Music

All the Grown-Up Divas: How Miley, Demi, and Selena Found Their Grooves

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As 2010 was drawing to a close, no one was quite sure if Demi Lovato would make it to 2011. By early November, while on tour with the Jonas Brothers, Lovato was self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, using Adderall and cocaine to keep her going, and drinking to numb the growing pain she felt inside. But she was hiding it all pretty well, until a backup dancer tattled about her drug use, and — in a fit of anger — Lovato punched another dancer, Alex Welch, in the face. For her inner circle, this was the final straw. She stopped acting, withdrew from the Jonas Brothers tour because of unspecified physical and emotional issues, and entered rehab. Those issues were later named as bipolar disorder, depression, and body dysmorphia. All of this is chronicled in Lovato’s new straight-to-YouTube documentary, Simply Complicated, released October 17. The feature-length film chronicles all the drama that led Lovato to rehab, her struggles with sobriety, and her fears.

Today — after surviving years of drama and scary headlines (“Demi Lovato’s Heavy Drinking, Cocaine Use Led To Downfall,”) — Lovato is a confident, stable adult performer with a die-hard audience of her own. And she’s not alone. Lovato, Miley Cyrus, and Selena Gomez have all found an artistic groove in 2017 that may just carry them through the rest of their careers. None is at the height of her celebrity, and their newest releases don’t include their biggest hits, but the work they’ve done in 2017 has set all three up to be major players in the pop scene for decades to come.

Growing up isn’t easy, but in the spotlight it can be damn near impossible. Famous child stars, whose lives are broadcast to millions of people, are legendary for their derailments on the road to adulthood. Just look at Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, Britney Spears, Aaron Carter

Lovato, Cyrus, and Gomez will all celebrate their 25th birthdays this year, and they all hit fame around the same time. Lovato was 10 when she made her debut on Barney & Friends in 2002, before rising to fame with Disney’s television film Camp Rock in 2008. She also released a single that year called “This Is Me,” which peaked at No. 9, a soft confessional pop number with a little bit of grit. Three years later, Lovato quit acting to focus on her music, telling People, “It’s kind of sad for me that a chapter of my life has ended but there couldn’t be a better time for me to move on.” 

“The last decade has taught me a lifetime of lessons,” Lovato says at the beginning of the new documentary. As she reveals in the film, it took several years for Lovato to get sober, even after that incident with the backup dancer. She gave one stellar performance on American Idol in 2012, during which — as she later admitted — she was drunk, despite her very public “sobriety” at the time. The performance was the wake-up call she needed: Lovato finally cut drugs and alcohol out of her life, and this year celebrated five years sober. She is an adult, having come to terms with her own struggles with addiction, and has become an advocate for mental illness awareness. As evidenced in the film, she is willing to talk not only about her own demons but about how she survived, encouraging other girls to do the same.

She released a new album, Tell Me You Love Me, at the end of September, and its lead single, “Sorry Not Sorry,” is sitting pretty at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. As a performer, she’s become more confident onstage, more demanding in the studio, and more comfortable in her own skin. Tell Me You Love Me is a confident display of Lovato’s raw talent: Her vocal sweeps are insane, her attention to tone meticulous, and her choruses sticky. It’s her best album yet, and she’s doing it in a more stable space than ever. But just as important as the album’s music is the message it sends. By leaning into her vocal abilities, Demi created an album that pivots toward the kind of music she could create for the next decade of her career, music that feels closer to who she says she wants to be.

The same is true for her peers. Take Miley Cyrus, who got her start a little later with the lead role on Disney’s Hannah Montana in 2006, but who grew up celebrity-adjacent as the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus. By 2008, Cyrus had already released two albums and was heading into a period of controversial scandals. That year, at fifteen years old, Cyrus posed for Annie Leibovitz in Vanity Fair, her head tilted demurely over a nude shoulder, shielding herself with a sheet. The photo is beautifully lit, and undeniably sexual. Cyrus later said she felt “so embarrassed” by the photo, but things would only get messier. In the promotion for her fourth album, Bangerz, Cyrus got her first post–Hannah Montana hit in “Wrecking Ball,” but she also performed an ill-advised (though instantly iconic) twerk-happy rendition of “We Can’t Stop” with Robin Thicke at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, for which she was branded racially insensitive. She went on to release the strange, experimental Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz with Wayne CoyneBut unlike Lovato’s downturn, Miley’s controversy-courting seemed curated for maximum publicity. Though Cyrus talked constantly about weed, Molly, and other drugs, she was never in trouble with the law, or forced into rehab. Her rebellion seemed under control, performative even. But in that process — in breaking away from her Hannah Montana persona — Cyrus’s music drifted further and further from the music with which her voice sounds best. Turns out, she’s a country girl after all, ready to go back to that Nashville party.

“I’m not doing drugs, I’m not drinking, I’m completely clean right now! That was just something that I wanted to do,” Cyrus told Billboard earlier this year. She’s a coach on The Voice now, providing smart and well-reasoned critiques to young artists every week. Like Lovato, she released an album this fall, Younger Now. In the video for “Malibu,” the album’s first single, she traded a nude wrecking ball for a white peasant top and pigtails. “I never would have believed you/If three years ago you told me/I’d be here/Writing this song,” she sings while rolling around in some kind of grassy field dressed in a string-bikini bottom and an oversize sweater. It is still ridiculous, but it feels natural. Younger Now is slower than Bangerz, more bent on emotional currency than dance jams. Instead of frantic synths, Cyrus’s new work is built on acoustic guitars. She performed her very first hit, “The Climb,” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon last month, and her voice sounded fuller, clearer, and more embedded with emotion than it ever has.

Like Lovato, Selena Gomez entered show business on the Barney & Friends show in 2002, and fifteen years later, she too has set a path toward stability after a period of struggle. While her peers have battled personal demons and courted controversy, Gomez has had her personal life dragged through gossip columns. Some of her drama, of course, came via her four-year, off-and-on relationship with Justin Bieber, which ended in 2014 (but may be back on.) During that time she also visited rehab several times, trips she blamed on her struggle with the autoimmune disease lupus, which left the star exhausted and forced her to cancel tours.

Despite a kidney transplant, a recent breakup with the Weeknd, and a rumor-mill buzz of instability, Gomez has also settled into a sound that feels more organically her. She’s released two singles, “Bad Liar” and “Wolves,” presumably as promotion for an album to be released this winter, in addition to a collaboration with Kygo, “It Ain’t Me,” all of which have moved her closer to finding a distinct sound in a world of pop look-alikes, and brought chart success. Most recently, “Bad Liar” peaked at No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. These songs are essentially beat-driven, dance-floor bangers.

For several years, it was unclear where these young women might end up. So many child stars — when faced with the outrageous expectations, the watchful eyes of millions of fans, and the pressure to figure out who they’ll be as adults — have been chewed up and spit out by the celebrity industrial complex. It seemed likely that at least one of them would, on her path to adulthood, go permanently off the rails. Instead, all three have found their respective voices, and become their own specific brand of pop diva: Demi with her pipes, Miley with her twang, and Gomez with her groove. 

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