On the last Saturday night in August, Demi Lovato sang the national anthem at a major sporting event. This was—until recently, anyway—a benignly honorable thing for a pop star to do, a chance to step out from behind the Auto-Tune and requisite choreography and remind the world, Yes, when I want to, I can really fucking belt it out. This, though, was no ordinary Major Sporting Event. It was the Floyd Mayweather–Conor McGregor fight, one of the more depressing collisions of capitalism and unchecked machismo in recent history, not exactly the ring o’er which our flag has most proudly waved. What Lovato seemed to be reminding the world that night was more along the lines of, Yes, I do have an album coming out soon, and there is very little I won’t do to promote it.
And yet, as is often the case with Demi Lovato, there was more to the story. Though boxing and UFC fans will be forgiven—THIS TIME—for not knowing the biography of a former Disney Channel star, Lovato trains at Jay Glazer’s famed Unbreakable Performance Center, alongside fighters Chuck Liddell and Cung Le. She boxes, has expressed interest in cage-fighting, and, just days after the Mayweather-McGregor fight, she earned a blue belt in jiu-jitsu. Last spring UFC middleweight contender “Suga” Rashad Evans saw Lovato at the gym and Instagrammed a selfie with her, marveling, “She trains crazy hard! Hell, I thought she was training for a fight but they say that’s just how she rolls.”
This fighting spirit was all over her last album, Confident—perhaps to a fault. Demi Lovato has little interest in subtlety, and she sometimes feels like the pop star equivalent of a jammed caps-lock button. “I’D DO ANYTHING FOR YOU!” she wailed on one of Confident’s better songs. “NAIL MY HEART TO THE CEILING! PUT MY FIST THROUGH A WALL!” It made the demolition described in Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” seem comparably tame. Elsewhere, she name-checked Ronda Rousey (who was, the fighter tweeted, “really honored”) and on an entirely different song, sang, “Knuckles out and the guard in my mouth / When you’re hungry for the next round, I’ll be waiting for you.” Confident seemed like an album reverse engineered not so much to replicate the success of Katy Perry’s “Roar,” but to hop in the ring and kick its candy-ass.
I am relieved to report that Lovato’s new album, Tell Me You Love Me, is better, more relaxed, and a lot less eager to punch you in the mouth. It’s also a reason to take her seriously as a pop vocalist and a reminder that more people should have been doing so all along.
If you ever have 42 minutes to spare and wish to spend them cultivating respect for Demi Lovato, might I suggest watching Stay Strong, a 2012 documentary about her that aired on MTV. Though she was only 19 at the time it was filmed, she speaks with a wisdom and a candor that transcends the clichés we expect from young celebrities. “There’s days where I don’t think I can make it,” she admits. “And now I’m healthy, but that’s the thing. An addiction is an addiction … and this is a daily battle that I will face for the rest of my life.” The title of the documentary, she reveals halfway through, comes from the cursive tattoos she got on her wrists, partially to cover up her old cutting scars.
Like many child stars, Lovato grew up in dizzying fast-motion. She was a Dallas-raised pageant girl who began acting professionally when she was 7 years old on Barney & Friends alongside another future star, Selena Gomez. (Do yourself a favor and fall down that YouTube hole.) Lovato entered the all-powerful Disney Channel orbit a few years later, and in 2008 her life became a tween dream come true when she was cast as the lead in one of the network’s original movies, Camp Rock, alongside the Jonas Brothers. It became one of the most successful Disney Channel movies in the franchise’s history: Nearly 9 million people watched its premiere, which is more than a million more than watched the youth-cultural phenomenon High School Musical. Camp Rock’s tremendous success rippled beyond the Disney universe when its soundtrack debuted at no. 3 on the Billboard albums chart and the song that Lovato sings in the climactic moment of the film, “This Is Me,” hit no. 9 on the Hot 100. Her life changed overnight, accelerating into a cycle that she remembers as, “Tour, TV show, movie, album. Tour, TV show, movie, album.” In Stay Strong, Lovato sighs, “I was exhausted. I had so many issues underneath that needed to be taken care of, and we just kept putting Band-Aids over it.”
The final Camp Rock tour did not exactly have a Disney-approved ending: After the last stop, Lovato checked herself into rehab. She was only 18, but she was seeking treatment for issues she’d already spent more than a decade dealing with. “I battled depression at a really young age, which started when I was 7 years old,” she said. She has a memory of being 4 years old, touching her stomach in the mirror “and thinking I was fat.” Struggles with bulimia, cutting, and drug use later followed. It took several trips to rehab for her treatment plan to stick and, during her last visit, Lovato was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. (She has since become an advocate for mental health issues and spoke about her experience last year at the Democratic National Convention. A clip of this speech is, for now, the only Demi Lovato video you can access through C-SPAN’s website.)
Contemporary pop music—and especially the kind performed by young women—often traffics in themes of triumph over vaguely defined adversity. (“Do you know what it’s like to feel so in the dark, to dream about a life where you’re the shining star?” Lovato asked on her Camp Rock hit.) When Lovato first checked into rehab, the scandal surrounding a “fallen Disney star” might have seemed like a career death sentence; instead, her honesty in talking about these experiences bound her more intimately to her fan base, who were themselves aging into problems too complicated to be resolved in 22-minute Disney Channel plotlines. The most striking scene in Stay Strong is when Lovato allows a camera crew to film her first Thanksgiving since leaving an eating-disorder treatment center. In moments like these, there’s something poignant, and even symbiotic, about her relationship to her fans. “I didn’t go into treatment thinking, OK, now I’m going to be an inspiration,” she said recently. “At times, I was resentful for having that kind of responsibility, but now, it’s really become a part of my life. It holds me accountable.”
She has, in recent years, returned the favor. She now co-owns an eating-disorder treatment center and brings the center’s CEO on tour with her, as a resource for her fans.
Lovato is one of those omnipresent artists who seems to pop up and perform at every awards show (indeed, the day after Mayweather-McGregor, she joined the VMAs via satellite from Vegas to perform her current hit “Sorry Not Sorry”). But when you know her history, her ubiquity in the music industry feels like a defiant show of will. She is sober in a pop world currently obsessed with party-girl personas, she is a famous person recovering from an eating disorder at a time when internet trolls can snark on her every ounce of body fat. You’d worry about Demi Lovato if she seemed anything less than strong as all hell.
Something else is striking about revisiting Stay Strong: Lovato has become a much better singer since then. Her tone was once a little nasal, her control a little wobbly—not great crimes for a singer of spunky tween-pop songs, but things that would sooner or later have to progress if she was going to successfully transition into a more adult pop singer. It’s happened. Tell Me You Love Me is further proof. Sure, “Sorry Not Sorry” is undeniably fun, and there is a glorious, ridiculous song on this album called “Daddy Issues” that I, too, eagerly await its performance one day on RuPaul’s Drag Race. But the most promising thing about this new album is how Lovato leans into what she does best: high-drama, theater-kid-worthy ballads.
While nobody was looking, Demi Lovato suddenly became one of the great torch singers in contemporary pop. Sure, plenty of fans have known this since her wrenching 2011 hit “Skyscraper,” but her voice has only become more muscular in the past few years. Perhaps the most stunning moment on the new album is the flickering torch song “You Don’t Do It for Me Anymore,” an Adele-grade tearjerker that Demi pulls off with flair. Another highlight is “Crybaby,” a swinging cabaret number that she gives a modern kind of sass. And then there’s the sultry, DJ Mustard–produced “Lonely,” which—like Solange’s “Mad” before it—continues the recent trend of Lil Wayne appearing on female singers’ albums to show a different side of himself on incredibly emo verses (“I can’t see the forest from the tree, the water from the sea and I was starting to believe but it’s a forest full of dreams”).
Nearly two years later, though, I remain haunted by Demi Lovato’s finest moment, when she performed the stripped-down Confident ballad “Stone Cold” on Saturday Night Live. Ever the fighter, Lovato shows up to every TV performance like she’s got something to prove, but this one was something else. “If happy is hurt,” she sang, her voice breaking under the weight of feeling, “I’m happy for you.” She seemed, at one point in the song, to be crying, and you almost thought she wasn’t going to make it through. But her voice gathered strength as she went on, as if drawing electricity from dark clouds and finally raining down on her with sweet relief. She was channeling pain from her past and emerging cleansed. Demi Lovato’s music, at its best, is a reminder that vulnerability isn’t weakness. It’s the kind of strong you don’t want to mess with, in or out of the ring.