It all started with a purple dinosaur.
Yep, the divisive children's character Barney is directly responsible for launching the careers of two North Texas-raised pop stars, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato. Now 23 years old, both women are shedding old skins and putting out new albums that serve as declarations of independence.
Their lives up to this point? Parallel, to say the least.
Gomez and Lovato first got to know each other and the titular dino of Barney & Friends in 2002 when they joined the pint-size cast of the PBS kids show. Filming together in locations north of Dallas gave rise to a friendship that stayed intact as Grand Prairie's Gomez and Dallas' Lovato later moved with their moms to California to pursue post-Barney opportunities.
TV experience benefited both as they embarked on their teen years working for Disney projects (Gomez made waves on Wizards of Waverly Place, Lovato did Camp Rock and Sonny With a Chance). Part of the Disney tradition of young triple-threat performers, they both began to pursue music dreams as well.
Music turned out to be the more frequent move for the stars, at least when it came to expressing their own ideas. Gomez's first three albums with her band, the Scene, mirrored radio trends, oscillating between sassy rockers and pop anthems. Lovato's approach was equally unsubtle, but she focused more on Kelly Clarkson-esque belting tunes that better suited her vocal strengths.
The year 2013 saw both singers hit the radio and charts with more mature subject matter. Gomez's first true solo album without the Scene, Stars Dance, gave us the sexually charged hit "Come & Get It" while Lovato's Demi led with the ultra-poppy "Heart Attack."
Their first adult smashes -- released as they were turning 21 -- came at a time when we were also getting to know more about their personal lives. Gomez's on-again, off-again relationship with Justin Bieber garnered endless headlines. Lovato's own candor about her past addictions and struggles made her immensely more relatable than her fellow judges on The X Factor.
Gomez and Lovato have retained their close friendship, save for a small Twitter-related spat a few years ago (MTV recently posted a whole timeline of their friendship if you want to know more). Now that they've settled into their 20s, it makes sense that their new records, both released within the last 10 days, attempt to peel back emotional and physical layers.
Lovato's Confident, which came out Friday, is the brasher and more diverse of the two records. Her nimble voice allows her to reconstitute pretty much any pop-vocal style. She can be strong and defiant in the self-assured title track and then whispery and seductive in the lust-riddled "Cool for the Summer." She transforms from Lana Del Rey to Jennifer Holliday during the piano tune "Stone Cold," and then wails in the soulful ode to her late dad, "Father."
Where Confident has the thrills and spills, though, Gomez's Revival achieves the ever-desirable cohesiveness of style. Most of the tracks build as organically as modern pop songs can, and feature a voice that blends in rather than stands out. Say what you want about that, but it works beautifully for the plucky opening title track and the current radio smash "Good for You." Gomez as a musical performer has something in common with the late Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, the Texas icon for whom she's named -- her vocal choices are rarely overwrought.
Both young performers get personal through lyrics. Lovato sings about the constant effort to resist past addictions in "Old Ways"; Gomez addresses the pains of dealing with an unpredictable lover in "Sober."
While Gomez doesn't refer directly to her recently revealed battle with the autoimmune disease lupus, from which she's now in remission, the pains of keeping the disease and its treatment quiet for months likely informed the emotions of some of her new tunes. "Survivors" and "Rise" both feature infectious messages of hope.
One thing's certain regarding both new LPs -- they owe many of their sounds to the same producers who create the lion's share of radio hits today. We're talking about Max Martin, Rock Mafia, Stargate and Hit-Boy -- the names you see over and over if you read liner notes. With that hit-making potential on board, we'll probably be hearing the voices of Gomez and Lovato constantly for several months to come.
Somewhere, that big purple dinosaur swells with pride.