This review contains mentions of rape and sexual assault.
At the 2008 American Music Awards, Demi Lovato—then Disney’s leading lady for her star turn in Camp Rock—smiled as a red-carpet reporter asked about the inspiration behind her pop-punk solo music. “Believe it or not, being 16, I’ve been through a lot,” she answered with a dignified giggle. “Come on, how much heartbreak can you have at 16?” the man insisted. “Oh, a lot,” Lovato immediately retorted.
Over the next few years, as she dutifully performed the role of a chaste pop star—albeit one fascinated by metal music—Lovato struggled under the immense pressure of the media and music industries (child stars, we so often forget, are workers). Behind the scenes, Lovato struggled with an eating disorder, self-harm, and substance use. She recently revealed that she was raped at the age of 15; though she reported the assault to adults, the perpetrator continued to work alongside her. After entering a treatment facility for the first time at 18, Lovato was transparent about her struggles with addiction and recovery.
In the summer of 2018, after six years of sobriety, Lovato relapsed. On July 24, she overdosed on opioids, causing three strokes, a heart attack, multiple organ failure, pneumonia, permanent brain damage, and lasting vision problems. As she explains in the recent documentary Dancing With the Devil, the drug dealer who supplied Lovato that night sexually assaulted her and left her for dead. It is a miracle that she survived.
Arriving alongside the documentary and a blitz of confessional interviews, Lovato’s seventh album, Dancing with the Devil…The Art of Starting Over takes control of the narrative. Across 19 songs, the 28-year-old leans into her personal struggles; the pop star who once professed a desire to “be free of all demons” has seemingly accepted the reality that she must live alongside them. On the power ballad “Anyone,” Lovato tries to find solace in her art but comes up short. “A hundred million stories/And a hundred million songs/I feel stupid when I sing/Nobody’s listening to me,” she belts. Written before her relapse, it’s a cry for help from a place of loneliness and desperation. The slinky “Dancing with the Devil” outlines the precipitous slope that led to overdose: “A little red wine” became “a little white line,” and then “a little glass pipe.” “ICU (Madison’s Lullabye)” relives the moment when Lovato woke up in the hospital, legally blind and unable to recognize her little sister.
After this somber three-song prologue, Dancing with the Devil expands to reveal the person Lovato is—or aims to be—today; there is a lot of shed skin, rewritten endings, and references to reaching heaven. While Lovato’s previous record, 2017’s Tell Me You Love Me, dabbled in pool-party R&B and electropop, here she explores an array of influences from “The Art of Starting Over”’s soft rock to a haunting cover of Gary Jules’ haunting cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World.” “Lonely People” aims for a stadium singalong with a chorus that name-drops Romeo and Juliet, undercutting the positive vibes with the starkest of closing thoughts—“Truth is we all die alone/So you better love yourself before you go.”
At nearly an hour long, the album attempts to cover a vast amount of ground, airing out years of trauma and reconfiguring Lovato’s public identity. She offers a state of the union about her recovery—she’s “California Sober”—and her sexuality. On “The Kind of Lover I Am,” a sequel of sorts to her 2015 bi-curious anthem “Cool for the Summer,” Lovato fully embraces her queerness and her overflowing heart. “I don’t care if you’ve got a dick/I don’t care if you got a WAP/I just wanna love/You know what I’m saying,” she says at the outro. “Like, I just wanna fucking share my life with someone at some point.”
Lovato is certainly not the first pop star to speak out about the music industry’s perpetuation of sexual and emotional abuse; much like Kesha, her gut-wrenching disclosures refuse to be pushed under the rug for fear of bad publicity or isolating a fanbase. But even when Lovato strikes an upbeat or optimistic tone, it’s difficult to look beyond the tragedy at the album’s core. The synthy “Melon Cake” takes its name from the birthday dessert Lovato’s team served her in the years preceding her overdose: a cylinder of ripe watermelon frosted in fat-free whipped cream and topped with sprinkles and candles. Even as Lovato confidently declares that melon cakes are a thing of the past, the image is so depressing it’s difficult to focus on anything else, especially on what is intended to be a fun song. But isn’t that what so many of us do to survive? We attempt to reframe our traumas as lessons learned; we use humor as a defense mechanism; we move on because dwelling in guilt or shame furthers the destructive spiral.
One of the rare moments when Dancing With the Devil moves beyond a 1:1 recreation of Lovato’s life is “Met Him Last Night,” a slinky duet with Ariana Grande. Both artists have lived through horrific tragedy and responded with elegance and empathy, writing songs about their experiences both for themselves and anyone who might see their own trauma reflected back. But “Met Him Last Night” does not aim for catharsis, at least not explicitly. Instead, the two blasély trill about lost innocence and deception in the shadow of “him,” apparently Satan. It’s the closest thing to escapism on an album wholly focused on hard reality.
On the other end of the spectrum is the music video for “Dancing With the Devil,” which recreates the night of Lovato’s overdose and the subsequent battle for her life in the ICU in startling detail. There’s the machine that cleaned her blood through a vein in her neck, the duffle bag presumably full of drugs, and the sponge bath that softly traces over the “survivor” tattoo on her neck. Even though Lovato co-directed the video, stating that sharing her lived experiences is part of her healing process, the visual feels almost unnecessarily voyeuristic: an artist recreating their worst moment with the assumption that it speaks for itself.
Dancing With the Devil asks you to trust that what Demi Lovato went through is enough. The music will undoubtedly reach listeners who struggle with their own burdens and look to Lovato as a role model, just as they have since she was that teenager on the red carpet, forced to justify the depths of her lived experience. This taking-off-the-makeup moment brings us closer to her than ever before: the four-part documentary rollout, the multiple album editions, the no-holds-barred press tour. But the diaristic nature of the music, and the blunt force with which it is delivered, showcases Demi Lovato the person and sidelines Demi Lovato the artist. It is an unenviable position: to have a story so harrowing that the emotional catharsis we feel in real life overshadows what she wanted to create on the album.
Buy: Rough Trade
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