustration – because student-Gomez is in love with lady teacher-Gomez. It’s also possible that student-Gomez and teacher-Gomez are in a secret relationship, as student-Gomez possesses a Polaroid picture of a very happy teacher-Gomez that seems weird for her to have in a pedagogical context.

The plot-heavy video is confusing, but its central twist, about who is the focus of Gomez’s desire, is something that’s been cropping up again and again in school-set videos from indie pop stars with young fanbases.

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Last summer, I wrote about the new generation of pop stars queering and subverting the high school music video trope, focusing on three videos in particular: Halsey’s “Colors”, Shura’s “What’s It Gonna Be”, and Hayley Kiyoko’s “Gravel to Tempo”. All have a school setting, a period feel and a subversion of the typical girl-lusts-after-jock motif. Now, Gomez is on the trend.

Halsey’s “Colors” shares several specific details with “Bad Liar”: the minimalistic, aching track is set to a video where Halsey watches two older people flirting (her mother and her boyfriend’s dad), and moves distractedly through her life.

They both share scenes of their singers going misty-eyed in school classes and family meals, bumping in to other students, gyrating alone in their bedrooms, and working on love-struck scrapbooks.

In “Colours”, the twist comes when we realise that Halsey is interested in the adult flirtation because she has a crush on one of them – in this case, her boyfriend’s papa. And like in “Bad Liar”, the proof of her infatuation comes in the form of innocent but clearly romantic Polaroid pictures.

Shura’s “What’s It Gonna Be” and “Bad Liar” come out of a similar overplayed Seventies schoolyard setting, sharing cycling, chemistry, and gym class scenes – but “What’s It Gonna Be” has a much more joyful, light-hearted tone and happy families ending than “Bad Liar”. Hayley Kiyoko’s “Gravel to Tempo” also imagines its singer as an awkward schoolgirl struggling with a lesbian crush (while other elements of Gomez’s video – like the vintage bikes, 70s colour palette, enthusiastic solo dancing and opening gravelly noises – feel reminiscent of both Hayley Kiyoko’s “Gravel to Tempo” and “Girls Like Girls”). Like Shura’s video, Kiyoko’s has a greater sense of freedom and rebellion – but all these videos rely on the same undoing of viewers’ heteronormative expectations.

The key difference is the way in which Shura and Hayley Kiyoko (both queer women) are interested in the feeling of desire, particularly that uncertain feeling of fancying a good friend and not knowing if they see you in the same way. Both artists use their videos to linger on those innocent moments suddenly charged with romance: applying each other’s lip gloss and nail polish, sharing cigarettes (or chewing gum), splashing around in a swimming pool, grabbing on to each other in a scary movie.

By contrast, Selena Gomez’s confusing and sometimes gimmicky video uses the lesbian twist as precisely that – a twist, not a specific feeling worth exploring.

While lyrically, “Bad Liar” is overtly concerned with the particular patterns of a crush-obsessed mind (with lyrics like “In my room there’s a king size space” and “I see your face / Oh wait, that’s someone else”), that frustrated sexual energy doesn’t fully come through in the video.

A major video from a huge pop star like Selena Gomez incorporating all of these threads feels like the natural apex for this particular trend. But, as often happens when trends go mainstream, some of the sincerity has been lost in the transition.

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