Demi Lovato’s Watered-Down Pivot to Gen Z

Photo: YouTube

Demi Lovato is one of the easiest pop girls to root for. With the belting capability to bring the house down and one of the most successful Disney-to-mainstream career journeys of recent years, she’s an undeniable star with a definitive brand and identity.

But her new song, ‘OK to Not Be OK,’ gave me pause as soon as I saw that it was a collab with producer Marshmello. While he’s certainly made a name for himself in the ring of EDM and EDM-adjacent producers fueling the pop/EDM intersection that has given us major hits like ‘Lean On,’ ‘The Middle,’ and ‘Break Free,’ this song shortchanges Demi out of her biggest strengths and completely missing the mark with its diluted message.

To understand ‘OK to Not Be OK’s mediocrity, it only takes a quick glimpse into Demi’s last big projects.

On Tell Me You Love Me, a dynamic record that spawned major hits like ‘Sorry Not Sorry’ and ‘Tell Me You Love Me,’ Demi demonstrated her versatility with ease. She gifted us pristine radio pop (‘Sorry Not Sorry,’ ‘Sexy Dirty Love’ and ‘Daddy Issues’), sensual cuts (‘Ruin the Friendship’ and ‘Concentrate’), and powerful, heavy slugger ballads (‘Tell Me You Love Me,’ ‘Only Forever’ and ‘You Don’t Do It For Me Anymore’). Add on the Lil Wayne-assisted ‘Lonely,’ a late-night lust-filled down-tempo bop, and you have the ideal mix of pop and pop-adjacent subgenres that everyone from Katy Perry to Lady Gaga to Ariana Grande has employed on albums of the last decade-ish to a very high degree of success.

Posing as a feel-good song about letting yourself have bad days, ‘OK to Not Be OK’ takes the risk of coming across hollow with hopes of a reward brought by Marshmello’s production, a clear move to appeal to younger audiences. Unfortunately, the song tanks itself, with a bland chorus seemingly used on every Marshmello song and a message also done before in pop with no attempt at a new twist.

While the concept of the song and message holds true to Demi’s narrative, it pales in comparison to the emotional powerhouse that her YouTube documentary, ‘Simply Complicated,’ delivered. Released just a few weeks after Tell Me You Love Me, the doc charted Demi’s course through heartbreak and addiction, painting a period in her life dominated by pain and trauma. It was raw, telling, and when paired with the album, Demi established herself as a clear leading pop figure who had channeled her adversity into impactful art (and simply great music). The Tell Me You Love Me era was an inspiring development following the success of Confident, adding so much more pulp to her story.

Since then, Demi has switched management to the controversial Scooter Braun, who also manages Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber. Grande is the obvious darling of Braun’s roster, and she’s launched herself into the fame stratosphere following her last two album rollouts, tours and prominence in the media. Bieber has pivoted from dreamy-eyed teenage pop, his formative sound, to wannabe R&B/hip-hop, which largely fell flat on his last album, Changes. Bieber is certainly still well-embedded in pop culture today, though, whether it’s through his marriage to Hailey Bieber or his regular reminders that he lives and breathes hip-hop, the latest of which being his role in Drake’s music video for ‘POPSTAR,’ a song borne out of the DJ Khaled industrial complex.

As hip-hop continues to dominate (and pop music as we know it fades) Demi’s next venture seems to be focused on tapping the Gen Z market. Donning an e-girl outfit resemblant of the biggest teenage pop star, Billie Eilish, Demi evokes a familiar call for mental health awareness in the ‘OK to Not Be OK’ music video. But, when that simple message is spun through the formulaic (in a bad way, in an ‘every song sounds the same’ way) Marshmello chord progression and chorus, it ruins its chances of coming across powerful, or at the very least, meaningful. Further, the e-girl getup is familiar and still relatively new, but something about her adherence to the style feels almost tacky, and certainly not ‘Demi.’

Now, that very styling, alongside Gen Z’s close attention to mental health (Charli D’Amelio, the princess of TikTok, is a huge advocate for mental health — tweets like this are commonplace in her feed), the song may be commercially successful. I can easily see this being impactful on streaming, and it could work as a TikTok trend (though likely not as well as hip-hop smashes like ‘Savage’ or ‘WAP’). But being commercially successful by leveraging Gen Z doesn’t feel like authentic Demi; rather, it’s reminiscent of Bieber’s constant social media begging during the waking hours of the ‘Yummy’ single release for fans to stream it in hopes to go #1 (which it didn’t).

There’s nothing wrong with the pop rat race, per se; everyone is in competition and everyone has to promote themselves. That said, Demi is well-known for being a vocal powerhouse with musical versatility; all we’ve gotten from her since joining Scooter Braun’s team has been watered-down odes to self-care and self-love engineered specifically for the streaming era. I’m not excited about it.

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