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There’s No Escapism in Demi Lovato’s ‘Dancing With the Devil’

Her new album, which shares a title with her gritty new YouTube docuseries, confronts her trauma and near-fatal overdose head on. But even in its lighter moments, it’s still haunted by reality.

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Content warning: This article discusses substance use, mental health, eating disorders, and sexual assault.

The music video for Demi Lovato’s lush new single “Dancing With the Devil”—released Friday alongside her seventh album, Dancing With the Devil… The Art of Starting Over—is a detailed re-creation of her 2018 drug overdose, sexual assault, and harrowing near-death experience. The green jacket she wore that night. The wine glass, the cocktail glasses, the shot glass. The unzipping of the drug dealer’s duffel bag. That drug dealer looming ominously over her unconscious, unclothed body. The blue gloves of the paramedics. The hospital tube sewn into her neck to pump out her blood, clean it, and pump it back in. The family and friends shuddering at her hospital bedside for the 24 hours or so in which her survival was in no way assured. (She woke up legally blind; some of the damage to her recovered vision is permanent.) The sponge for her sponge bath dragging slowly across the “survivor” tattoo near where the blood tube used to be. These harrowing details pile up until you can no longer hear the lush pop song itself.

“I actually don’t think people understand how bad it actually was,” the 28-year-old veteran pop star explains, in the second episode of her ongoing YouTube documentary series, Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil, which premiered in late March. To be specific, she overdosed on heroin laced with fentanyl on July 24, 2018, in the culmination of her relapse after six years of sobriety. “I had three strokes,” she continues. “I had a heart attack. I suffered brain damage from the strokes. I can’t drive anymore. And I have blind spots in my vision, so sometimes when I go to, like, pour a glass of water, I’ll, like, totally miss the cup because I can’t see it anymore. I also had pneumonia ’cause I asphyxiated, and multiple organ failure.”

The intimate pop-star documentary is now a crucial element of the pop-star experience: It’s humanization, it’s diversification, it’s therapy, it’s album promo. In the three and a half years since Lovato’s last gritty YouTube doc, the feature-length Simply Complicated, Taylor Swift did one, and Ariana Grande did one, and Billie Eilish did one, though of course Lovato’s last doc is grittier than all three of those combined. I remember how casually Lovato tossed off the line, “I actually had anxiety around this interview, because the last time I did an interview this long, I was on cocaine.” And I remember tearing up when Lovato’s jiu jitsu instructor teared up while fantasizing about one day presenting Lovato with a black belt, if Lovato lives that long. I was charmed. I was deeply concerned. I was knowingly manipulated. And I was further invested in Demi Lovato as both a fragile human and a towering pop star. That’s the deal. But that was three and a half years ago.

Dancing With the Devil, the album, feels like dutiful promo for Dancing With the Devil, the beyond-gritty documentary series, and not the other way around. I like this new music very much, and yet the music is definitely not what I will remember three years from now. “Dancing With the Devil,” the song, is an expert slow-burn barrage of Bond Movie Theme extravagant melodrama, her spare and trembling opening line—”It’s just a little red wine, I’ll be fine”—echoed one verse later by ”It’s just a little white line, I’ll be fine / But soon that little white line is a little glass pipe.” This album is emerging on the cusp of a summer that, vaccine efficacy willing, might actually feel like summer, and yet it’s the precise opposite of pop-star escapism: The real-world catastrophes that inspired these songs won’t let the songs, or you, breathe for even one second. Very much by design, it’s all Devil and no Dancing. Wow, her voice sounds great, you think, and two seconds later you remember, as the YouTube series politely points out, that she sounds great because she basically spent two years on forced vocal rest while she fought for her life.

Verily, Lovato has a monster voice and always has, a deep and sultry and shattering bellow that has served her well across the various dizzying arcs of her 13-year pop-star career. The post-Disney pop-punk anti-princess of her 2008 solo debut Don’t Forget and 2009’s Here We Go Again. (“I’m not gonna change / In the La La Land machine,” she assured us, over roaring Warped Tour guitars, on track one of album one.) The elegant yet rowdy crossover diva of 2011’s Unbroken and 2013’s Demi. (“And every time I try to be myself / It comes out wrong like a cry for help,” she laments on a big hit called “Heart Attack.”) The bisexual provocateur of 2015’s “Cool for the Summer,” a thunderous bright spot amid an album, Confident, that Lovato now regards, per a bruising recent New York Times profile, as part of a musical era she’s loathe to revisit: “I don’t know if it’s because it reminds me of the people that were in my life during those times, or if it just doesn’t feel that authentic to myself.”

“Sorry Not Sorry,” off 2017’s Tell Me You Love Me, is a bombastic sing-along smash that is very difficult to sing along to: her specialty. But 2017 is also the year Lovato talking on YouTube eclipsed, in terms of emotional impact, Lovato singing anything anywhere. And 2018 is the year she came within five more paramedic-free minutes of dying. March 2018: Her tourmate DJ Khaled announces, to a rapturous arena crowd at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, that Lovato is six years sober. (“Six years ago I was drinking vodka out of a Sprite bottle at nine in the morning,” Lovato told the crowd. “Throwing up in the car. And I just remember thinking, this is no longer cute, this is no longer fun, and I’m just like my dad.”) June 2018: Lovato releases a weightless piano ballad called “Sober” with a chorus that begins, “Momma. I’m so sorry I’m not sober anymore.” July 2018: the overdose. January 2020: Lovato reemerges and debuts an extra-shattering piano ballad called “Anyone” at the 2020 Grammys, a bona fide Grammy Moment™ from her shaky false start to the luxurious pathos of the song itself to the crowd’s thunderous standing ovation after she nails it.

“Anyone” is now the leadoff track on Dancing With the Devil, which hits its pop-star-album marks with aplomb and even good cheer: the mournful breakup ballad (“Easy”), the gleeful post-breakup kissoff (“15 Minutes”), the troubled post-post-breakup “dancing at a pity party” lament (“Lonely People”), the boldface collabs (Ariana Grande drops by for the woozy “Met Him Last Night”). Lovato’s swooping falsetto flourish as she sings, “You don’t think I see / The way you don’t look at me.” Her only slightly forced goofiness during the breakdown to “The Kind of Lover I Am,” an acoustic-guitar-and-drum-machine bop that doubles as a dating profile: “I don’t care if you’ve got a dick. I don’t care if you’ve got a WAP. I just wanna love, you know what I’m saying?”

But the relentless harshness of real life is never far away. “Melon Cake” is a lithe and almost silly rumination on Lovato’s well-documented struggles with eating disorders: “No more melon cakes on birthdays!” begins the chorus, triumphantly. This song’s closest analog is Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” a fizzy 2010 no. 1 smash coproduced by Dr. Luke (argh) that cheerfully details a night of hedonism so intense it leads to a total blackout (also argh). No cheap escapism. None. Even Lovato’s “My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriend,” a skeletal electro-pop ode to her BFFs, features an appealingly frigid rap verse from—oh for fuck’s sake it’s Saweetie, who was in the news last week after TMZ leaked security-camera footage of her then-boyfriend Quavo pulling her to the ground during a physical altercation in an elevator. Every laugh, every come-on, every bellowed self-affirmation on this record sticks in the throat. No cheap triumphalism. None.

Late in the album—before her downbeat cover of the Donnie Darko–era downbeat cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” and before Lovato delivers the closing line “Now, I’m in a good place” with an audible shudder—we get a de facto sequel to “Sober” called “California Sober.” A primary thesis of her new YouTube series is that Lovato and her armada of handlers worked so hard to keep her totally sober that she rebelled so violently she wound up overdosing on heroin. So now, a fresher and more forgiving perspective on keeping perspective: “Used to live in fear of always slipping / But living for perfection isn’t living.” Now she’ll try drinking just a little, smoking (pot) just a little. It’s a catchy and winsome ode to moderation that has already inspired lots of fraught explainer-type content. She’ll simply have to sing louder and harder to drown out all the discourse, which is an absolutely wild thing to say about Demi Lovato.

It’s worth noting that the first big controversial pop-star documentary of 2021 was February’s New York Times/FX/Hulu coproduction Framing Britney Spears, which argued, with brutal efficacy, that one of her generation’s biggest pop stars was so thoroughly demeaned and abused by the early-’00s tabloid machine that she faltered emotionally and is still trapped, nearly 20 years later, in a baffling legal labyrinth that controls her every move. In late March, Spears finally offered her thoughts, via Instagram, on that project’s earnest attempt to defend and celebrate her: “I didn’t watch the documentary but from what I did see of it I was embarrassed by the light they put me in … I cried for two weeks and well … I still cry sometimes!” And the cycle of pop-star trauma starts anew. Her lengthy IG caption was accompanied by a video of Spears dancing to Aerosmith’s “Crazy,” but at this point who can even remember anymore to listen to the music?