Originally written and published by me for PopMatters.
Demi Lovato and her music have saved my life more times than I can count. This is a sentiment shared often among members of her fanbase, the Lovatics, since her discography—which has consisted largely of heartfelt, confessional ballads—has an effect akin to the one Judy Garland’s had on homosexuals in the postwar era: her music tends to bypass the ears and go straight for the heart.
I remember exactly where I was when Lovato entered rehab for the first time in 2010—I was thirteen and heartbroken that it effectively cancelled my favorite Disney Channel series, Sonny With a Chance. Likewise, I remember exactly where I was when the singer suffered a near fatal drug overdose in July 2018: at the tail end of my own period of depression, the result of a tumultuous official descent into young adulthood, where listening to Lovato’s music had felt like one of the only signs of hope. But with the release of the heartbreaking single “Sober” a month prior, where she confessed to breaking her sobriety after six years, it marked the beginning of not only the most transitional period in the singer’s life thus far but also an important milestone for her diehards: her suffering officially no longer belonged solely to us and our feelings, as if it ever did to begin with.
“I tried and tried and tried some more / Told secrets ‘til my voice was sore,” sings Lovato on “Anyone,” the opener to her new album Dancing With the Devil… The Art of Starting Over, a song first heard to the world as her comeback performance at the 62nd Grammy Awards in January 2020. Lovato’s relapse and overdose in 2018 also marked the end of a decade-long relationship with her former management team, whom she has since said took extreme measures to control her weight, appearance, and sobriety from the time she first got sober in 2012—measures that were most likely unhealthy for someone continuing to suffer from an eating disorder and mental illness. Although she has since signed with Scooter Braun, longtime manager of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, the physical and psychological repercussions of being under the thumb of her old team from the time she was fifteen years old are still present and very much influence and inform her new music.
Lovato’s latest record is split into two sections that effectively serve as before and after periods: the first three tracks, including the new single “Dancing With the Devil” and “ICU (Madison’s Lullaby),” sound like songs that were leftover from a different Demi Lovato album that was never finished, one that would be more in line with the lyrical content of her previous studio albums, all of which fit under the description of emotionally heavy. But just before you’re ready to break open a second box of tissues, the singer’s voice is heard introducing the second part of the record, The Art of Starting Over: “Let me take you on a journey / One that sheds the skin of my past / And embodies the person I am today / This is the art of starting over.” And what a journey it is.
Dancing With the Devil… The Art of Starting Over is Demi Lovato like we have never heard before: she is sassy and carefree while also serious about her identity and personhood in a way that she has been itching to be for years. Although the singer came out as bisexual in 2017, her new record embraces all the messy parts of her sexual identity and doesn’t seek to rigidly define them in any sense. (Although it’s still somehow cool and trendy for Halsey to be openly bisexual, Demi is just a queerbaiter, according to Internet trolls.) This is also the first of seven Lovato albums to not be released in conjunction with the Disney-owned Hollywood Records, and the creative freedom resulting from her new management is recognizable from the moment the title track begins: “Give me a pen, I’m rewriting another ending / It didn’t turn out the way that I wanted / I had the armor, I wore it much in the summer / But the arrow hit me right where the heart is.”
The album also makes use of standout collaborations with Ariana Grande and Noah Cyrus, both of whom do not share vocal abilities with Lovato whatsoever on paper, but both “Met Him Last Night” and “Easy” are somehow masterpieces nonetheless. Dancing With the Devil… The Art of Starting Over also contains a surprising amount of diss tracks presumably aimed at the singer’s ex-fiancé Max Ehrich, with Lovato clarifying that she won’t dance at a pity party or allow him anything beyond the fifteen minutes of fame he was looking for. She delivers breathtaking vocals on the Julia Michaels-penned “The Way You Don’t Look at Me,” reminds that insecurities don’t take vacations on “Carefully,” and grapples with getting too caught up in the opinions of others on the Sam Fischer duet “What Other People Say,” but the central highlights of the album are two moments where it’s truly evident that Lovato had indeed shed the skin of her past. On “Melon Cake,” she sheds previous pressure to look and eat a certain way: “And now I’m sayin’ no more melon cakes on birthdays / No more barricades in doorways / Finally get to do things my way.” And on “California Sober,” she sheds the preoccupation to define her recovery by any standards other than her own: “I’m California sober / It doesn’t have to mean the growin’ part is over / No, it ain’t black or white, it’s all of the colors / That I only just discovered.”
As someone who grew up projecting his own suffering and struggles onto the confessional lyrics of a Demi Lovato ballad, it feels as though Dancing With the Devil… The Art of Starting Over is the moment where we must let her truly spread her wings and no longer exist solely as the soundtrack for our own heartbreak. Of course, she never belonged just to us in any sense of the word, but if her old management had continued to have their way, she would have never gotten to grow in the ways she already has. “I’m sorry for the fans I lost, who watched me fall again / I wanna be a role model / But I’m only human,” she sang on “Sober,” and thankfully Lovato lived to reach a place of well-deserved freedom where she learned to celebrate the human she is—especially for an artist who had a long-established brand of recording songs called “You Don’t Do It For Me Anymore” and “Old Ways” supposedly about her past selves. “Now I’m in a good place,” she preaches on the standard edition closer. And for once we are finally listening and hearing her.
Jeffrey’s favorites from Dancing With the Devil… The Art of Starting Over: “Anyone,” “Dancing With the Devil,” “The Art of Starting Over,” “Lonely People,” “The Way You Don’t Look At Me,” “Melon Cake,” “Met Him Last Night,” “The Kind of Lover I Am,” “Easy,” “15 Minutes,” and “California Sober”