Entertainers who grow up in the public eye inevitably face a moment in their career when they feel compelled to make a clean break with the "kids' stuff" that brought them fame. It's generally a dramatic divergence. And for the girls, at least, it's often a sensual-meets-sleazy one.
Which brings us to Demi Lovato's proud proclamation on her fifth album, Confident, "B--ch, I run the show."
It seems abundantly apparent that this 23-year-old former Disney starlet has decided the time has come to be a "grown-up." The only question left, then, is how much her idea of maturing exhibits genuine maturity, and how much of it is clichéd pop-star rebellion.
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"Old Ways" embraces change and refuses to give in to fear. "For You" pines, "I'd do anything for you" and wonders, "Why did we turn a good time into a dark one?" "Stone Cold" pours out post-breakup pain ("Maybe if I don't cry/I won't feel anymore"), but musters a magnanimous response to an ex's new partner ("If happy is her, I'm happy for you").
Lyrics on "Yes" deliberately seem to echo marriage vows: "Here's my arms that'll hold us up/Here's my life, dedicated to love/I'll try to give you everything you deserve/And I can't promise that it's gonna be fine/ … Here's my life, for better or worse/ … Stay true, I'll never hurt you." Similar sentiments turn up on "Lionheart" ("And we walk together into the light/And my love will be your armor tonight/We are lionhearts/ … And our love is gonna conquer it all"). "Kingdom Come" likewise longs for a lifetime of faithful love ("Can we love until there's nothing left?") and promises to do exactly that ("Cross my heart, that I'll die for you") before announcing, "You and I/Found love in a broken place." It's a connection, Lovato sings, that makes "all the demons cry."
The painful, personal "Father" finds Demi trying to come to terms with the damage done by her estranged father, who died of cancer in 2013. "Father," she begins, "I'm gonna say thank you/Even if I'm still hurt/Oh, I'm gonna say, 'Bless you'/I wanna mean those words." She continues honestly, "Always wished you the best/I prayed for your peace/Even if you started/This whole war in me/You did your best, or did you?/Sometimes I think I hate you/I'm sorry, Dad, for feeling this." And she goes on to sing graciously, "I know you were a troubled man/I know you never got the chance/To be yourself, to be your best/I hope that heaven's given you/A second chance."
"Confident" flirts with double entendres about oral sex and S&M: "Not gonna fake it/Not when you go down/ … I used to hold my freak back/Now I'm letting go/ … It's time to get the chains out/ … And I'm dangerous/And you can get off/But it's all about me tonight." "Cool for the Summer," meanwhile, has been widely interpreted as being about a casual lesbian fling, with plenty of lyrical hints to back up that take. "It's OK/I'm a little curious too," Lovato teases a would-be lover. "Got your mind on your body and your body on my mind/Got a taste for the cherry, I just need to take a bite/ … Take me down into your paradise/Don't be scared 'cause I'm your body type/Just something that we wanna try." As for those who would criticize her "curiosity," Lovato retorts, "Even if they judge/F--- it/I'll do the time."
More suggestive lyrics turn up on "Wildfire" ("Baby, you're all I need/Come now, set me free/Breathless, I can't resist/Melt with your scarlet kiss/Like a wildfire/ … Waiting for the moon to rise/So I can feel your heat/This love is so completely crazy/You've been f---ing with my dreams"). "Yes" says, "Here's my body that I'm giving to us."
A betrayal on "Waitin' for You" results in another vulgar outburst: "Yeah, don't take things too personal/But you made s--- personal/Talkin' 'bout my bad habits/Man, f--- my bad habits/Don't act like you got none." Demi's so angry, in fact, that she tells her ex he'd better think twice about coming around anymore ("You should know that I won't back down/ … Knuckles out").
Despite her longing for a better relationship with someone, Lovato hangs around for more mistreatment on "For You" ("I stick around when I break down/ … I take the blows like a champion/ … But I get nothing at all"). "Kingdom Come" links romance and salvation ("Oh, you're my kingdom come/So sit me on your throne").
The title track of Confident ponders, "What's wrong with being confident?" It's a rhetorical question, but I'm going to answer it anyway.
There's nothing wrong with being confident. Believing in yourself and your abilities is, generally speaking, a good and healthy thing. And Lovato's obviously bursting with confidence these days, a state of mind evident in songs voicing her desire to find a lasting love and to make it work, no matter what. That's confidence aimed in the right direction.
Sometimes, though, Demi's conception of confidence veers in a decidedly narcissistic direction. In these moments, what she calls confidence is really just a self-absorbed desire to live autonomously, completely on her own terms, with no care for consequences or morality. "I'm the boss right now/ … Yeah, I run this show," she insists on "Confident." And on "Old Ways," she adds, "Now I know what's good for me/All that I need."
Those moments of warped self-certainty lead in distorted directions, such as the casual same-sex relationship she plunges recklessly into on "Cool for the Summer." In moments like these, Demi Lovato has little interest in submitting to anything other than what her heart alone determines is right for her. And that kind of confidence needs to be critiqued as a vulnerability, not embraced as a virtue.