By Louise Bruton
In November 2018, Ariana Grande told the Rolling Stone “My dream has always been to be — obviously not a rapper, but, like, to put out music in the way that a rapper does. I feel like there are certain standards that pop women are held to that men aren’t.” Less than a year later, she has achieved this dream; changing not just how she releases music but how pop stars communicate with their fans.
In the last six years, Ariana Grande has gone from being a mini Mariah Carey with occasional chart hits to becoming a bonafide superstar who dominates the top twenty at any given time with any number of singles. With a voice that can pierce through a glacier, she has always stood out from the rest but the personal and life-changing challenges she has faced in the last few years have changed how she works. Treating music as her lifeline, she controls her narrative while pushing musical boundaries.
The 26-year-old from Florida started her singing career in what is now a very typical way for child stars (she starred in the Nickelodeon television series, Victorious (2010–2013) and Sam & Cat between the years 2010 and 2014) to transition into adulthood. Maintaining a squeaky clean image for the kids watching at home, her 2013 debut album Yours Truly has songs that could very much belong to any pop star from any era. While this straight-forward, 60s-inspired pop album is twinkly-eyed and full of innocent love songs, the experimentation that we now know her for would start to creep in on number two.
Knocking out hits with Problem, her collaboration with the Australian rapper Iggy Azalea who was still riding off the success of Fancy, Break Free, her EDM attempt with Zedd, One Last Time and Love Me Harder, her breathy, R&B ballad with The Weeknd, 2014’s My Everything is the first proper introduction to Grande as an artist. Problem, in particular, is a song that shows a different side to the singer. Produced by the Swedish pop svengali Max Martin, who was now in his fourth era of golden pop working with the likes of Taylor Swift on her album 1989, the saxy song uses distorted and inverted choruses that build you up only to drop you off. A huge trend at the time, these anti-choruses were the antidote to the massive, more traditional choruses that we’d grown so used to from pop heavyweights Britney Spears, Rihanna and Beyoncé.
While many of her peers went on law-breaking binges on the brink of 21 and at the peak of their fame, Grande’s big scandal came in 2015 when she was caught licking a display donut in a shop and saying “I hate America” on CCTV. Totally harmless in comparison to obtaining DUIs and mistaking mop buckets for urinals, this risque move helped bring in a new era of her music. She worked with her manager Scooter Braun - who also looks after Justin Bieber and therefore no stranger to helping artists shake their teen dream status - to introduce the world to Grandethe adult on her third album Dangerous Woman. Wearing latex bunny ears on the album cover, sexuality, love and playful provocation run deep on her 2016 album.
While albums number one and two were perfectly fine, Dangerous Woman is arguably her first great album. Out and proud as the album’s best song and one of her most sublime singles ever is Into You, another golden Max Martin creation. Building on titillation, the finger clicks and soft synths lure you in as the chorus crashes down with all the highs of a crush in full swing. Coming in strong with its whomping bass, it’s a song that obliterates your heart rate. Taking it down but hardly taking it easy is Side to Side, the ultimate song about a post-coital limp. Dancehall-infused but radio friendly, this collaboration with Nicki Minaj is iconic for its intentions, its content and, of course, for the line “This the new style with the fresh type of flow, wrist icicle, ride dick bicycle”.
However, during the UK leg of the Dangerous Woman tour, tragedy struck. On May 17, 2016, the Manchester Arena was a target for a terrorist attack as fans were leaving Grande’s concert. Just six months after the Bataclan attacks in Paris where Eagles of Death Metal were playing and five months before the Las Vegas shootings at the Route 91 Harvest music festival, this incident marks a point in time where safety in public spaces across the world was severely reevaluated.
At a time when it would have been totally understandable if Grande laid low, she returned to Manchester less than a month later for One Love Manchester, a televised concert that she organised to raise money for the We Love Manchester Emergency Fund. With performances from Bieber, the Black Eyed Peas, Coldplay, Miley Cyrus, her then boyfriend Mac Miller, Marcus Mumford, Niall Horan, Little Mix, Katy Perry, Take That, Imogen Heap, Pharrell Williams, Robbie Williams and Liam Gallagher, the 14,000 people who attended the original concert were offered free tickets. An extraordinary display of strength and class, this concert was a defiant display against the badness in the world. By returning to Manchester, Grande acknowledged that her trauma wasn’t isolated and she reached out and shared her pain with the people who were also grieving.
Surviving a terrorist attack, it’s hard to know what the next step is but Grande threw herself into writing and recording more music. Treating it like therapy, her 2018 album Sweetener sees her work through the healing period. Lead single No Tears Left to Cry is a disco-R&B song that looks sadness in the eye and refuses to accept it as a permanent state of existence. A declaration of survival without glossing over the lowest points, Grande pushed herself even further as an artist while sharing her remedies. On Breathin’, she provides an anthem for the anxious and self-care solutions are embedded on Get Well Soon, a song that clocks in at five minutes and 22 seconds, the same date as the Manchester bombings.
Juxtaposing the doowop R&B that she sampled on earlier albums with choppy, contemporary hip-hop and traps beats, the level of detail on Sweetener is now Grande’s new standard but her confessional storytelling has sharpened thanks to her frank and honest communication with her committed songwriting team. From her quick engagement to the comedian Pete Davidson and dealing with the weight of the world on her shoulders, she sets the story straight on her own terms, a story that continues to add new chapters with each passing month.
In September 2018, Grande’s ex-boyfriend Mac Miller died from an accidental overdose. The following month she called off her engagement with Davidson. At the centre of a new media circus and still finding her place in the world after the events of 2016, she tweeted “remember when i was like hey i have no tears left to cry and the universe was like HAAAAAAAAA bitch u thought” in November. Constantly being hit with new challenges, she returned to the studio and, once more, reset the standards for pop music. With Sweetener still dishing out singles, she began releasing new songs from her next album and, in doing so, her releases reflect exactly what she’s going through.
Released on February 8, 2019, Thank U, Next thoughtfully deals with anxiety, grief and the complications of multiple heartaches. Facing with a new degree of public scrutiny, she gets straight to the point in the fact that she is suffering. “I read the things they write about me. Hear what they're sayin’ on the TV, it's crazy. It's gettin' hard for them to shock me,” she sings on Fake Smile, a vulnerable but confident swipe at the pressures she faces by leading a public life. Ghostin’ explains the pain of missing Miller when she shares a bed with Davidson and on NASA, one of the more playful tracks, she fights affection so that she can figure out who she is in the midst of seemingly endless tragedies in her life: “You don't wanna leave me, but I'm tryna self-discover. Keep me in your orbit and you know you'll drag me under”.
Experimenting with the cadence of language and pronunciation in trippy melodies, she wraps her innermost thoughts up in sleek production, which in turn serves as a protective shield. One of the most remarkable things about Grande is that despite all of tragedies she has experienced in recent years, she still puts fun at the centre of her music. Whether it’s the flirtatiousness of Break Up with Your Girlfriend or the sisterly solidarity and questionable capitalism on 7 Rings, a song that samples Rodgers and Hammerstein’s My Favourite Things, she works through her issues while living her life. Even when she could take digs at people, she is gracious, which is massively evident on Thank U, Next, the single where she credits each of her exes for making her who she is today.
If Grande once dreamt of dishing out singles like a rapper, other artists can only hope to navigate their worries and thrills as eloquently and as stylishly as her. When you’re a public figure, privacy is a privilege and when that privilege is unpredictable, Grande beats everyone to the post by turning her thoughts into number one songs. As if there was ever any doubt, it’s very clear that young Ariana definitely runs pop.