After three years of self-healing and reflection, Demi Lovato has released the YouTube documentary series “Dancing with the Devil” just a few days before her album and “unofficial soundtrack” to the series “Dancing with the Devil … the Art of Starting Over” was released on April 2. Both the series and album work to portray a narrative about Lovato’s past trauma and growth, a story that finds itself rooted in experiences from childhood up until her near-fatal overdose in 2018.
The series, which features four episodes, was intended to “set the record straight” about the artist’s overdose, as well as other critical aspects of her life and the time leading up to this event. Each episode features the perspective of Lovato herself, as well as her close friends, family, colleagues and other key figures in her life surrounding the overdose. It is clear through Lovato’s backstory that topics of mental health and substance abuse disorders have been prevalent in her life from a young age. Growing up, her father was an alcoholic and drug addict with untreated schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Their relationship was unconventional, as she witnessed his abuse of not only drugs and alcohol but also of her mother.
Prior to her time on Disney Channel, Lovato grew up partaking in beauty pageants, deeming perfection a necessary means for happiness and survival. While the public had previously been made aware of some of Lovato’s struggles while on Disney Channel, in “Dancing with the Devil” she dives deeper into these years and the way the industry prevented her from taking control over her own life. The clean image she was forced to maintain reinforced her skewed beliefs on perfection and encouraged her to stay silent about the rape she experienced at 15 years old by a former affiliate of Disney Channel. After experiencing this trauma and turning to drugs, Lovato eventually accepted the advice to live a life of sobriety and became a figure in the mental health community for six years. However, a strictly controlled and mismanaged lifestyle brought back much of the distress she had encountered in her youth, drawing parallels between the past and present and illustrating how this time led to her overdose in July of 2018.
The series eventually painted out the specific details of the 2018 overdose and revealed how lucky Lovato is to be alive after experiencing three strokes, a heart attack and multiple organ damages as a result of her overdose. After months of focusing on herself, a goal that prevailed partially due to help from the mandatory COVID-19 quarantine, Lovato found herself sober, with the exception of marijuana use and moderate alcohol consumption. The documentary overall is clean-cut in its formal qualities, proving that editing was a highly strategized role of the series. However, the actual content does not conceal or censor the truth of her situation, no matter the criticism she anticipates to receive, specifically about her choices regarding her unique semi-sober path. She now sees herself as living her “ninth life” and is aiming to be authentically herself, making her own choices and embracing her sexuality outside of expected norms.
Coinciding with this series, Lovato decided to release her seventh studio album “Dancing with The Devil … the Art of Starting Over.” Its album structure is unlike any other project she has done before, acting as a loose concept album. The first three songs track her feelings and experiences around her 2018 overdose, and then the rest of the album follows various aspects of her life, including her recovery, love life and fame. The opener, “Anyone,” starts the album off with a raw and emotional performance by Lovato that puts the listener right into her headspace during the height of her addiction. The track is a blatant cry for help that is bone-chilling to listen to. The fact that this song was recorded four days before her overdose also heightens the brutal reality of the topic of the song. The next two songs are also big highlights of this project. “Dancing with the Devil” touches more specifically on her substance abuse: “Twisted reality, hopeless insanity/I told you I was okay, but I was lying.” The soaring strings in the chorus evoke shades of Adele or Amy Winehouse, which is certainly a good thing.
The album really begins after “Intro,” where Lovato speaks to the audience about what the album is about. After this, the album still has 15 more songs, which begins with “The Art of Starting of Over.” This song marks a tonal shift for the album, with breezy guitar rhythms and accompanying electric piano. It is less emotionally charged but delivers on feeling a restart not just for the album, but for Lovato. Unfortunately, the album does not maintain the level of quality the first handful of songs showed. Songs like “Easy,” “The Kind of Lover I Am” and “Melon Cake” all have strong messages but lack anything sonically interesting. While there is something to be appreciated about the album structure, its momentum definitely slows down midway through. With 19 songs total, there could have been some trimming of songs for a more focused and tighter record.
Even though the beginning of the album reigns supreme, there are some gems scattered throughout. “Lonely People’’ has an amazing chanting hook with a thumping muted guitar providing a wonderful rhythm in the verses. “Met Him Last Night” starts right off with glossy vocals and a synth melody. Ariana Grande is featured on it, too, and both bring the best out of each other. One of the best songs is “Carefully,” which already feels like a classic. It begins with multiple acoustic guitars, but slowly starts building up to an epic soundscape where she sings “Forever doesn’t seem long enough, anymore.” Lovato also takes inspiration from other pop stars of today such as Billie Eilish in “My Girlfriends are My Boyfriend.” It still feels like her, but uses that vocal chopping and vocal effects that Eilish is famous for. Saweetie’s feature is also refreshing — she constantly changes her flows in an impressive verse.
Lovato’s work, as seen by her documentary and album, proves itself to be passionate and successful. Both are emotional and dark, specifically as seen by the descriptions of her overdose, but encouraging as they highlight not only the trauma but also the strength she endured in facing and overcoming her struggles. Hearing about her past — particularly in the more personal, unspoken details such as those about her father, or about her history with sexual trauma — shed light on how specific events can play a major, long-lasting role in one’s mental health. This is especially insightful when examining Lovato, who as a celebrity, is often dehumanized by the spotlight and criticized for every mistake she makes. When she speaks upon the parallels between her adolescence and the time leading up to her overdose, Lovato’s specificity and vulnerability truly place the viewers in her shoes and allow them to feel an understanding of her reality that would otherwise be unattainable through media coverage alone. Overall, Lovato set forth full disclosure when discussing her flawed choices, trauma, mental health and the severity of her overdose. She reveals honestly how imperfect her life has been, as a real human whose imperfections are an acceptable part of life. The album has its flaws but Lovato manages to speak her truth to her fans in a very satisfying way. Songs that take the time to tell her story and what she has been up to is a wonderful listen. The transparency in her words truly manages to break down a wall between her and the listeners, allowing for an intimate exchange between them. Fans, old and new, will come to love this new album and documentary.
Album rating: 3.5/5
Documentary Rating 4.5/5