Demi Lovato began her training in the dark arts of children's entertainment at a tender age. At 7, she was singing on Barney & Friends. At 15, she was starring in the Disney Channel musical Camp Rock. Now, at 23, Lovato is a grown-up pop assassin whose stardom isn't quite super. Instead, she's a mysterious new master of the middle.
Unlike Disney graduates of yore (Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera), Lovato and her ilk appear to be building their empires at a slightly different stratum of fame. You can hear Lovato all over the radio, along with her Camp Rock co-stars, Joe and Nick Jonas, and fellow former Barney-friend Selena Gomez. While they don't always crack the top 10, it's not because their songs aren't good enough. It's because they're a very precise kind of good enough.
Of all the middle-masters conquering the airwaves, Joe Jonas' new group, DNCE, currently ranks highest on the US charts with Cake by the Ocean, a disco-flavoured hit whose nonsense lyrics include light splashes of profanity. (A middle-master knows how to deliver an F-bomb with the impact of a water balloon.) Little brother Nick is just two spots behind on the Hot 100 with his steamier ballad, Close, while Gomez's Kill Em With Kindness works as a default motto for middle-mastery itself.
Each of these pop stars, now in their mid-20s, are obviously much different from when we first encountered them in child-form, but none of these songs feel like reinventions. That's because middle-masters don't recreate themselves. Their celebrity is a skillfully blended continuity - even in the case of frere Joe. With DNCE, he's playing down the family brand, but the music itself is still aimed directly at the kind of listener who grew up with the Jonas Brothers, then grew out of the Jonas Brothers - just like he did.
At a Lovato concert in Washington last week, Jonas materialised for a Camp Rock reunion singalong of This Is Me, a Demi-Joe duet about using your kid dreams to forge your adult identity. This was a sweet moment, but the instant it was over, Joe made the kind of pivot that doesn't actually exist in his career arc: "Now that we did all that sentimental bulls***, let's have some fun!"
The band strutted into Cake by the Ocean, and the middle-masters smiled. They had just exploited their audience's childhood nostalgia, and now they were inviting them to dance away whatever shame may have surfaced in the process. Neat trick.
Of course, Cake by the Ocean will sound like sentimental manure someday - and the middle-masters will still walk among us without getting it on their shoes.