Pop Is Not A Dirty Word: Demi Lovato told us about her relapse. How did the pop machine let her down so badly?

In this week's edition of Pop Is Not A Dirty Word, columnist Douglas Greenwood questions why more wasn't done to help Demi Lovato after she wrote and released a millions-streamed song about her drug and alcohol relapse.

There’s no industry more competitive, more scrutinising, more oppressive than pop – even if its songs bring happiness to so many.

Behind every banger that radio stations ram down your throat is a team of people whose job it is to make that very thing happen. The genre, in so many ways, can’t serve its purpose unless there’s someone out there to love and support those making it.

While other (more boring) musical styles allow their artists to stoop into the shadows and perform to smaller audiences after a short bout of success – perhaps to prove that they’re making music that’s truer to themselves – pop is an industry built on gleaming, manufactured music for the masses. The only stars worth talking about are the stratospheric and unstoppable ones, and without the validation of a loyal widespread fanbase, some talented artists can fade into the background, falling off the map – labelled ‘flops’ or ‘failures’.


After being catapulted into the pop mainstream off the back of Disney Channel’s Camp Rock back in 2008, Demi Lovato has always flirted with the idea of carving her own space in the pop music realm. Sometimes, she got lost.

Alongside her six studio records – all of which have cracked the top five on America’s Billboard chart – Demi has been a vocal fighter of depression, addiction and an eating disorder. All of this lead to the 25-year-old being seen as an inspiration to so many young people whose lives might otherwise seem so far detached from the world of a glamorous pop star. She’s been scrutinised since the age of 15; her entire adolescence spent making sense of herself under Los Angeles’ lurid spotlight.

A month ago, Demi revealed she had relapsed in the potent, emotional lyrics of her new song ‘Sober’. Yesterday, she was rushed to hospital having suffered from a suspected overdose. Her family has since issued a statement saying “Some of the information being reported is incorrect and they respectfully ask for privacy.”

It’s a story we’ve heard a number of times before, but it feels particularly shocking for this to have happened to an artist who just grabbed her first UK number one just weeks ago. She wasn’t down and out and unsuccessful – radio stations have been all over her Clean Bandit collaboration ‘Solo’ since it first dropped at the start of the summer.

But over the years, Demi has had to deal with her family’s chequered past with addiction while fighting her own, still swerving bullshit from tabloids and bloggers alike. She’s had to process being constantly compared to other stars making the transition from squeaky clean, Disney pop to bonafide artists in their own right too – Selena and Taylor in particular.


It’s irritating, but Demi manages to do this all with the perfect mixture of decorum and ‘no-fucks-given’ shit talk. This star is a fighter by nature; it’s just heartbreaking to think that there wasn’t anyone to help her when she needed it most.

A pop star’s success once relied on idealism: on fast cars, beautiful houses, flawless faces and immaculate doctor’s notes. It’s an illusion the industry has tried for decades to uphold, until recently. The heartbroken, shamed, or defeated music of artists like Lorde with her monumental ‘Melodrama’ or Taylor Swift’s ‘Delicate’, on which she acknowledges the public’s disdain for her, has proved that we’re searching for flawed voices like our own. With ‘Sober’, Demi’s honesty was a revelation for someone whose career had once been moulded by a major kids corporation. Her fans, more than ever, were ready to hear it.

“A pop star’s success once relied on idealism: on fast cars, beautiful houses, flawless faces and immaculate doctor’s notes. It’s an illusion the industry has tried for decades to uphold, until recently”

But how can we put a stop to that personal turmoil being senselessly mined by labels who don’t appreciate the correlation between an artist’s lyrics and their real life? How did we let a number one pop star release a song streamed millions of times about her relapse one month, and then watch her rushed to hospital the next?

If anything, that track being out in the open should have been treated like a lifeline for Demi, and those closest to her professionally should have stepped in, made sure she was safe, and ensured she was on a path to stability. Instead, darkness got the better of her, stuck in a rut, searching for help in an industry that struggles to offer happiness unless it’s part of a pre-made, melody-based formula. Sure, vulnerability might have cracked pop’s pristine facade, but what good is that when the people behind it can’t process their problems when they step off stage?