There have been music videos at the edge of innovation before, but with her new one, Selena Gomez has turned the concept on its head: “Wolves” was conceived and shot as a vertical video. If you watch on your computer, the video will be sandwiched between thick black rectangles, the action only taking up a thin central sliver of the video box. But if you watch on a smartphone, Gomez will take over your whole phone screen, immersing you in a text exchange and then FaceTime call with the pop star. (The video was originally released exclusively on Spotify before coming to YouTube on Thursday.)
Gomez isn’t the first artist to release a vertical music video—country star Bailey Bryan found success earlier this year with her video for “Own It,” according to an Associated Press report—but she is the most major star to try out the format. Her 129 million Instagram followers make her a potent force with the smartphone crowd: Depending on the day, she’s usually the top or second-most-followed star on the entire platform.
In the clip, Selena is talking with her collaborator on the song, Marshmello—he’s the fellow who appears in the corner of the screen, wearing a marshmallow-shaped pail on his head in a Sia-esque bid to conceal his identity. But the idea of the video is that—never mind Marshmello!—it’s like you’re texting and FaceTime-ing with the star, and that thanks to your close, personal relationship, serenading you is a thing Selena might reasonably do.
Everything about the video is optimized to heighten that intimacy, which must be catnip for Gomez’s legions of fans: She’s wearing a robe and her hair is just-got-out-of-the-shower wet, or at least styled to look that way. She appears to hold the phone in selfie mode in one of her hands, carrying it around the house as she shoots, and even dancing one-handed to maintain the illusion. She walks around a bedroom, a marble-laden kitchen, and a sunny back patio, but you never see much of the backdrop because the camera is so close to her face. It appears to really be shot on an iPhone, so sometimes the lighting is bad, or she looks washed out.
While Gomez may be at the vanguard of a new form, I wish she and other artists experimenting with the vertical format would spend a little more time thinking about content. The video coasts along on the very fact that it is vertical, even though an aspect ratio does not a concept make. As exciting as FaceTime-ing with Selena would be in real life, no one seems to have come up with any plot elements for this thing beyond “Selena has a phone.” That this is happening on a phone isn’t interesting in its own right. This could have been the “Thriller” of vertical videos—instead it’s the “She’s Out of My Life.” Yeah, I barely remember that one, either.
But then again, Gomez is the one with those 129 million followers. She must know what she’s doing. I remember one photo she posted last year on Instagram, of her holding a glass-bottle Coca-Cola with her lips pursed around a candy-striped straw as if to drink it, if one could believe for a second that Selena Gomez would drink a full-sugar soda. When I saw it, I thought it looked like the cheesiest, most staged, most nakedly commercial #ad I’d ever seen. It went on to become Instagram’s most liked post of the year.