Who Controls the Music Media? On Demi Lovato & Pop Star Narrative

Simply Complicated Documentary ThumbnailIn lieu of in-depth interviews with journalists and publications they cannot control, more and more pop stars are opting to govern their own stories by releasing their own major works of media—preapproved conversations with team members, prepared quotes, fabricated situations and environments. In the case of Taylor Swift in her modern, 2017 Reputation-era, it’s Target store-branded magazines that actually mock the media. She believes the nebulous “press” has a wholly inaccurate view of her as some sort of villain (it’s also worth noting that she’s currently filing a lawsuit against a single blogger, not a publication, and the ACLU, for publishing a “defaming article” on her…an article that served to only outline the fact that her image is being used as white supremacist idolatry. If only she said no to Nazis publically, the whole damn thing would go away.) Swift is, of course, an extreme example, but the idea that pop stars have begun making major attempts towards entering the press game on their own accord is undeniable. Sometimes it’s a successful endeavor that opens up conversation in a new and manageable direction, most of the time, it waters down journalism into some act of commerce, a simple and unethical transaction.

It’s an idea I’ve been interested in for a while, so when I heard Demi Lovato, former Disney starlet and now edgy pop princess with a voice like Mariah, produced her own YouTube documentary, I grew intrigued. It’s nothing like the Lady Gaga Netflix special I wrote about previously, this seemed much more self-serving, and not in completely disingenuous ways.

First things first: Demi Lovato is not Lady Gaga, nor is she Taylor Swift—she’s totally messy and strong, a Texan Latina with a toilet mouth who has seen some shit and is unafraid to be open about it. Unlike the short press cycle that typically follows stints in rehab, mirroring its length, tales of celebrity growth are often presented in a neat package, a few months period of time. Lovato has spent years coming clean, both about her addictions and mental health, and continues to battle an eating disorder. It, like her, and reality, is malleable. There’s no end, no specific cure, but the process of living and managing.

Within the first 40 seconds of her new documentary, Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated, that becomes clear: “I actually had anxiety around this interview,” she admits within the first 30 seconds of the YouTube doc, “Because the last time I did an interview this long, I was on cocaine. It was called Staying Strong.” It’s a direct reference to a 2012 MTV documentary about her battle with self-harm and bulimia. At the time, she was pontificating to her fans about getting better, all the while, abusing drugs.

It becomes clear, immediately, that her struggle is an ongoing, simply complicated one. Anyone whose been around addicts or has dealt with addiction themselves knows this is not unusual language, but it’s a dialogue that doesn’t happen much in young pop stardom, at least, this pseudo-transparently. We hear lost causes, we hear too-late’s, we watch Behind the Music. Demi Lovato is in the precious middle.

In the doc, it is revealed that Lovato’s history of abuse is directly reflected in her biological father, who suffered with the same proclivities. From an early age she recognized he was an untrustworthy, absent force and found herself mimicking those behaviors. As early as grade school, she began exhibiting that she was directly affected by him: she had a morose obsession with death and dying, she suffers from childhood depression, which partnered with relentless bullying (it is revealed that fellow classmates created a “suicide petition” for young Lovato, signing her life away.)

The doc quickly leaves its chronology to focus on individual traumas: there’s an aside about her having anger issues, later punching a backup dancer for telling her father she abused Adderall when she was 18. She went into treatment after being diagnosed bipolar soon after. She went in and when she left, she unraveled into a cocaine addiction, all the while telling the public she was better. It was a lie, as dishonesty to self and others is a crucial facet of addiction, but one propped up by the people around her watching her fade until enough was enough.

It’s a lot to take in, and yet, it still feels heavy-handed: it is extreme that her 19th birthday marked her first year of sobriety, but the cause for her life change is painted as just her manager destroying her iPhone (no connections to dealers = problem solved?). From when she gets clean–around the halfway point in the doc–to its end, the story loses its linear narrative, convoluting relationships and ideas perhaps meant to feel like a whirlwind, reflecting strange expression of time when you’re fucked up on drugs, or her continued struggles with purging. These are not easy conversations to have, but the skipping around made it feel like she was hiding something potentially darker, or the dates just didn’t line up for her story. I mostly think it’s the result shoddy editing, an exact art form that is lost when documentaries are made by businessmen, not media folk trained in the form.

The second half of the film is really where it becomes disjointed, evoking the feeling of a personal ad for a sober, single, potentially non-straight Demi—which is joyful, but perhaps too advertorial—something that would never happened had it been filmed by a third, non-bias party. It’s not horrible, but the weird back and forth, the sort of hodge-podging that closes the film serves to discredit some of the weight of the first half. If it is to be believed, and I think much of it is, Demi is an exception to the young tragic celebrity narrative, because she survived, but something about the doc as a form felt truly dystopic.

We live in an era were “fake news” is an agreed upon slogan instead of “lies,” or calling an untruth what the fuck it is—false information. Lovato is so brave to share any part of her journey with us, and I do think it will prove to help others who use her music as a place of solace, but as a medium, much of this hour-and-some-change documentary felt not like fake news, but fabricated storytelling, the point where the camera pans away from a crucial moment and gives us a truth, some truth, hyperbolized. Hopefully the trend of pop stars taking over journalism in their own right will end with the popstars of now, but for sanity’s sake, I’ll leave you with this: Lovato is a great, courageous talent, and she should hire a damn documentarian.

Maria Sherman is a music and culture writer living in Philadelphia. She’s a contributing editor at the Talkhouse and contributes regularly to places like Rolling Stone, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, MTV, Billboard and more. She most recently held the title of Senior Correspondent at Fuse Media and before that, worked to build BuzzFeed’s music vertical.

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