On Demi Lovato and Rendering Pain
In which I think thoughts about the ethics of representing suffering and also hope Demi Lovato has an okay day
content warning for drugs, eating disorders, and self-harm.
I think about Demi Lovato a lot. Not just about her music, although I do quite enjoy it: it’s a great synthpop stim, reliably, and I like her voice. I think about what it means to be a person who suffers publicly. What does it mean to be an artist who makes art out of their own suffering?
For those not obsessed with the figure of Demi Lovato: she has struggled with addiction, eating disorders, mental illness, and self-harm for years. As someone who has also struggled with many of those things, I find myself protective of her, peculiarly attached as I am to all those who share my suffering. I care for her as much as it is possible to care for a public figure you will never actually know.
What I think about, however, is the nature of her work. A lot of her presence in the world of culture is defined by her struggles with mental health and addiction. I think of her 2018 song “Sober,” released in the wake of her relapse after years clean, released so soon after relapsing. I wonder how much time she had to truly recover. How much time she had to dwell in her suffering without forcing meaning upon it. For, after all, what is suffering if not the absence of meaning? I think of Barthes on the traumatic image, how trauma obliterates meaning, how suffering is in some ways defined by that we cannot express. What does it mean to make art out of suffering? I wonder, too, about how much agency Demi Lovato has in this transfiguration of suffering. Did she decide to release “Sober”? Was it a decision driven by a team? Even if it was driven by her, how much was it influenced by this societal desperation for meaning and narrative, for a story to accompany horror? How much was “Sober” her decision to talk about the complexity of sobriety? How much can we know of a person’s heart, their true investment in who they are as opposed to the story of themselves? I worry about this impulse to make something of suffering. I worry that Demi Lovato can’t just work through her shit in peace, muddling through the switchbacks of recovery, that there is this need for her to present a shiny narrative to the world.
I love her most recent album. I think “California Sober” offers a perspective on harm-reduction we don’t see a lot of: that people so often have to find some kind of middle ground they can sustain rather than adhering strictly to the purity of abstinence. “Easy” is beautiful. There’s a line in it I can’t stop thinking about: “I hope you forgive me even though I’m not apologizing / I will try to do the same for you.” But it’s hard to get away from the fact that it’s called “Dancing with the Devil… The Art of Starting Over.” It’s hard to get away from the music video for “Dancing with the Devil,” in which her 2018 overdose is re-enacted in excruciating detail; hard, too, to consider the lengthy documentaries she releases about her life and struggles every few years, disclosing a wealth of personal information no one should ever feel obligated to make public.
Of course people should make art based on their suffering if they want to and it helps them. Of course people should make art if they need to make meaning of their experiences. Even so, I worry about how much the drive to make beauty and meaning of suffering is one the suffering partake in for the sake of their well-being as opposed to a societal demand for something orderly to look at, something beautiful seen through the rearview mirror: this is how I struggled, laid out for you in minute detail, but I’m all better now!
I hope Demi Lovato keeps some things for herself. I hope she gets to sit with pain and not make anything of it. I hope there’s somewhere she does not have to perform.