Oh hey, my rascacielos! I’m Sam Lansky, pop music writer, and this is Pop Think, where I gush unapologetically about the pop stars who make my heart skip a beat. (Somebody should probably give it a break!)
This week’s subject is my girl Demi Lovato, who overcame some major personal obstacles to release last year’s most devastating and triumphant ballad, “Skyscraper.” Now, she’s set her sights on continued success with her latest single, “Give Your Heart A Break,” one of the most perfect pure pop songs in recent memory. Demi’s track record of pop excellence remains unbroken, and I’m examining why “Give Your Heart A Break” is some of her best work to date.
Late last year, I tweeted that the way Demi Lovato’s voice cracks on the word “in” at 2:49 of “Give Your Heart A Break” is the Greatest Pop Music Moment of the Year, and a bunch of people retweeted it; this proves that I was empirically correct. (That’s how the internet works, right?) In fact, since she’s releasing that song as a single on Jan. 24, it will probably be the Greatest Pop Music Moment of the Year in 2012, too. But seriously, pay attention to that one little moment in the song, because it sums up everything that’s compelling about Demi Lovato as a musician: Even when she’s singing well-produced pop songs penned by a cadre of super-hitmakers, there’s a very personal vulnerability that underpins her artistry, something beautiful and sad and, ironically, a little bit broken, in the best way possible.
It was, after all, no accident that her last studio album was titled Unbroken, given the tumultuous year that precipitated that record’s release. The first single, the gut-wrenching masterpiece “Skyscraper,” was all about survival and triumph, but the album is much more sonically and thematically diverse than that: It’s top-heavy with club bangers and party jams, including collabs with Missy Elliott and Dev, then bursting with shimmery pop and melodically charged midtempos in its second half.
But after a song like “Skyscraper,” which instantly became Demi’s defining cut, it was smart to go with a follow-up single like “Give Your Heart A Break,” which packs a subtle emotional wallop in its own right. It’s also a song about pain, even if it’s more a song about romantic turmoil than the overcoming-the-obstacles inspirational bent of “Skyscraper.”
+ Read more about “Give Your Heart A Break” after the jump.
Demi worked with some of the finest songwriters and producers in the game on Unbroken, from Timbaland’s glitchy R&B on “All Night Long” to Toby Gad’s emotive balladry on “Skyscraper,” but “Give Your Heart A Break” has a pop pedigree that’s legendary, literally: It was penned by Billy Steinberg and Josh Alexander, the songwriting duo responsible for several of the most iconic pop songs of the last decade, including hits for the consistently brilliant Australian sister act The Veronicas, and JoJo’s pop epic “Too Little Too Late.” Prior to his collaboration with Josh Alexander, though, Billy Steinberg wrote songs that defined the sound of a generation, like Madonna’s “Like A Virgin,” Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” and Heart’s “Alone” — songs that go down in the pop annals as some of the most brilliant and iconic tracks ever recorded. (Rolling Stone and MTV named “Like A Virgin” the fourth-best pop song ever. No big deal or anything.)
And the production is, predictably, superb, kicking off with bold “Viva La Vida” strings and a toe-tapping snare before the chorus brings in a flood of violins. On the bridge, a piano twinkles, a little wistfully. But it’s her voice that really kills on this song, a big, gorgeous rasp that’s unexpectedly powerful and capable of delivering serious emotion. OneRepublic vocalist and A-list scribe Ryan Tedder said of Demi when they worked together on Unbroken, “I had no idea how good her voice is. She’s one of the best singers I’ve ever worked with. Literally, that good… I mean, she’s a Kelly Clarkson-level vocalist. And Kelly has a set of pipes.” And like Kelly, Demi can pack spectacular vocal runs and chilling depth into a dense, uptempo pop track; she doesn’t need the sprawling tempo of a ballad to show how well she can sing.
Especially when she’s working with lyrics like the ones on “Give Your Heart A Break,” which tell the story of courting a guy who’s a little bruised. “The day I first met you/You told me you’d never fall in love,” she recounts, before the chorus breaks out: “Don’t wanna break your heart/Wanna give your heart a break.” The wordplay around the term “heartbreak” is clever enough, but the song is full of poignant little moments like that, like the sadly affectionate way Demi exhales the term of endearment “My love” in the second verse, or the way the track drops out around her as she belts out the words, “Baby try to understand,” revealing only the crushing power of her vocal, or indeed, that little break in her voice as the song is winding down around 2:49 (which really is amazing, if you haven’t heard it yet).
But it’s more than her just singing the hell out of “Give Your Heart A Break” (which she does). Ultimately, it’s the sound of a lot of great parts coming together — the remarkable talents of the writers and producers, Demi’s impressive inborn gifts as a vocalist and the sophistication of the artist she’s becoming, one who’s capable of imbuing a vocal performance with extraordinary emotional texture and resonance. If she keeps on releasing songs like “Give Your Heart a Break,” I think that’s an artist we’ll be hearing about for a long time.
+ Listen to Demi Lovato’s “Give Your Heart A Break.”