Tuesday, July 28, 2009
The several thousand shrieking girls in the audience might not have noticed, but things weren’t going smoothly for Demi Lovato during her concert at the Prudential Center here last month. For the first few minutes, as she sang and pranced across the stage, not a sound came from her microphone. Later she flubbed lyrics on a few songs. On Lovato’s face, barely masked by the grin of the longtime pro, were persistent flashes of concern, discomfort and fear.
It was the night before her latest film, “Princess Protection Program,” was to make its debut on the Disney Channel, where Lovato, 16, is an ascendant star, the heiress apparent to the tween-pop crown.
But where in the not-too-distant past that would have meant she was an automaton of joy and relatability, Lovato is already proving to be far more intriguing, and far less predictable.
About midway through the show came “Catch Me,” one of the best songs on her new album, “Here We Go Again” (Hollywood), and the only one for which she receives sole writing credit. Like those that preceded it, it threatened to become something of a shambles.
But as Lovato eased into the lyric, intimate and measured, a calm spread over her. Her shoulders eased. Rather than overwhelm the crowd with razzle-dazzle, she turned inward, and for a few moments looked as if she might prefer to be playing in a coffeehouse somewhere, where the lights weren’t nearly as bright.
“Catch Me” was “written by myself in my room,” Lovato had said earlier that day, taking a breather at the Trump International Hotel in Manhattan. “Those songs mean more to me than when we’ve got two weeks to finish an album and I’m with three different writers.”
Time has certainly become compressed for Lovato, a singer, songwriter and actress who just over a year ago was a relatively new face in the Disney ecosystem, opening for the Jonas Brothers on tour, performing her own shows for a few hundred fans and playing the romantic interest of Joe Jonas in the TV movie “Camp Rock.”
Now she’s the headliner, her warp-speed climb to the top of kid pop — by way of albums, TV films and her sitcom, “Sonny With a Chance” — a testament not only to her indefatigable energy and legitimate talent, but also to the vitality and efficiency of the Disney star-making machine, which cultivates young talent across media platforms.
But while she has joined the ranks of Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers and to a lesser degree some of the stars of the “High School Musical” franchise — who have followed a similar path to fame — Lovato appears to have a different plan. Along with, perhaps, Nick Jonas, the brooding auteur who gives the Jonas Brothers megabrand a dash of thoughtfulness, Lovato has a kind of alt-Disney aesthetic, simultaneously building the brand and proving its elasticity.
In the last three years Disney, through a series of successful pop acts and synergistic television shows, has firmly established itself as family-friendly, inclusive and accessible. While Lovato, with her prom-queen looks and eager friendliness, is certainly all of those things, she also stands out artistically, with tastes and attitudes that appear unscripted.
Her debut album, “Don’t Forget,” with its flashes of hard rock and pop-punk, was surprisingly sprightly and tough, easily the most dynamic from a Disney act. A fan of heavy metal who covers Aretha Franklin in concert and has written, by her count, several hundred songs, Lovato is the most exciting of the company’s musical stars.
Her otherness is underscored by the roles she plays (and is cast in) on the Disney Channel. While on their shows Cyrus (“Hannah Montana”) and the Jonas Brothers (“Jonas”) play versions of themselves — young famous people trying to figure out how to be young and famous and normal — on “Sonny With a Chance” Lovato plays her own doppelganger: someone figuring out how to fit in.
Demetria Devonne Lovato got her start outside the company. At the age of 6 she landed a role on “Barney & Friends,” and for several years she worked the pageant circuit. There’s a hilarious clip on YouTube of a 13-year-old Lovato receiving an unfortunate pageant hairdo on the Style Network reality show “Split Ends.”
Lovato, who is of Mexican, Italian and Irish heritage, grew up around entertainment. Her mother was a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and sometime country singer. Her older sister, Dallas, is a singer, and her half-sister, 7-year-old Madison De La Garza, has a recurring role on “Desperate Housewives.”
Lovato was discovered by Disney during an open casting call in Dallas, her hometown, and made her Disney Channel debut in 2007 in “As the Bell Rings,” a series of comedy shorts. At a subsequent audition for a role on “Jonas,” the Jonas Brothers’ Disney Channel sitcom (which she didn’t get), she sang for the executives and was soon cast in “Camp Rock” as the young singer, daughter of the camp caterer, who captures the ear and heart of a spoiled pop star played by Joe Jonas. Their duet “This Is Me” was the film’s most memorable song, and the one that established Lovato as a musician as well as an actor.
“It was very important to management that she had a touring presence and music persona,” said Abbey Konowitch, general manager of Hollywood Records. (Lovato is managed by her stepfather, Eddie De La Garza, along with Kevin Jonas Sr., the father of the Jonas Brothers, and Philip McIntyre.)
Soon Lovato was a Disney priority, performing with the Jonas Brothers, working on her debut album, “Don’t Forget,” and filming “Sonny With a Chance.” When Gary Marsh, president for entertainment at Disney Channels Worldwide, asked her if she was prepared for what was to come, “she looked at me straight in the eyes and said, ‘I was born ready,'” he remembered. “Some of them say it, but I don’t think they all mean it.” Lovato, he said, has “a frightening sense of her destiny. She built her whole life so this moment could happen.”
Released last year, “Don’t Forget” made its debut at No. 2 on the Billboard album chart. “It was like, OK, you’ve done it,” Lovato recalled. “You’re no longer just succeeding because you’re in a movie with the Jonas Brothers. These people bought your music for you.”
And in the world of Disney music, they were taking a leap. Lovato “has such a wide range,” said Michael G. Riley, general manager of Radio Disney. “She’s more on the rock edge of pop, and that adds to the landscape of Radio Disney.”
Even as her fame grows, ever present is the knowledge that in a couple of years, or maybe less, it will be time to prove herself all over again; tween-focused acts arrive with a built-in expiration date.
“Some days I’ll look at a crowd and I’ll think: Wow, this is so cool. This is just like what the Jonas Brothers were doing last year,” she said of her concert audiences, which in the last year have mushroomed from a few hundred to several thousand. “And then I’ll look at a crowd and be like: Oh, it’s not as much as them. Some days I get really excited, and some days I get scared because I feel like I have to live up to certain pressures.”
Down the line, she said, her career will look different — “I don’t see myself doing television, but I do see myself directing” — and she eagerly talked of the possibility of taking time off to study at the Berklee College of Music.
“If it takes me 10 years to be the musician I want to be, great,” she said. “I don’t want it to be pandemonium for something I’m not proud of in a few years. I want to be able to tell my kids, ‘This is the great work that I did,’ instead of it being, ‘I was great for six months, and now I’ve got this great work that nobody saw because my fame died out.'”