Tuesday, May 14, 2013

album review: 'demi' by demi lovato

You know, I tend to delve into the ‘deeper meaning’ of pop music more than most, and because of this, I tend to get hit with the comment that I ‘read too deeply into things’. And I can understand the reasoning behind that criticism, the point being that most pop acts don’t put nearly as much thought into the deeper meaning behind their songs, and when they do, it often appears haphazard and slapdash, excuses hurriedly pulled together to weakly rationalize questionable lyrics.

And I guess to some extent that could be true – I do tend to hunt for thematic elements and narrative through-lines more than most when I analyze albums, and one could argue that the pop artists aren’t paying as much attention to these elements as I am, if they even consider them at all. And as much as I’d like to counter that argument with the point that I might be picking up on subconscious elements that the artists themselves don’t quite know the best way to articulate, that does make me come across somewhat pretentious and up my own ass. And frankly, if I hold to my view that the artist’s POV is sacrosanct, I guess I have to buy the occasional poorly-articulated nonsense that some artists use to explain the merits of their music.

All of that said, I still believe that pop music, even at its most plastic, can say something of meaning, or can have emotional resonance like any other genre. For example, I recently relistened to S Club 7’s S Club album from 1999, and I was surprised how much the shallow bubblegum pop made me feel in a better mood. Sure, the platitudes they espouse aren’t particularly unique or well-defined, but they deliver everything with such energy, cheer, and exuberance that I can’t help but enjoy it (the superb production really does help here as well). For another example, I remain surprised at how well Britney Spears’ ‘Lucky’ works for me, a pop song that grows all the more poignant every year Britney’s career takes another wrong turn

Really, this emotional response can be extracted from any artist, whether they be a bearded indie rocker or a teenage pop starlet, and I’m not one to deny myself from liking something because of the performer (my unabashed love of Ke$ha is proof enough of that). And sure, while I can’t deny that somewhere inside of me buried deep down is a squealing teenage girl who is eagerly awaiting every new teen pop sensation (saying things like ‘OMG BACKSTREET BOYS ARE COMING OUT WITH A NEW ALBUM THIS YEAR AND IT’S GOING TO BE AWESOME’), I’m not one to deny my own feelings towards a pop song or artist when things work. I’m definitely going to intellectualize and explain those feelings – because that’s who I am – but I’m not one for denying my liking for something just because of the artist’s identity or personal life.

And with all of that in mind, let’s talk about Demi Lovato.

Demi Lovato is the sort of pop act to which most music critics don’t pay a lot of attention, and it’s not hard to understand why. Like her fellow ‘teen Disney princesses’ Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, Vanessa Hudgens, and newcomer Ariane Grande, Demi Lovato is – on the surface – reminiscent of the teen pop sensation of the late 90s, and was marketed as such. Attractive, making generic synthetic pop, one could easily say that she was as plastic as the brand of toys that undoubtedly accompanied her Disney roots.

And as a member of the three who have had the most impact on the pop charts (the other two being her friends Selena Gomez, who I’ll talk about in greater detail when her album comes out this year, and Miley Cyrus), Demi Lovato was probably the act I liked the least. It wasn’t that she was bad, but she lacked the sleek elegant production of Selena Gomez’s better tunes and the rawer edge of Miley’s stronger tracks. Compared to Selena’s ‘Naturally’ and Miley’s ‘See You Again’, Demi couldn’t really match that level of intensity, despite being arguably the best singer of the trio. And really, it grew all the more disappointing considering her public life had taken dark turns into eating disorders and self-mutilation, very little of which added deeper emotional resonance to her material. Now granted, this isn’t entirely surprising, given the severe drop-off in songwriting credits as her career progressed, but it does feel like a squandered opportunity to add a bit of ‘reality’ to the teenage pop starlet’s material.

And now Demi Lovato is the first of the pop starlets to drop an album this year, buoyed by the success of her hit single ‘Heart Attack’. How does it turn out?

Well, it's not bad. In fact, it's actually pretty decent all things considered. But just as there are a few great steps in the right direction, there are a few missteps here that prevent Demi Lovato from elevating herself from the pack. Not serious missteps, mind you, but definite points where there are problems that should have been caught and minimized quickly, and it's a little frustrating that they weren't. 

And interestingly, most of the best and worst elements of this album are encapsulated in the lead-off single 'Heart Attack', where Demi encounters the kind of guy who she wants to impress and win over, but she's terrified of her loss of control, and feels that falling in love would be analogous to a 'heart attack' (obviously not the biological incident, but the poor choice of words can make alternate meanings too easy). Now, that's a fine premise for the song, and Demi Lovato plays the panic excellently in her delivery. And it definitely helps that the production backs her up and comes in full steam behind her. 

But in this song, we encounter three main problems, and unfortunately they're endemic throughout the album. The first is something I've already alluded to, and that is the lyrical clumsiness. Yeah, I'll admit there are a few interesting bits of poetry and symbolism that could warrant deeper readings, but too often the lyrical meter is clumsy and lacks flow. It never really cripples any tracks, which is more than I can say for acts like Train (who are a stunning testament to terrible lyrical choices), but it does make the tracks come across as more amateurish than I'd like. Particularly in comparison to Demi Lovato's last album, the choice to sound more like a teenager is not exactly a wise one, particularly when it doesn't gel with the actual lyrical context of the material, which is decidedly more adult (I'll come back to this).

And this 'immaturity', so to speak, also comes out in the song's structure - in that the song refuses to take its time and establish a solid crescendo to climax. Don't get me wrong, the production matches Demi's intense delivery every step of the way, but the chorus is barely eight bars  and it feels very rushed. And this isn't just a problem with 'Heart Attack' - too many of the songs on DEMI feel breathless and entirely too hastily structured to make much of an impact. In comparison to James Blake's slow burn on Overgrown, Demi seems entirely too eager to get to the chorus where she can just open up and belt like crazy. Now, I don't really have a problem with artists who choose to go innovate with verse/chorus structures in order to find a new sound, but here it really doesn't work to her advantage.

And this ties into the third problem with this album, and the one that I know I'll be walking on eggshells even discussing, particularly because of the unfortunate connotations associated with mentioning this act in a negative light. But really, it's the perfect description, and I've never shied away from offending people before, so here it is.

Demi Lovato has a classic case of Mariah Carey Syndrome (henceforth to be called MCS).

Now look, I'm not a big fan of Mariah Carey, but I can acknowledge she's one of the most talented singers and R&B acts of the past couple decades (I'll go into my issues with her more when I review her new album coming out this year). That said, when I say 'Mariah Carey Syndrome', I refer to the worst of Mariah's traits, the one that her crossover success popularized and has led to too many acts embracing without question: impressive but ultimately empty vocal histrionics. Kelly Clarkson, Celine Dion, Alicia Keys, and especially Christina Aguliera are all unfortunate occasional victims of this, substituting vocal gymnastics for songwriting or in the worst cases the lyrical meter altogether.

And like many of the belters that came before her, Demi Lovato falls prey to the worst symptoms of MCS on 'Heart Attack' and on DEMI. Not only does it make the songs feel underwritten, but combined with the 'rushed' feeling of the songs' construction, it makes the songwriting look lazy. 'Oh, don't bother writing extra verses or the rest of the chorus, we'll just let Demi belt over it and nobody will care!' 

And you know, if Demi Lovato was some amazing vocalist or the songs managed to slow down and convey more interesting subject matter (which they occasionally do), I wouldn't mind the MCS so much. In fact, I'd argue there are places where she makes it work on DEMI, certainly better than I'd expect. But all too often, Demi just isn't a great enough vocalist to make it work, with her vocal technique lacking control and occasionally going sharp at awkward moments with some hasty autotune to cover up the more glaring breaks.  She's definitely good for the format from whence she sprang, and her energy makes up for a lot, but MCS only tends to work if you have an amazing singer, and I don't think Demi Lovato's quite there yet. 

But then again, she's just growing out of being a teenage pop star, and it definitely seems like this album is trying to redefine Demi Lovato's image as more of a mature artist. And to be fair, she succeeds more than she fails here, often showing more maturity and insight about relationships than some of her peers (hi, Pink). In fact, The Truth About Love was the album that DEMI initially reminded me of, particularly in terms of production and style. But I'm inclined to be more forgiving to Demi Lovato, mostly because Pink's been around long enough to know better and Demi Lovato often shows surprising nuance in her songs that I definitely wasn't expecting. Songs like 'In Case', 'Something That We're Not', and 'Never Been Hurt' (the definite major highlight of the album for me) show more maturity than most of her contemporaries and slices of relationship drama you don't tend to see as much in pop music. 'In Case' is an examination of hoping the relationship will rekindle even despite all facts to the contrary, and 'Something That We're Not' tackles feelings that might emerge in a friends-with-benefits relationship. And 'Never Been Hurt' is almost like the anti-'Heart Attack', showing Demi's ability to move past being burnt and actively taking those terrifying steps towards love. Hell, Demi even manages the unenviable task of keeping Cher Lloyd (one of the most obnoxious teen starlets we've ever imported from the UK) from ruining her guest role on 'Really Don't Care'.

And frankly, my comments about production matching delivery all hold true, and it especially comes across in the piano ballads like 'In Case' and 'Shouldn't Come Back' (another highlight, this one exploring going back to a partner and seriously regretting it, a topic I can't recall ever seeing addressed so frankly in a pop song before). Demi's voice has a husky rawness on these tracks that isn't smoothed away by autotune, and while the songwriting isn't quite on Adele's level, Demi does deliver here and adds real authenticity to her music. I definitely wasn't expecting it, but I can say I was impressed.

So overall, I guess I can render a tentative recommendation for Demi Lovato's DEMI. If you're a fan, you'll likely adore this album, but I'd even say non-fans should give it a bit of a chance. I can't promise you'll love it, but for a pop starlet who had never left any impression on me over the past five years, I definitely see some raw potential and a bit of evolution, both in songwriting and delivery. Yes, there are structural problems on this album that I can't really overlook, but I can spot possible avenues for improvement with age, and that provides a glimmer of hope.

So yeah, Demi Lovato's DEMI is pretty good. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go check out what this hubbub about Vampire Weekend is all about - because right now, I'm in the mood for some great music.


  1. Did not understand half of what you wrote. You digress too much.

  2. Actually, "Shouldn't Come Back" isn't about a partner. It's a song about her father. It's like the continuation of "For the Love of a Daughter" from the previous album, Unbroken.