In 2012, Demi Lovato was a judge on the American edition of The X Factor alongside Britney Spears, L.A. Reid, and Simon Cowell. The standout viral clip from the broadcast talent show that season came courtesy of Shawn Armenta, a guy who was met with crickets and horrified faces as soon as he finished his audition. Cowell immediately insulted Armenta’s awkward choreography and lackluster vocal abilities; Lovato added that “a lot of people work really, really hard for their dreams, but [the music industry] is not meant for everybody,” a reasonable — if redundant — thing for a pop star on the rise to say when sitting on the other side of the judges’ table. Armenta shot back with “That’s why you use Auto-Tune and I don’t.” Cowell nearly spit out his product-placed Pepsi, and Armenta’s dig was the snicker heard ’round the internet.
If Armenta watched Saturday Night Live this week, he probably feels like an even bigger jackass than he did on that day in 2012, because there isn’t a single person with ears who’d think Lovato was anything less than the realest of deals after that performance.
Confident, Lovato’s fifth studio album, saw its release mere hours before she made her way to 30 Rock for SNL, and Saturday night was the perfect time to celebrate both the new bangers on the record and the positivity and determination it inspires. For the uninitiated, Lovato — like Miley Cyrus, who opened SNL‘s 41st season two weeks ago as both the host and musical guest — cut her teeth as a Disney kid before her pop star turn. A breakout role on Camp Rock threw her in the mix with the Jonas Brothers while other kids her age were learning how to navigate puberty and the social castes of high school. And like Cyrus — and Britney and Christina before them — Lovato shed the after-school-special-friendly image as the spotlight trained on her grew brighter. She tackled personal issues in the public eye (addiction, self-harm, the death of loved ones) while churning out chart-toppers and taking on stints like her judging spell on The X Factor. Lovato’s lows have influenced her music and her growth as a performer as strongly as her highs, and Confident showcases Lovato as a young adult who’s found her footing in a tumultuous business, where trolls shriek “AUTO-TUNE!” to cut her down without taking a chance to watch her decimate “Give Your Heart a Break” or “Heart Attack” on a stage that’s as familiar to her as anything else. Her voice cracks. Her vibrato wobbles. Her high notes get stuck in her sinuses sometimes. Her belt can bowl her over and pitch itself into perilous tonal ravines. She’s imperfect, but unlike Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and a handful of her pop contemporaries, Lovato embraces her cracks and overcomes them.
On SNL, there wasn’t a fissure to be found, a note to wince at, or a song to shrug off. Starting with a “Cool for the Summer”/”Confident” medley, Lovato — backed by a killer band with a bodacious horn section — rolled flawlessly through the notes of Confident‘s single and title track, the latter serving an especially smoldering Lovato up with some blaring trombones and sneers on the side. Lovato’s full-throttle vocal assault on the Studio 8H stage with this particular number could serve as a career standout for her: Given her Disney upbringing and the fact that she’s been working the camera since childhood, Lovato thrived in the SNL petri dish where her contemporaries floundered. She had no safety net between the cameras and the typically unforgiving sound engineering, and she didn’t need one, anyway. “Cool for the Summer” and “Confident” may have been honed in the studio and in stadiums, but they worked just as well for late-night TV — and the same can’t be said for Ariana, Rita Ora, and the like.
“Stone Cold” took a turn for the raw, and a confessional Lovato offered up a bleeding heart to her audience with a stripped-down ballad. Lovato’s default setting isn’t “Belt” so much as “Belt It the Fuck Out,” and that’s exactly what she did with these high notes, taking the devastating lines of “Stone Cold” to task while she squeezed every last breath out of those unsquashable lungs. The intensity and sincerity with which she takes (and delivers) these lyrical blows just draws us closer to her, and we’re left with our heads hanging as the applause kicks in right there with her.
Thankfully, it seems like the trolls stayed back in 2012, as Twitter was — gasp! — agog and raving about Lovato on SNL. A sampling of the compliments thrown her way:
Demi Lovato's performance on SNL was better than most Superbowl halftime shows
— Scott Snuffer (@Snoofa35) October 18, 2015
Absolutely incredible performance by Demi Lovato on #SNL tonight. Talk about leaving it all on the stage. That's what music is all about!
— Amanda Leah Davis (@msamandaleah) October 18, 2015
When Sam Smith appeared on #SNL, it was a career changing performance. The same should happen for Demi Lovato.
— Kevin Lockett (@kevinlockett) October 18, 2015
Never heard of Demi Lovato till this week. She knocked me out with "Stone Cold." Full eight count. Buying her album. #SNL
— Ron Mott (@RonMott) October 18, 2015
— Matt Mitovich (@MattMitovich) October 18, 2015
Is Demi Lovato the next Nancy Sinatra? Could do a great cover of These Boost were Made for Walking! #SNL (and Bang Bang)
— Donald M. O'Malley (@mazefire56) October 18, 2015
Demi Lovato is the real deal. SNL is a hard place to sing and she's done dance and ballad and slayed twice. Maddest of props.
— Paul Drake (@Paulsaysthought) October 18, 2015
But still, someone’s gotta remind us that this is why we can’t have nice things. Girl nailed her performance and achieved a career milestone, dude. If her appearance is all you can think about after that, it’s a shame. (And rest assured that her wardrobe choices were not for you.)
Demi Lovato on SNL. Brunette. Thick legs. Thigh high boots. She must have read my mind.
— Bslick (@BigSlick138) October 18, 2015
BUT ANYWAY. Congratulations, Demi. That was hardly “Stone Cold.”