How Demi Lovato’s Debut Album Made Her Disney’s Edgiest Star

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How Demi Lovato’s Debut Album Made Her Disney’s Edgiest Star

It only takes three seconds of listening to Demi Lovato‘s first album, Don’t Forget, for her to tell you what she’s all about. “I am confident, but I still have my moments / Baby, that’s just me,” she sings over fuzzy guitar licks on the opening track, “La La Land.” That kicks off three minutes of spunky self-declaration: She’s a girl who eats McDonald’s, wears Converse, and refuses to get chewed up by the “la la land ma-shayn.” That’s a bold statement from a teen who had just become an overnight sensation via the megastar-making Disney empire, but it introduced Demi in totally authentic fashion — and gave us the template for what would become an entire career built on bold statements.

Don’t Forget celebrates its 10th anniversary on September 23, marking a decade of Lovato’s prominence in pop. That decade has been, simply put, a roller coaster — in between releasing six albums and charting four Top 10 hits, she’s openly battled addiction and mental illness, and recently entered rehab after a frightening overdose in July. That’s even more reason for fans to revisit and celebrate Lovato’s music, which she introduced to the world with a voice that commanded attention.

“Demi’s talent is totally responsible for her being capable of evolving,” said Jon Lind, the A&R executive who shaped Lovato’s first three albums on Hollywood Records. “I mean, [her voice] is not shy; that’s the last thing you would say. Basically, it’s like, ‘Bolt the furniture to the floor, I’m Demi Lovato.'”

A DISNEY-BRED STAR

Like Hilary Duff and Miley Cyrus before her, Lovato’s pop career coincided with her rise as a wand-wielding Disney Channel starlet. After a season on the short-form comedy As the Bell Rings, she landed a starring role in Camp Rock, the Jonas Brothers-led answer to High School Musical. Lovato, then 15, played Mitchie, a bubbly camper whose voice wins over a spoiled pop star played by middle Jo Bro, Joe Jonas. It became the most-watched entertainment cable telecast of 2008, and thus the Demi Lovato phenom was born.

Disney Channel

But even before Camp Rock premiered, Lovato was being positioned as the next superstar of Disney Music Group’s record label, Hollywood Records. While filming the movie in Toronto in 2007, the Jonas Brothers — Kevin, Joe, and Nick — were simultaneously recording their third album, A Little Bit Longer, with producer John Fields. One day, they brought Lovato to the studio and introduced her to Fields, who was immediately impressed by the smiley, Texas-bred teen who listed everyone from Bright Eyes to Aretha Franklin as her inspirations.

“I remember her in that studio, sitting down with an acoustic guitar and playing us the most incredible song,” Fields told MTV News. “It was like Joni Mitchell; dark, weird chords — not a pop song in any way. I was like, this is another level of incredible.”

When Hollywood Records added Lovato to its roster later that year, the Jonas Brothers jumped at the chance to co-write and co-produce her album with Fields. It was a no-brainer for the label to get them involved because, as Lind explained, “there was an already built-in template” — they were friends, they shared managers, and they had already started writing songs together during their downtime on the Camp Rock set. Not to mention, the brothers were already global stars, and their sound clicked with Disney’s audience.

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“It all worked very seamlessly. It wasn’t like sitting in my office going, ‘Now who’s going to work with Demi Lovato?'” Lind explained, adding that the Jonas’ knack for writing “zany, fun, honest” music was something the label wanted more of from their artists. “They wrote these songs themselves; there was a Jonas Brothers sound. That’s why these things are fresh and successful. So Demi’s first record is not a gigantic A&R fabrication — it was about capturing something that’s real.”

READY TO ROCK

Not only that, but Lovato’s taste as an artist gave her an edge; she had an ear for punky pop-rock that elevated her above her Disney peers and made her more comparable to Paramore than to Ashley Tisdale. Lovato’s longtime manager, Phil McIntyre, explained in the singer’s 2017 documentary Simply Complicated, “There was a natural edge to her that made her authentic and believable as an actress or as an artist. I think that [Disney] needed her to make their projects cooler.”

Fields added, “She could’ve easily said, ‘I want to make a Top 40-sounding record like Christina [Aguilera],’ but no, she wanted to rock. So we broke out the guitars and I think the first song we cut was ‘La La Land,’ and that kind of set the tone.”

Don’t Forget crams 11 songs into 38 minutes, but it packs a punch. Frenetic foot-stompers like “Get Back” and “Gonna Get Caught” give Lovato an outlet for her boy problems. The fan-favorite title track begins as a stripped-down ballad before slamming into high gear (Fields said it was partially inspired by the Jonas Brothers’ “Lovebug,” which similarly builds into a rock anthem). But perhaps the best showcase for her vocal ability is “The Middle,” an emotional earworm that Lovato once named as her favorite track because of the sky-grazing notes she got to hit.

Kara DioGuardi, who co-wrote “The Middle” alongside Fields and Jason Reeves, told MTV News, “I remember when I was singing the demo, I thought I was going to burst a vocal chord. It was so high and so range-y, and that’s how I knew it was the perfect song for Demi. If anyone could sing it, it was her.”

Don’t Forget was recorded in May 2008 at Fields’s studio in North Hollywood. Though Lovato was crazy-busy at the time — juggling her music with her filming schedules — Fields described it as a “pretty low-intensity” time. That’s thanks in part to his and the Jonas Brothers’ already-established rapport and workflow in the studio, coupled with Lovato’s fine-tuned professionalism.

“She was ready for it,” Fields said of Lovato’s mindset at the time. “She was born for it. A born performer and just one of the best singers I’ve ever worked with. And even then, when she’s 14 or 15, she could sing amazing harmonies and ad-libs. She was just really beyond her years.”

THE HYPE IS REAL

After its release on September 23, 2008, Don’t Forget peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and spent 45 weeks on the chart. The album’s three singles — “La La Land,” “Get Back,” and “Don’t Forget” — were hits on Radio Disney, but didn’t translate into Top 40 crossover success… yet.

“The opportunity for her to grow came from that first album, which is a miracle because it didn’t have a [Top 40] single and we sold 600,000 albums,” Lind explained. “Why? Because it was real, to the 600,000 people who went out and bought it. It said something to them that was more than just a hit that they heard. And that’s who her fanbase is. They care about her. They love her.”

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That love only swelled as Lovato’s star power grew. Her sophomore effort, 2009’s Here We Go Again, would debut less than a year later at No. 1. By then, a Camp Rock sequel was already in development, her sitcom Sonny With a Chance was a hit, and her rockstar appeal had been road-tested on a supporting tour with the Jonas Brothers and on her own headlining tour. In Lovato’s case, she was worth the hype Disney put behind her from day one. How ironic, then, that her motto during her rise to superstardom was a surprisingly cautious, semi-pessimistic take on fame.

“The one motto that’s kind of stuck with me this entire ride has been ‘Don’t believe the hype,'” Lovato told MTV News in a 2008 interview, the summer before Don’t Forget was released. “You could totally listen to everything that people are saying and either get crushed or get a big head. And you take everything with a grain of salt and say, ‘Wow, people are calling me the next Miley.’ That’s a huge honor, but I don’t want to let that go to my head because if it doesn’t happen then I don’t want to get crushed. So it’s kind of like, you just focus on doing what you love doing and being yourself and that shouldn’t change anything.” And it certainly hasn’t.

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