The year may only be four months old, but it already seems that 2021 will be the year that we finally take stock on how the media, and wider society, treated young female celebrities at the start of the century. Whether it be uncomfortable David Letterman interviews with the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, or the sad, disturbing documentary Framing Britney Spears, it’s clear that those were dark days indeed.
Demi Lovato‘s story is arguably one of the most harrowing. Famous since her early teens, the recent documentary Dancing With The Devil details how she was raped at age 15, which led to an eating disorder and a near fatal drug overdose in 2018. Lovato describes her album Dancing With The Devil… The Art of Starting Over as the ‘non-official soundtrack to the documentary’ and, as you can imagine, some pretty weighty topics are covered.
Indeed, at times it almost feels a bit intrusive to listen to – like looking at the pages of someone’s diary. As in the accompanying documentary, Lovato is disarmingly open and honest, and she talks of the pressure to weigh a certain amount (The Way You Don’t Look At Me), eating disorders (Melon Cake, possibly the jauntiest song about having a birthday “treat” of watermelon and whipped cream) and pansexuality (The Kind Of Lover I Am, where she declares “I don’t care if you have a dick, I don’t care if you have a WAP”).
This may all sound a bit too doomladen to listen to, but Lovato and her collaborators never lose sight of the fact that this is a pop album first and foremost. She may not have the vocal gymnastics of a Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, but her voice is strong, warm and sounds fantastic on early ballads like Anyone or ICU (Madison’s Lullaby).
That early section of the album is perhaps the best part – the astonishing Anyone is a song that you never thought you’d hear any former teen idol sing, with lines like “I feel stupid when I sing” and “I used to crave the world’s attention, I think I cried too many times”. With just a piano as her stark back-up, it’s an opener that demands to be listened to.
Although she sounds at her best on the ballads, there are plenty of fun moments to be had. Met Him Last Night is a slick pop duet with Ariana Grande which lightly skips along, while My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriends is a sugary slice of female solidarity girl-power pop. While a few too many tracks fall into formula, now and again a track appears which stops you in your tracks, such as Lovato’s cover of Tears For Fears‘ Mad World (using the Gary Jules/Michael Andrews template, which sounds even more effective and eerie in this context).
If anything, the album ends up becoming tripped up by its own ambition. The structure is a bit odd, with three songs acting as a ‘prologue’ before an ‘introduction’ to the proper album appears four songs in. It’s also undeniably far too long (the deluxe version clocks in at a whopping 73 minutes) which makes a fair amount of the record seem a bit bloated and unnecessary.
Yet when trauma is looked straight in the eye, it’s good to see that there’s some light edging in as well. Butterfly sees Lovato making peace with her estranged father while California Sober is a hopeful, uplifting number about staying straight, West Coast style. After everything Lovato has been through over the last few years, it would be understandable if she never wanted to record another album again – the fact that she’s produced one as coherent and occasionally powerful as this one is all credit to her.