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Selena Gomez's sexy new vibe shines through in 'Stars Dance'

MusicEntertainmentSelena GomezJustin BieberSpring Breakers (movie)Taylor SwiftApple iTunes

Followers of celebrity gossip have seen a lot of Selena Gomez's driveway over the last few months.

Located off a winding residential street in Tarzana, it's where paparazzi have snapped countless pictures of the former Disney Channel star and where her on-again/off-again boyfriend, Justin Bieber, was photographed one night after a reported argument between the two tween idols at a restaurant in Encino.

Arriving home first, Gomez apparently locked the gate in the driveway, leading to a widely circulated image with this immortal TMZ caption: "Biebs Denied."

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None of this action was evident on a recent afternoon in Gomez's tranquil backyard. Sipping a Coke while seated on a patio overlooking a pool and tennis court, the 21-year-old singer-actress exuded a sense of deep calm (or perhaps deep boredom) as she discussed her new album.

Yet behind her studied half-smile, Gomez seemed aware that the tabloid frenzy — and the fixation on her love life — is one sign that things are going right.

"This is a lot different than any of the records I've put out before," she said. "This transition that I'm going through has been really awkward and cool, and I've learned a lot about myself."

Released on Tuesday (when it shot straight to No. 1 on iTunes), "Stars Dance" is the fourth studio disc from Gomez, who after a stint on "Barney & Friends" found fame with her role on the Disney series "Wizards of Waverly Place."

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More importantly, though, the album comes in the wake of her appearance earlier this year in "Spring Breakers," the violent, sex-drenched crime drama from director Harmony Korine in which Gomez played one of four girls on a wild rampage through South Florida's neon-colored landscape.

That new adult vibe carries over to the suggestive lyrics and the harsh electronic textures of "Stars Dance," which Gomez said had been influenced by dubstep superstar Skrillex's work on the "Spring Breakers" score. "I just loved his beats," she said. "When you watch 'Spring Breakers' you can physically feel the music in the party scenes."

Gomez described her version of the sound — heard in tunes like the fuzzed-out "Birthday" and the album's throbbing hit single, "Come & Get It" — as "baby dubstep" but admitted it might surprise fans accustomed to the gentler feel of her previous albums. "It's going to throw people off, I'm sure," she said.

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Mio Vukovic, head of A&R at Gomez's label Hollywood Records, said his goal for "Stars Dance" was simple: "I only cared about whether she could compete with the artists she loves: Rihanna, Pink, Taylor Swift." (It's probably no coincidence that the album contains a dance hall-flavored track in which Gomez sings about shining bright like a diamond.) "I felt like it was time for her to not be the outsider looking in at radio but part of the fabric of it."

Historically, artists coming out of kids' television have had trouble gaining traction on Top 40 playlists. For Gomez, though, the resistance already appears to be fading.

"The first time I heard 'Come & Get It,' I knew it would be one of the biggest songs of the summer," said Michelle Boros, music director at L.A.'s KAMP-FM (97.1). Boros thinks the song works in part because its "sexier" quality feels like "an authentic reflection of who she is right now. She's speaking in her own way."

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That's an impression echoed by Niles Hollowell-Dhar of the Cataracs, who produced several cuts on "Stars Dance." "All young pop stars inevitably reach that moment when they want to be perceived as more mature," he said. "But I think Selena actually has the capacity to do it. Working with her in the studio felt like working with a grown-up artist."

However authentic her maturity, Gomez's image is no less tightly managed than it was during her Disney days.

This month a story in the Toronto Star made waves online for its description of the hoops a writer had to jump through in order to interview the singer. (First rule: No questions about Bieber.) And though Gomez seemed perfectly approachable at her home — which she shares with her mother and stepfather and their new baby — her publicist was quick to jump in after I made joking reference to a crib stationed in the living room. "She didn't have a baby!" he said.

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Yet the move from playing a fictional character to doing mainstream pop traditionally requires a lowering of that guard (or at least the illusion of its lowering). Fans want to believe they're getting some sense of what it's like to be a given star; Swift, for instance, is a master at the art of celebrity intimacy.

Gomez said she understands the fascination. "It's in the back of my mind when I record any song," she said, adding that "Stars Dance" is to some degree "about me stepping out of my shell a little bit more." But only a little bit: "There's really two songs [on the album] that kind of have anything that could be made into something big," she said.

One of them, "Love Will Remember," is a pensive mid-tempo tune that appears to be about a breakup with Bieber; Gomez said she plans to give it the solo-acoustic treatment on her upcoming world tour, which launches next month and will stop at Staples Center in November.

"The rest of the songs," she said, "are just about me having fun in my 20s."

If that means some of the club-ready music feels scrubbed of specifics, it's hard to blame her. As we wrapped up our conversation, one of her dancers arrived to discuss a recent rehearsal, while a team of hair-and-makeup artists began preparing Gomez for an awards-show gig that evening. And they weren't alone: Outside, across the street from the singer's driveway, four photographers had shown up, waiting for their target to emerge.

mikael.wood@latimes.com

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