Selena Gomez's new single, “Bad Liar,” was released on May 18, 2017. In the three weeks since, I have thought about little else. Musically, “Bad Liar” is a fantastically catchy song, and has lyrical moments that I respect, including but not limited to that thing where Gomez chants, “I'm tryin', I'm tryin', I'm tryin',” no fewer than 60 times in three minutes. It's exhausting, and that's what trying feels like! But, inevitably, it presents a flawed conclusion.
Specifically, my waking hours have been haunted by a lyric that occurs roughly 17 seconds into the song, when Gomez, after explaining that she inadvertently transposes the face of the man she loves onto random passersby, moans, “Tryna play it coy / Tryna make it disappear / But just like the battle of Troy / There's nothing subtle here.”
There's a lot to unpack here, and I am going to do it.
“Battle of Troy” is a good solve for the obvious problem of “coy” rhyming too easily with “boy,” a creative line that, if it made any sense, would land like a wooden horse in an unsuspecting town full of Trojans. However, in relation to actual history and the integrity of language, this lyric is troubling. Every time I hear it, I am blown back into the recesses of my own mind. I have brought it up to no fewer than 11 people at parties. Last night, I had a dream that I approached Selena Gomez — whom I have indiscriminately adored since she fucked shit up all over Waverly Place — and asked for her personal thoughts on the nuances of the Trojan War.
I'm no historian, and admittedly, all I really recall about the Trojan War is the Trojan Horse and Orlando Bloom and the fact that the entire thing was probably wildly embellished by Homer. However, I am near-certain that calling the battle of Troy “not subtle” is extremely bizarre on several levels. But in the interest of giving my best friend Selena Gomez the benefit of the doubt, I thought I'd investigate her breathy claim and attempt to determine, once and for all: Was the battle of Troy subtle? Or nah?
First, let's address the semantics at play here. According to the internet, “subtle” means “delicately complex and understated.” To describe the battle of Troy as particularly unsubtle — unsubtle enough to call out in song — implies that there is a sliding scale of subtlety in battles, wherein some battles are subtle and others are not and they must be designated accordingly. I ask you: Can a person, even if that person is Selena Gomez, really describe any battle as “subtle”? Isn't battle, by definition, the most simplistic, overstated activity of all time? The whole point of a battle is for two groups of men to brutally murder one another until one group has been wiped out in its entirety. There's really not a whole lot of room for nuance there. I am trying (and tryin' and tryin' and tryin' and tryin') to imagine a general imploring a group of soldiers to fight subtly: “Kill everyone you see, but please do it in an understated manner.”
In other words, all battles are non-subtle. Therefore it is reiterative and pointless to describe a battle as “not subtle," and indicates a staggering lack of battle comprehension.
To confirm this conclusion, I called up my dad, a history major who loves talking about battles. “There was nothing subtle about the battle of Troy,” he said. “They just hacked each other to pieces.” He paused for a moment. “But I don't know what that word means in the context of war. It's inapt. I can see how, say, guerrilla forces would be subtler than traditional forces, or if you had a covert war where, for example, spies were killing each other as proxies on behalf of some larger power behind them, then maybe — MAYBE — the word 'subtle' could refer to the larger powers' involvement.” He paused again. “But no. Even that kind of conflict doesn't lend itself to being described as 'subtle.' The battles themselves, the word 'subtle' is completely inappropriate. It's either a complete misunderstanding of the word 'subtle' or a complete misunderstanding of war.”
Thanks, Dad. But let's, just for a moment, humor Selena and imagine that there is a way to rank battles in terms of subtlety. Within this imaginary logical void, if we were to deeply interrogate the battle of Troy, we'd find that, in fact, it was ... kind of subtle. Near the end of the Trojan War, the Greeks piled into a giant wooden horse, wheeled the horse into Troy as a gift, pretended to sail away, then emerged from the bowels of the horse and destroyed the entire city. This is sneaky as fuck, both a delicately complex and an understated battle tactic; in fact, it perfectly aligns with the second internet definition of “subtle,” which is “making use of clever and indirect methods to achieve something.” If Selena Gomez really wanted to find an unsubtle battle on which to pontificate, she could have chosen, say, the Battle of Stalingrad, or the Battle of Gettysburg, neither of which included the use of a fake farm animal. However, neither of these battles' names rhymes with “coy,” and it was apparently more significant for Selena to rhyme something with “coy” than it was to accurately sort mass murders by degree of nuance.
Ultimately, then, we find ourselves in something of an intellectual finger trap: If we accept Selena's assertion that the battle of Troy was not subtle, we must accept that there are gradations of subtlety to war, and if we apply degrees of subtlety to wars, we must conclude that the battle of Troy was subtle.
And yet. If we return to the initial lyric, and pay close attention to the line that precedes it, it's possible to imagine that Gomez underwent this very same thought process when editing the song, and worked backward yet again to strengthen what was an initially flimsy analogy. “Tryna play it coy / Tryna make it disappear” could, for all intents and purposes, refer to the Greeks hiding inside the Trojan Horse — Greeks who were trying to play it coy and make themselves disappear (inside said horse) for several hours. It's true that once the Greeks emerged from the horse, there was nothing subtle about their vengeful slaughtering of the Trojans. But they did, at least for a time, attempt coyness and invisibility — in other words, subtlety — only to obliterate it as soon as they emerged.
It's possible, then, that Selena is extending this entire analogy — and not just the concept of “subtlety” — to her own unencumbered lust. The analogy proceeds chronologically, rather than being the sum of its parts: Selena sees a man on the street, assumes it's her would-be lover, realizes it isn't, tries to hide inside the Trojan Horse that is her own body, but eventually must expose herself for the bloodthirsty sex warrior that she is. In this sense, Selena Gomez proves that she is both a bad liar and a good historian, worthy of interrogation but ultimately trustworthy on the subjects of lust, linguistics, and ancient European history.