Before Demi Lovato appeared in the flesh, she appeared on-screen -- the central figure in an underwater video sequence projected above the stage at Anaheim's Honda Center.
The introduction was in keeping with Lovato's path as an entertainer, which began with work in children's television – first on "Barney & Friends" and later in a series of cheery Disney Channel properties – then moved into real-world pop stardom.
Yet the clip that opened Thursday's concert wasn't flashing back to her kiddie-sitcom past. Partially obscured by floating colored scarves, Lovato's face carried a convincingly anguished expression, a mermaid-in-distress look that prepared the audience for her first song, "Heart Attack," in which she admitted, "Every time I try to be myself, it comes out wrong, like a cry for help."
Cries for help are Lovato's specialty, the result perhaps of a young life that's already contained plenty of turmoil. In 2010 she sought treatment for bulimia and cutting, and her two albums since then have addressed her struggles – and her victories – with surprising candor.
In the process, the 21-year-old has distinguished herself from an increasingly crowded pack of former tween idols navigating the transition to adulthood. Compared with Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez, Lovato puts across a seriousness of purpose; it's easy to believe recent tabloid reports that she counseled Gomez on the latter's own rehab stint.
Lovato's show at the Honda Center, one of the first few dates on an arena tour behind last year's "Demi" album, offered the kind of high-tech spectacle that every pop production does: lights, confetti, additional videos depicting Lovato in other exotic locations.
Her performance, though, was appealingly unvarnished as she belted out hits like the punky "Here We Go Again" and the surging "Two Pieces," about the search for a place "where we could go and never feel let down again."
For a few songs she was joined by Nick Jonas, a fellow Disney Channel veteran who found fame with the Jonas Brothers and is now concentrating on a solo career. (Jonas also helped Lovato with design elements and musical arrangements for her show.)
Guitars strapped to each of them, the singers did a laidback rendition of Lovato's tune "Stop the World" that recalled John Mayer and Katy Perry's soft-rock duet "Who You Love" more than it did anything on Radio Disney. At another point, in "The Middle," Lovato seemed to be channeling Stevie Nicks doing "Stand Back" – a decidedly grown-up reference point for a crowd full of girls in elementary school.
Lovato's material didn't always live up to her live-wire energy. "Fire Starter," for instance, sounded like a less effective version of "Stay the Night," the German DJ Zedd's exhilarating collaboration with Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams (whose signature hair-whipping moves Lovato borrowed with more success).
And there was something unsettling about "Skyscraper," a melodramatic piano ballad in which Lovato's triumph-over-hardship narrative took on a phony brand-maintenance vibe.
"Go on and try to tear me down," she sang, "I will be rising from the ground." That, unfortunately, was the moment when an elevating platform lifted the singer a few feet above the stage.
But hollow show business was in short supply Thursday. For the most part, Lovato was selling stronger stuff.