In June of 2018, Demi Lovato did something pop stars aren’t supposed to do: tell the difficult truth. The former Disney actor had struggled in the public eye with drug addiction, but she’d also built a narrative of overcoming that addiction, with lyrics and a documentary attesting to six years of sobriety. Then she changed the story. “We've been down this road before,” she sang on a new song, “Sober.” “I’m so sorry, I'm not sober anymore.” A month later, she was hospitalized for a near-fatal overdose.
Lovato has kept a low profile since that hospitalization, but she is back now, with a more complex message than ever before. At the Grammys on Sunday, she gave her first performance in a year and a half, and expectations might have been for a triumphant—or at least hopeful—spectacle. Lovato did deliver that, in a way. But she also did something more powerful. In the face of wrenching realities—scandalous accusations of corruption and sexual assault leveled by the former CEO of the Grammys, plus the breaking news of Kobe Bryant’s death—the awards show had wrapped itself in bland affirmations. Music is “the most healing thing in the world,” Alicia Keys said at the top of the night. But Lovato, in hugely moving style, ditched motivational pablum. She debuted a song that said that singing, in fact, would not fix everything.
Lovato has said that she recorded that song, “Anyone,” four days before her overdose. It’s easy to believe that someone near rock bottom created it. The lyrics are a desperate tumble, a litany of failed attempts at finding relief. “I tried to talk to my piano, I tried to talk to my guitar,” she begins. “Talked to my imagination / Confided into alcohol / I tried and tried and tried some more / Told secrets ’til my voice was sore.” She goes on, singing that she felt dumb for praying, that her wishes upon shooting stars were for naught, that even with “a hundred million stories / and a hundred million songs / I feel stupid when I sing / Nobody’s listening to me.”
I feel stupid when I sing. Who admits that? Certainly not stars like Lovato, who sell the idea of music as a self-help tool and a weapon of domination. When they show weakness, it is to grow stronger. But in “Anyone,” Lovato is saying vulnerability has gotten her nowhere. Fans and sobriety coaches and faith in God and music itself—they were no recourse in her worst moment. She is singing instead in the language of hopelessness, an emotion often intrinsic to addiction and depression.
If the words of the song themselves offer no vindication, though, her extraordinary performance did. In a white gown on a small stage in the center of the arena, backed only by a piano, she looked the part of a glamorous awards-show balladeer—but it quickly became clear something here was different. She stalled, at first, unable to get the song’s opening notes out. When she restarted, though, she radiated the magnetism of fragility—a tear streaked down her cheek—that then transformed into something blunter: a stark lament sung with power verging on strain. Structurally, the song strings together small confessions with gathering force before launching into a plea of a chorus: “Anyone, please send me anyone.” For the song’s climax, Lovato pushed herself to a perilously high note. Then she moved back down to a whimper.
“I wish I could go back in time and help that version of myself,” she said in an interview with Apple Music before the Grammys. “I almost listen back and hear these lyrics as a cry for help … And you kind of listen back to it and you kind of think, how did nobody listen to this song and think, Let’s help this girl?” This is not a conciliatory or comforting reading of the song; it is, rather, one that asks for a confrontation and reckoning. But at the same time, there are specific ways that music like this might heal:by directing attention urgently, by capturing a brutal reality, and, in the song’s mere existence, by demonstrating survival. After the tears, after the belting, at the end of the performance, Lovato smiled.