The pain gain

In today’s pop world trauma is an asset

On Pop

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

What is Demi Lovato’s job? Googling will yield the description “singer, songwriter and actor”, which is true to a point. Lovato broke through as a Disney star, playing the lead in the Camp Rock movies between 2008 and 2010. After that, there were a few decent singles — best of all, Max Martin-produced lipstick lesbian banger “Cool for the Summer” in 2015 — but none of this really explains why people know who Demi Lovato is in 2021.

Here’s what Demi Lovato (who is female, but now identifies as nonbinary and uses “they” pronouns, so I guess that’s what we’re doing here) is actually famous for: getting fucked up. The post-Disney era has followed a dispiriting routine of relapse and rehab, then a media cycle to celebrate the clean-up and promote a new release. After nearly dying of an opiates overdose in 2018, Lovato became the most-googled person that year.

Here’s what Demi Lovato is actually famous for: getting fucked up

In one way, this is simply following the script for child stars. We expect them to go off the rails; we (and by “we” which I mean gossip-blog ghouls like me, and not upstanding and responsible citizens like you) demand it. We ate it up when it was Britney Spears, the fallen Mousketeer disintegrating in public view. We thrilled to it when it was Miley Cyrus, repudiating her teen-queen status to become a hypersexual, weed-smoking provocateur.

With Cyrus, it was even more fun because her introduction to the world had been a playful nod at the constraints of fame. In the Disney sitcom Hannah Montana, she plays a girl (also called Miley) who lives a double life as the eponymous Britney-style pop star.

The series started in 2006, so before the real-world Britney story had descended into full nightmare, but after Britney had become a byword for trash and chaos. A typical Hannah Montana episode involves Miley spectacularly dodging being exposed as her alter ego.

It’s always understood that the stakes for Miley are high, because it’s obvious that it would be incredibly bad for a teenage girl to be exposed to the ordeal of global celebrity. (As the theme tune explained, Miley-as-Hannah could get “the best of both worlds/ Chill it out, take it slow/ Then you rock out the show.”) Except, in the process of making the series, Disney was of course making Cyrus herself enormously, consumingly famous.

A few years later, it was doing the same thing to Lovato, and it’s fair to say that Lovato does not consider Disney to have fulfilled its duty of care to its child stars. This year, Lovato disclosed that (in the words of a Guardian report from the time), at the age of 15, “she was raped as a teenager while working for the Disney Channel in the late 2000s by someone who faced no repercussions when she revealed what happened.”

Lovato’s other revelations — besides the alcohol addiction and the drug abuse — include a longstanding struggle with eating disorders that was heightened by pressure from management to stay skinny. It’s all extraordinarily bleak, and there’s something maybe even bleaker about the way I know all this.

Celebrity dirt used to have to be rummaged up by paparazzi and scrounged out of Hollywood bins. But the entire Demi Lovato story is available in a self-produced documentary series called Dancing With the Devil.

You can watch this series exclusively on the Demi Lovato YouTube channel. The four episodes have, between them, approximately 40 million views; every view serves ads, and every ad brings revenue.

The public appetite for suffering is as strong as it was when Britney broke down, but the audience no longer wants to be guilty of voyeurism

Meanwhile, and despite almost blanket coverage for the launch, the accompanying album was beaten to number one by Scottish indie-folk band The Snuts, who are absolutely fine but who are also called The Snuts. None of Lovato’s recent singles have scraped the top 40 in the UK, and the performance in America has been similarly low-key.

It’s probably too much to say that Lovato is in the pain business rather than the music business, but it’s definitely the case that pain is now a significant sideline. The public appetite for suffering is as strong as it was when Britney broke down, but the audience no longer wants to be guilty of voyeurism: instead, it wants to be part of the journey.

There’s a hugely telling moment in Paris Hilton’s own YouTube documentary, when she’s asked why she didn’t disclose a particularly horrific experience until this year. “I wanted to do something,” says Hilton, “but I was like, this is going to hurt my brand.” Hilton was certainly right, given that her brand at the time was “heiress brat”; but today, trauma is an asset.

The ideal celebrity now is like the cow in Douglas Adams’s Restaurant at the End of the Universe, which rather than having to be dragged screaming into the abattoir before being butchered, has been bred to want to be eaten. It shows up at your dinner table and invites you to choose which rump you’d like your steak cut from.

Lovato makes a perfect cow. And really what right do I have to feel queasy about this, as a meat eater? Why am I more disturbed by pop stars commodifying their own meltdowns than I was by journalists and bloggers doing it? At least this way, Lovato gets a share of the profits.

But there isn’t a way to reinvent yourself when you’ve made an identity out of anguish. You don’t get to sing a different song when you’re paid to be the person who falls apart.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover