How Ariana Grande floated free

Grande has lifted the weight of the Manchester terror attack with a collection of gloriously oddball, career-changing pop songs.

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The other night in the pub, after the death of Aretha Franklin, a friend of mine recalled a supergroup formed in 1998 called Divas, in which Franklin shared a stage with Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Shania Twain and Gloria Estefan. It was an odd formation, Twain clearly the rogue choice. A modern Divas, my friend postulated, would feature Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Adele, Rihanna and Katy Perry (simply because Perry has twice as many Twitter followers as Donald Trump). But what about Ariana Grande, I said? Definitely B-list, he replied – no one knows her songs apart from children. The B-List Divas were Ariana, Nicki Minaj, Rita Ora, Selena Gomez, and maybe Cardi B.

I remained unconvinced. Because of the terrible way in which Grande entered the mainstream consciousness last year – when her gig at Manchester Arena was bombed and 22 fans died – and because of the exceptionally tasteful way in which she handled it – pulling together a tribute concert in two weeks that was the most moving pop event since Live Aid – Ariana had, to my mind, been fast-tracked far beyond “2018 Divas”. She now lies out of the pop realm altogether, hanging high in the atmosphere, soft and pure and rather unknown, a bit like a cloud. The statistics speak for themselves. Her first album since the tragedy, Sweetener, was streamed 110 million times in just four days when it was released last month. She need never do an interview again.

Grande was in my mind at Womad last year when, late at night in an extreme downpour, I watched a famous fado singer perform on the BBC Radio 3 stage. She wore a strange outfit for a figure of Portuguese passion – jeans, an oversized white sweatshirt, hoop earrings and a ponytail. She made a couple of comments about her fears of coming to England following our terrorist attacks, and the significance of her non-fancy dress became clear – she had come as Ariana at One Love, the Manchester tribute gig.

Grande had woven about the stage like a kind of angelic backing singer, even when soloing on her own songs. Her soft voice – which, unlike most of her contemporaries’, is free of that post-TV talent show operatic edge – moved through the songs in a fizz of little bubbles. Her eyes were shut most of the time and when they were open, she looked like she was trying not to cry. Most importantly there were no big speeches – by which I mean, speeches about how the bombing had affected her. This seemed significant: Grande is the model of a modern pop star – her child fans appreciate her most for her “relatability”; she tweets them directly, says empowering things. But One Love was an exercise in saying nothing, powerfully. The new album is an exercise in restraint, too. It’s rather bold to release a single a year after children were killed at your show with the nuanced title “No Tears Left To Cry.

Grande was born to Italian-American parents in the town of Boca Raton, north of Miami, not far from Fort Lauderdale, with its waterways and boats to the Bahamas, where she engaged in children’s theatre. Her mother, who’d moved from Brooklyn, was chief executive of a firm that builds telecom services for ships. She attended a private prep school and by the age of eight had sung on cruises, and honoured the ice hockey team Florida Panthers on live TV, singing a melismatic “Star Spangled Banner”. Big roles in children’s television followed – not Disney, but Nickelodeon, where she picked up most of the fans who made her, and kept her sealed within a certain kind of world.

In 2015, she licked a doughnut in a Los Angeles bakery, and was caught on CCTV: the footage naturally went viral. It might have endeared her to the public, but for the fact that when another tray of fatty confectionary was pushed on the shelf in front of her by a member of staff, she could clearly be heard saying, “What the fuck is that? I hate Americans. I hate America.” Grande – a Hillary supporter – was removed from the line-up of a performance at Obama’s White House in 2016. She apologised on Twitter for her foul mouth, and her lack of patriotism (she had licked the doughnut on 4 July) – but she also tweeted at length about the problems with the American diet, saying, “The fact that the United States has the highest child obesity rate in the world frustrates me. We need to do more to educate ourselves and our children about the dangers of overeating and the poison that we put into our bodies.” The mere thought that a 22-year-old raised in the self-involved world of children’s TV might be capable of having a macrocosmic socially inclined epiphany at the sight of a doughnut makes her one of the more interesting pop performers on the world stage. Then again, no one knows quite who or what she is yet.

Like the personality, the image is still being set. The “dangerous woman” alter ego – the name of the tour she was on when the bombing took place – was, with those latex Playboy bunny ears, just another incarnation of the bad-girl pop cliché. As with any young female star, she has to cater for her child fans’ latent sexuality, so she wears plenty of black lace underwear: she made the case that women should be celebrated rather than criticised for sexual expression and said she’d be flying this flag “until I’m an old-ass lady with my tits out at Wholefoods”. But above all, Grande was childlike – embodied in the ponytail, which said teenage-girl-on-her-way-to-a-dance-class and was such an important symbol after Manchester. Things could be changing. Edward Enninful, the wave-making new editor of British Vogue, put her on his third cover earlier this year with her hair down.

But what of the music? For a while now, hip hop and RnB have been home to the most interesting production and songwriting. Perhaps it’s something to do with the way we consume – songs are conceived as videos, and “teased”, as they say, online long before album release; they seem to have inbuilt scene changes, rolling through shifts in tone, breaking free from the meat-and-potatoes structure of verse and chorus.

Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Frank Ocean’s Endless (in which he was seen lathing away enigmatically at bits of wood) were important “visual albums”. All this stuff is filtering down, and it’s significant – first, because someone like Ariana Grande records a song like “R.E.M”, a languid stream-of-consciousness which barely has a tune at all; and second, because nine-year-olds the world over are hearing that song, and are probably not even aware that they’re listening to something rather sophisticated. Maybe “kids’ music” is a thing of the past.

The single, “No Tears Left To Cry”, is the only “banger” on the album: it is a minor-key banger, which they mostly are these days, though – because of Grande’s voice – it feels more ambivalent and introspective than the minor-key bangers of Katy Perry. It is a companion piece to her biggest hit “One Last Time, the unofficial anthem after the bombing, and both tracks are linked by the songwriter Savan Kotecha. Grande co-wrote ten of the 15 songs on Sweetener, three with Pharrell Williams. Her voice seems to lead the way on those tracks, creating the structures, such as they are. The highlight of this meandering and chilled out approach can be heard in the title track, where a girly tune and a harmony-laden, musical-theatre flourish are underpinned by strange, Princey synth chords that stalk around on the offbeat. Grande, backed by Williams yelping “sheesh!” in a kind of Scooby-Doo voice, appears to be talking about someone baking a cake – or maybe something ruder: “I like the way you lick the bowl (sheesh) / Somehow your method touches my soul (sheesh, yeah)”.

Within this gently idiosyncratic world, a cover of “Goodnight and Go” by the experimental English songwriter Imogen Heap sits well. Heap was the indiest turn at the One Love concert and this is her most lucrative syndication since “Hide and Seek” was sampled by Jason Derulo. The touching story of falling in love with your best friend will appeal to young fans. But some of the most intriguing tracks on Sweetener are those which appear to softly skewer things. “Successful” celebrates being “this young” and “having this fun and being successful”. Deadpan humour is apparent in “Pete Davidson”, the barely-there song about her fiancé, the comedian Pete Davidson. It is a perfectly banal gesture of love that will last for eternity, like a name tattoo.

There are flicks of Drake here and there – melodies in “Get Well Soon” bear the ghost of “Hotline Bling”. But this closing track is also the album’s hidden sucker-punch, a sweet and fluttery account of the panic attacks she suffered after Manchester. It is confessional but outwardly-focused, a delicate balance between personal and universal: “I’m too much in my head, did you notice... Is there anybody else whose mind does this?”. “Breathin” also steers clear of emotional indulgence, with a subtle background chorus of “my, my air”.

This is a light and meaningful album. Who knows how long it will take Grande to outgrow her associations – what precedent is there in pop? When will the casual adult listener, turning on the radio, not think – even fleetingly – about the circumstances in which they first heard her name? It is a hard outline to break free from. The only thing to do, at this stage, is to float above it. 

On this week’s NS culture podcast, The Back Half, Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman discuss the new Ariana Grande album Sweetener, the ITV crime drama Unforgotten, and the noniversary of an extremely formative film.

Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How politics turned toxic