For the cursory viewer, Selena Gomez’ performance at the American Music Awards might have been shocking. During the performance of her new song, “Wolves” (featuring Danish producer Marshmallo), human wolves emerged from the onstage foliage and pushed Selena around on stage. Directed by superstar Canadian photographer and director Petra Collins, the entire performance is wrapped in a visual treatment that’s both vibrant and eerie.
But the most striking subject of the performance is Selena herself. Standing casually but firmly, in a white nightgown and sneakers, she commands attention that’s a far cry from what we’ve come to expect from female powerhouses at similarly sized events. There is no massive finale finish, and no pyrotechnics before she ends her performance with a silent thank you into the microphone. It was slightly uncomfortable to watch, but it was mesmerizing nonetheless.
— aria (@YoureNotSelena) November 20, 2017
For those without context to not only Petra Collins’ work and Selena’s own journey, the performance is jarring in all the right ways. Selena Gomez’s performance on the AMA stage was the first since her life-saving kidney transplant earlier this year. While she has shared that she is thriving following the procedure, she has also been open about the reality that she is also healing.
In the past, Petra Collins’ work has brought a distinct brand of delicacy to artists who have eclipsed superstardom. Collins deals closely with deeply intimate portrayals of the human experience through colours that weave intricate narratives, and shadows that illuminate essential, often unseen, attributes of her subjects. When she shot Chance the Rapper for cover of Teen Vogue, her portrayal underscored his demeanour as equally apprehensive and hopeful; her Kim Kardashian cover forWonderland. positioned the stratospheric pop icon as angelic; laid-back. And her images that explain youth experience as sensational and infinite, have all but defined the pages of Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie Mag.
This is why Gomez’s pairing with Collins makes so much sense. An often forgotten function of sizeable awards shows is their ability to mark a distinct moment not only in public consciousness but in an artist’s life — recall Kanye West’s performance of “Hey Mama” at the Grammy’s one week after his mother passed away; rarely has an artist given personal grief such a public showcase. Selena’s post-op performance following her kidney transplant is in a similar vein. To underscore a new era of her artistry, her performance hinged on using her platform at the awards show to accurately represent her life right now.
Without the assurance of a confirmation that Gomez received assistance with her vocals, the real question is why it should even matter in the first place? Why should she receive such harsh public backlash ? After undergoing the trauma of a serious medical event, she’s allowed to re-enter the public stage on her own terms. If that involves lip-synching and presenting her work in her own vision, that’s not only her prerogative but her right. For spectators to expect that she’ll fall into entrenched ideas of what a major performance looks like negates her ability to honestly respond to her own personal situation.
At its core, Selena’s performance encourages a new way to think about vulnerability on screen. And while her performance lacked the obvious celebration that usually mark awards show of this scale, hers was triumphant all the same.