Ariana Grande has remarkable stamina. On the second night of three shows at London’s O2 Arena – which kick off a 30-date UK and European tour – she sings 28 songs with incredible vitality. Her voice – ranging four octaves – is angelic. She floods the arena with the chart-topping, hip-hop-inspired pop that has made her the most listened-to solo female artist on Apple Music and Spotify, and the endearing charisma that has made her the most followed woman on Instagram.
Grande was meant to play at the O2 on 25 and 26 May 2017, but cancelled the dates following the terrorist attack at her show at Manchester Arena on 22 May. The attack killed 22 concert-goers and injured hundreds more. While she cancelled the rest of the Dangerous Woman tour, a courageous Grande returned to Manchester just weeks after the attack. There she performed in a charity concert that she had organised to raise money for the victims – refusing to let the perpetrators stop her predominantly young female and queer fans from enjoying the freedoms of her sex-positive, feminist music. This is Grande’s first UK tour since then.
This time around, security is tight. The only bags allowed into the venue must be transparent – “1 x 100% clear bag per person allowed only” read our tickets. But what is enforced as a security measure becomes, in the hands of Grande fans, a fashion statement. She’s selling her own branded Sweetener transparent bags, but her fans have brought along all manner of see-through rucksacks and shoulder bags too. In them, they carry palettes of glittery eyeshadow, patterned umbrellas, Topshop purses and pick’n’mix sweets.
Where Grande goes, her fans – in their tens of thousands, all under one roof tonight – follow. If Grande has stamina, so do they. Ready for a 90-minute set, they waste no time getting started, sending a Mexican wave rippling around the arena, again and again, before Grande comes onstage.
The physical presence of these girls – and they are overwhelmingly girls, alongside their mothers, older sisters, and some young men, too – is striking. They’re here to dance together, scream together and cry together.
“She’s so small!” one girl behind me cries to her friend. At five foot, Grande is petite, smaller even than some of her young fans, which makes her commandment of the arena all the more arresting. She totters around in high-heeled thigh-high boots and either a trademark long baggy t-shirt or short tulle dress, moving from cutesy to explosively sexual with just a few minutes’ notice.
To our left stands a girl who is maybe 12 or 13, her hair long, straight and enviously thick, just like Grande’s. She knows every word, and stares, transfixed, at the stage, her body swaying to just the right rhythm as one song moves into the next, as though she’s looked up the set-list in advance to make sure her body is attuned to its changes of beat. The women she is with – perhaps her mother and older sister – are hardly watching what’s going on onstage. They’re absorbed by this little girl, bathing in her joy as she watches Grande, and filming her wonder with their phones.
Just along from her is a boy in his late teens, here alone but more than content to remain seated throughout the set. In his waterproof jacket, his enjoyment is a softer, more internalised bliss. He moves his mouth along to the words, a subtle smile on his face, and videos his favourite tracks.
In front of him, two girls hold hands, clinging onto each other tighter when Grande plays their favourite songs. “I can be needy / Tell me how good it feels to be needed,” sings Grande, sitting on the edge of the stage, her legs swinging. The two friends are now swaying in sync, holding tight to each other, needing each other in just the way Grande is telling them it’s ok to do so.
And in front of us stands an even tinier girl, maybe just eight or nine, again with glossy Grande-like hair which her mother strokes all the way down to its ends before the concert starts, seemingly as a calming mechanism. Midway through the set she stands up on her seat, so small she reaches up to hang her arms around her mother’s neck for stability, her plaited hair, clipped with sparkly “thank u, next” slides glinting under the spotlights.
Even the sound engineers, all thirty-something men, are waving their hands in the air. Ariana Grande makes being girly unapologetically cool.
The physical power of Grande’s fans is most impressive when everyone starts jumping in sync. They bounce along to the breathy “Into You”, from 2016’s Dangerous Woman, and to 2014’s anthemic “Break Free”, which is sung to a backdrop of the LGBTQ rainbow flag. Grande – who will later this week return to Manchester for the first time since 2017 to headline the city’s Pride celebrations – leads her backing dancers in waving Pride flags as a grand finale. As they move offstage, carried downwards, the waving flags held high above their heads are the final image we are left with – a symbol of Grande’s insistence on inclusion, love and acceptance.
Some people say the best artists make any space feel intimate, as if the band is playing just for you. Grande doesn’t do that. She makes it feel like there are 20,000 people in the room, each one of them thriving on their shared awe that they might be breathing the same air as Ariana Grande.