Demi Lovato has reinvented herself many times. Her previous album, 2021’s Dancing With the Devil…The Art of Starting Over offered a bloated but multi-faceted renewal of her persona. It served as a landmark in her catalog for its honesty, as Lovato addressed the industry corruption behind the production of her music for the first time. Before that point, addressing such negativity would have broken the fourth wall of her performance. Although Lovato had already undergone treatment for drug abuse and mental health issues before her near-fatal 2018 overdose, her music pre-2018 existed in a parallel universe to the Lovato of the tabloids, despite that she had publicly addressed the tabloid fodder in other ways, such as her 2013 memoir Staying Strong: 365 Days a Year. The redundancy of the title speaks for itself: it would be a long time before Lovato actually enacted what this book professed. On her eighth album, Holy Fvck, Lovato expresses hope and renewal through a pop-rock sound rife with self-criticism and cynicism at her old ways.
The early 2020s have been the era of the reboot. Whether the pandemic caused this trend, when people starved of new content grew nostalgic in isolation, or whether it’s a product of the digital era when the internet makes content from past decades widely accessible, many artists and corporations have benefitted from this resurgence. During the pandemic, the Friends and Harry Potter reunions cropped up out of nowhere, causing momentary pandemonium before fading into the obscurity of infinite streaming libraries.
Musicians who flourished during or before the early 2010s also experienced a renaissance, as Generation Z views all artists from that time as nostalgic to some extent. Musicians benefit from this trend in a unique way as the sole embodiment of their brands. Actors must assemble with castmates under the banners of their old shows to bring back the magic, but musicians and pop stars need only make a public appearance or release a new single, an exceptionally easy task during the age of streaming.
In keeping with this trend, Holy Fvck is, in some ways, an album no one asked for. The accompanying persona – a goth alt/rock star – seems especially jarring considering that Lovato embraced post-pop stardom, enlightened guru persona only a year ago. Dancing With the Devil…the Art of Starting Over received critical acclaim but not sustained success on the charts. That makes her sudden about-face all the more confounding. Although Holy Fvck achieves what it set out to do, it struggles under the shadow of such a monolithic project released only a year before. However, taken in its own context, Holy Fvck succeeds not as a revisionist history of Lovato’s career but as an authentic step forward.
On the album’s second single, “Substance”, she asks, “Am I the only one looking for substance?” This chorus is a clever pun that portrays Lovato as someone looking for meaning when she has been a vessel for meaningless radio filler manufactured by Disney-owned Hollywood Records for most of her career. However, the second meaning of substance in the song, which refers to Lovato’s substance abuse (“Don’t wanna end up in a casket / Head full of maggots”), gives the track self-awareness. After 15 years in the spotlight, Lovato’s life has become so public that not acknowledging public-facing aspects of it would be a misstep. Consequently, her honesty about things listeners already know falsely implies her music always had substance.
In 2008, on her first solo hit, “La La Land”, Lovato asked, “Who says I can’t wear my converse with a dress?” In 2022, the song has become a Tik Tok trend where users parody a “hyperfeminine” icon attempting to break gender norms in a carefully calibrated manner that is more marketing than protest. Lovato and her manager Scooter Braun seem to have misread this Tik Tok trend, and a similar one where Lovato’s 2015 hit “Cool For the Summer” resurfaced, as an opening in the market for a new iteration of Lovato, instead of cynicism towards her brand. However, Braun and Lovato have jumped at the opening, or lack thereof, with boundless ambition. The era of the reboot isn’t just a chance for old franchises to affirm their relevance, but for pop stars to resurrect cultural zeitgeists that will make them a topic of conversation.
Lovato claims that her inner rockstar had existed all along. In an interview with the New York Times, she said, “I remember feeling like I know that I’m a role model and I’m not supposed to like this dark metal music, but I do.” Holy Fvck showcases this affinity both to its credit and at its own peril. Although the songs vary in melody and content, with almost every track centered on a unique concept, the hard electric guitar becomes repetitive, as do Lovato’s vocals. While remarkable, the sustained high notes become an overused trick to buoy songs lacking in, as Lovato would say, substance. As additional compensation for its shortcomings, Holy Fvck stretches on for just a few tracks too long: a requirement of a Demi Lovato album, which would have almost no reason to exist at ten songs or fewer. By definition, Holy Fvck becomes self-sabotaging: an album with commercial ambitions that uses a desire to rise above the fray as its essential marketing device.
However, the consistency of Holy Fvck‘s hard rock sound accomplishes its purpose of asserting Lovato’s new persona. On “Eat Me”, she proclaims, “I can’t spoon-feed you anymore / You’ll have to eat me as I am.” Many pop stars achieve career longevity by transforming into antidotes for the cultural sicknesses they once embodied. In this case, Lovato frames herself as the victim of oppression at the hands of American consumers and label executives. People become invested in pop stars simply because they are everywhere: on the radio, TV, or in movies. These pop stars maintain relevance by then explaining the circumstances of their omnipresence, which distracts people from the market-based, transactional nature of their existence and continues the oversaturation they claim is oppressive.
Lovato has expertly employed this strategy throughout the second half of her career. “Eat Me” alludes to the toxic circumstances of her early career, referencing her eating disorder while encouraging listeners to consume her current content. Lovato, a capitalist pop star, repackages the fact that market forces oppressed her into a narrative she can sell.
In “Skin of My Teeth”, Lovato preempts a criticism sure to emerge after she traded in “California Sober” for “sober-sober” in early 2022. At the song’s beginning, she announces, “Demi leaves rehab again,” continuing Holy Fvck‘s motif of self-awareness that recasts public missteps in a self-effacing way. This attentiveness gives Lovato space to contemplate her circumstances, following through on a promise of weightier material. In the song’s chorus, she confesses, “Asking why doesn’t make it easier.” This admonition anchors the fast-paced track, full of remarks that show Lovato on the defensive with the public. In the verse, she quips, “I don’t need you to keep score / When I’m the one who’s at war.”
Part of Lovato’s acceptance of her circumstances is admitting that difficult circumstances don’t always end. “Dead Friends”, a song about survivor’s guilt, becomes a cathartic sing-a-long signaling the acceptance of pain. Catchy without being indebted to pop and not too self-serious that it reaches beyond her capabilities, the track cements Lovato’s thesis as a pop star. By repackaging herself in a rock star’s image, Lovato emotes vulnerability and portrays it as both a strength and a commercially viable asset.
In the chorus of “Dead Friends”, Lovato says, “I miss the texts they can’t send / God only knows where they went / I miss my dead friends.” The chorus’ shout-along quality, with each phrase containing the same amount of syllables and rhyming audibly, might have once primed it for radio domination. However, the song’s rock sound and morbid content keep it from the mainstream. Fifteen years into her career, Lovato may not be searching for a chart hit but critical recognition as an artist and validation of the trauma she has experienced, often because of her job.
However, she searches for this acknowledgment similarly to how she once sought chart hits. Holy Fvck bends over backward to translate her persona into a new form, undermining the integrity of the music. Lovato is not just a pop star experimenting with a new medium, but a machine, once crushed under its own weight, learning to get its gears to work for her. In the final chorus of “Dead Friends”, the hook becomes a repeated mantra that doesn’t sound like grieving but celebration. Even on a dark record, Lovato achieves the escapism essential to her persona.
Holy Fvck is a coming-to-terms with the fact that it’s still a pop album after a goth makeover. The record’s self-acceptance mirrors Lovato’s acceptance of her own life in public as a pop star. The allusions to her life throughout show that Holy Fvck isn’t a confessional LP but a way for Lovato to reckon with the intimate details of her life that millions have access to. However, one song on Holy Fvck scans as truly confessional in the fashion of Taylor Swift’s “Dear John” or “All Too Well”. On “29”, Lovato opens up about her relationship with Wilmer Valderrama, who she dated when he was 29 and she was 17. “Finally 29 / Funny just like you were at the time,” she confesses in a line that has become a Tik Tok trend, where users of the app recall their own inappropriate age-gap relationships.
The suitability of this song for a Tik Tok trend shows the convenience of autobiographical songwriting in the internet era. On a record where most of the autobiographical songwriting is self-referential and doubles as image maintenance, “29” comes across as the confessional juggernaut. However, the vulnerability of this song also serves a purpose. As autobiographical songwriting becomes increasingly trendy in pop music, songwriters who may not usually pull lyrics from their journals use the internet to transform their lives into a media spectacle and promotional tool while appearing brave and honest. When the public craves intimacy, pop stars’ confessions may reflect honesty, but their timing reflects opportunism.
In “29”, Lovato says, “Thought it was a teenage dream / A fantasy / But was it yours or was it mine?” The evolution of the usage of the phrase “teenage dream” has mirrored how pop stars have changed over the last decade. Teenage Dream was the title of Katy Perry’s blockbuster second album, which represents the kind of pop music that sounds like traditional pop and commercially succeeds in a way that reflects the genre’s name. However, in 2021, on the hit “Brutal” breakout star Olivia Rodrigo asked, “I’m so sick of 17 / Where’s my fuckin’ teenage dream?”
The encroachment of cynicism into popular music has made the genre more inclusive, revising tropes that glorified capitalism both in their messaging and in their existence as products designed for mass consumption. However, unabashedly capitalist stars will exist as long as capitalism does. Although Lovato’s early music resembled Perry more than Rodrigo, Holy Fvck situates Lovato in an era when mainstream success doesn’t require heteronormativity or a bubblegum sound, which Lovato has claimed her former record label required her to pursue until it became oppressive. It looks like the art of starting over is something Lovato should continue practicing after all.