Selena Gomez's new studio album, Revival (listen here or buy here), begins with a prayer-like spoken word verse. "I dive into the future/ but I'm blinded by the sun," she says. That thought makes the perfect intro for this album.
Revival is a fourteen song collection, built entirely out of singles. I hesitate to even call it an album. There are no transition songs meant to ease listeners through the track list. In fact, Revival is so abrupt in its transformations, so choppy in its sound, that at times it's hard to believe that all of the songs were meant for the same album.
Take the first transition on the album, from the title track, "Revival," to the next, "Kill Em With Kindness," for example. In sound harmony, it is sloppy at best. The fade out from the first song transfers almost immediately into a whistling harmony of the next. There is no attempt to blend the two songs together. On first listen to Revival, I actually checked my player to see if I had accidentally put the songs on shuffle. I hadn't.
The transitions are abrupt because Selena Gomez wasn't trying to create a beautifully structured album with the kind of ebb and flow that makes it perfect to play on repeat. And she's right not to.
An album, by definition, is simply a collection of recordings issued as the same product. Which means Revival is as much of an album as the Beatles' White Album. But albums considered to be great most often have a sense of continuity that makes it impossible to separate individual tracks from their overall narrative: Joni Mitchell's Blue, Michael Jackson's Thriller, Pink Floyd's The Wall or Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak. On a great album, the order in which the songs are arranged is as much an artistic choice as a chorus or melody.
Pop music, though, has never been about albums—it's about singles. The Top 40 is based on singles, not albums. And the Top 40 is heavily influenced by what DJs play on the radio: Not albums. Singles.
Listeners have always been able to buy singles, be it on vinyl, cassette, or CDs. And the modern music market is a singles game. Listeners don't really buy music anymore, but they especially don't buy full albums. (The exception to this rule, notably, are pop concept albums: Beyoncé's Beyonce, Taylor Swift's 1989).
Buying a single instead of an album is less expensive, which means it makes less money for artists and for the music industry overall. Consumers, though, keep buying singles over albums. Here's a chart from digitalmusicnews.com using data from the RIAA regarding what kinds of formats are selling, and how much money that brings in:
That big purple chunk in the Millions of Units sold chart represents Download Singles. They are by far and away the type of music people spend money on. And on the chart on the right, you can see that Download Singles really aren’t bringing in much money at all. Even though the left graph shows that more millions of units are being sold than ever in history (with the single format dominating), the right chart shows that the number of millions of dollars made has dropped dramatically. If the earnings chart were adjusted for inflation, the profit would be even smaller.
This situation persists. These charts only track through 2013, but in the Nielsen report for the 2013-2014 fiscal year, CD sales plummeted 15% and all digital track purchases fell 13%. What these numbers really tell us is that unless you are Taylor Swift or Beyoncé, very few people are going to buy your album… But some of them might buy singles.
It makes perfect sense for Selena Gomez, a consistent Top 40 pop star, to release an album that isn't beautifully constructed. The modern listening market doesn't support albums anymore, so why should she? If she wants the best chance at success, she knows better than to think that will come in the form of Revival making a bunch of music critics' Top 10 list. She doesn't need songs that transition beautifully and bridge together, she needs songs that can be played on every radio station every hour on the hour.
And that's exactly what Revival is—an album full of potential viral beauties. From the sultry, fast-paced banger of "Body Heat" and the already Top 10 jam "Good for You," to the anthemic girl power "Me & My Girls" and the Stargate-produced, Avril- reminiscent "Sober."
Gomez has created 14 songs that all try to be sensations in slightly different ways. It may not be what listeners are comfortable with an album sounding like, but it might just be Gomez looking the future, and diving right in.
Correction: an earlier version of this piece had the wrong title for West's 2008 album.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.