"There were lots of tears. She cried and we tried."
Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
Demi Lovato was already a star “Skyscraper” was released in July 2011: as a Disney Channel breakthrough, she had already starred in two Camp Rock films and scored a No. 1 album with 2009’s PG-rated pop-rock effort Here We Go Again.
Yet “Skyscraper” -- Lovato’s first solo top 10 hit on the Hot 100 chart and a wrenching response to the most tumultuous period in the singer’s life to that point -- effectively transformed the 19-year-old from a Mouse House starlet to a respected adult pop voice and prolific hitmaker.
Months prior to the release of “Skyscraper,” Lovato entered an inpatient treatment center; she admitted to self-harming and suffering from bulimia, as well as using drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms. A piano ballad in which the notes seem to fade in and out of view, “Skyscraper” finds Lovato summoning personal strength against all odds, her voice transforming from frail to ferocious -- “All my windows still are broken, but I'm standing on my feet,” she asserts, before defiantly singing on the chorus, “Go on and try to tear me down/ I will be rising from the ground/ Like a skyscraper.”
“Skyscraper” registers as devastatingly personal, especially considering the timing of its release. Yet the song was actually not created for Lovato: originally written by Toby Gad, Lindy Robbins and Estonian singer Kerli for the latter to use, “Skyscraper” was then passed to and recorded by Jordin Sparks. “It was going to be a bonus cut and then it fell out of the record,” Gad says, referring to Sparks’ 2009 album Battlefield.
According to Gad, the song then made its way to Jon Lind, who was serving as Lovato’s A&R rep at Hollywood Records at the time, and Lind fell in love with it. “He convinced everyone around that this would be Demi Lovato's first single off the album, which is really unusual, because usually ballads are never for singles,” says Gad, who at that point had already scored hits with Beyoncé and Fergie. “In the session when we recorded this song, there were lots of tears. She cried and we cried. It was very emotional, and the performance was just incredible.”
“It was like this song was written for her and everything that she had gone through with rehab,” says Robbins, who has also co-written hits for Jason Derulo and David Guetta. “When I heard that performance, I was like, ‘This was what it always had to be.’”
“Skyscraper” did indeed serve as the lead single to Lovato’s 2011 album Unbroken, and hit No. 10 on the Hot 100 upon its release. Unbroken also included “Give Your Heart a Break,” which became one of Lovato’s more durable radio hits and a preview of the romance-focused pop singles that would be included on future albums Demi, Confident and Tell Me You Love Me. Yet “Skyscraper” established Lovato as both a nuanced performer with a spectacular vocal range, and a pop artist unafraid to address her personal issues head-on.
The latter would be a theme for former Disney and Nickelodeon stars in the years that followed, as Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Nick Jonas each found success unveiling their grown-up vulnerabilities for the world to see; Lovato started all of that with “Skyscraper” in 2011. (Seven years later, she opened up about relapsing on another devastating piano ballad, “Sober”; sadly, the single preceded an overdose in July 2018 that left Lovato hospitalized for two weeks.)
Even divorced from the period in Lovato’s career during which it was released, “Skyscraper” lives on as a blunt-force message of pop empowerment, stirring the listener to turn the garbage of their respective world into gold, as its vocalist certainly demonstrated. “That's a song that definitely will stay around, and some other artists will pick it up someday and make a cover version again,” says Gad. “In my opinion, it's the song that defines Demi.”