I spent a long time dismissing Ariana Grande. It was the easier option. Her giggle-pink “gumdrop” dresses echoed the candyfloss in her music; I imagined her lost to the commercial pop wasteland. What a thing to be lamented – and there truly is no better word for it – those angelic vocal abilities. Swamped under sticky harmonies and oversaturated lyrics, baby baby baby, moonlight and clouds and kisses. The pouting photos. Pretty purse. Tiny girl.
But underestimating Ariana Grande is a gross miscalculation of what she represents – the power of a woman with a voice, the healing escapism of pop culture, the triumph of love over pain. It is a denial of the agency and thought involved in crafting her narrative, one that has been marked with incredible trauma, and suffered from burning scrutiny. And in a strangely unfeminist way, it is also a devaluing of her grace and resilience, only for its pretty package. An ultra-feminine woman singing like syrup, is not worthy of gritty, hard, serious conversation.
Grande’s music is characterized by a sweetness that is deceptively surface-level. It is classic pop. She sings about love and goodbyes and dreaming. She creates and inhabits a carefully constructed fairytale. In August 2018, the singer stated that titling her latest album Sweetener, was about “bringing light to a situation, or to someone’s life, or somebody else who brings light to your life, or sweetening the situation.” It was pouring sugar on bitterness. It was compassion. It was surviving.
Sweetener marked an ongoing cathartic process for Grande. Life had taken a turn. Amid an endlessly soaring career, Grande had experienced the loss of her grandfather and several highly publicized breakups, including with famed rapper Mac Miller, a relationship she deemed “toxic” on Twitter. In May 2017, her concert in Manchester, England was bombed by terrorists, leaving 23 dead and hundreds injured. Her speedy engagement this year to comedian Pete Davidson was ridiculed by many. She talked about dealing with intense anxiety.
Struggle is not a sweet subject. But in Grande’s songs, that reality did not persist. Although lacking in cohesion, Sweetener was lauded for the very idea it existed and operated on – reclaiming one’s narrative. Grande was facing personal tragedy with hope, determination and tenderness, not because it was required, but because she knew this was what she deserved from life. Everyone deserved it, the ability to rise and grow and smile from pain. The mode of mainstream pop was unconventional, but the intention was not. In “God is a Woman”, Sweetener’s first single, Grande sang about owning and embracing her desire and sexual prowess, and in pleasing her partner, not because she was obligated to but because she took pleasure in it. In “no tears left to cry”, the music mirrored her words, transforming mid-way from ballad to dance pop; she sang “I’m loving and living and picking it up,” and “We way too fly to partake in all this hate/We out here vibing.” Every song was an ode to loving – loving herself, those around her, through her situation, whatever that came.
Here was a woman, watched by millions, who had suffered. A woman often dismissed as childlike and superficial. A woman with a strong and incredibly loud voice. And she was using it, not only for enjoyment, but to shape both her public and personal narratives in order to reflect who she was. Beyond a pop princess and online personality, Ariana Grande was just a person.
Since the release of Sweetener, Grande’s struggles, and persistent cathartic journey, have not ended. In September 2018, her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller passed away from a drug overdose; people online blamed her for leaving him and letting him spiral. During a performance at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, Grande was publicly groped by a pastor. Only days ago, her engagement to Pete Davidson, whom she had been living with, ended. And with the world watching, she had no luxury to disappear – most of all, from herself.
Pop music is not always a site for frivolity. The breathy, celestial flutterings of Grande’s music are also a safe space, not only for herself, but for all her fans and listeners. Pop can be a place of warmth and security, a sonic embrace, temporarily freeing from the grit and anxiety of daily struggling. Amid personal chaos, Grande retreated into this fairytale she had created for herself with music. Snippets of her recording in the studio emerged. Before anyone could blink, she was out with a new single: “thank u, next”. In it, she sings about her various exes, thanking them for all they had brought to her life, good and bad, and choosing to move on to someone else: herself.
“thank u, next” is reminiscent of the likes of Taylor Swift, who has long been poked and prodded and skewered by the media for making pop music about her exes. The cover art for the single is similar to the promotional material for Swift’s album Reputation, pasting up published headlines about the singer. It is evident that Grande carries forward a torch Swift lit long ago. Both, in their own ways, critique the media-driven narratives surrounding and shaping them as powerful and talented women in a cut-throat, highly scrutinized industry. Both have sang and spoken about empowering women, but through the very direction of their art, implicitly embody that mission too. Through their art and perseverance, they seek to love and heal themselves; and merely by watching them do so, we are inspired to do the same.
I admit I feel lucky to have such female artists spearheading the creative industry around me. Artists like Ariana Grande learn to to undo all that is done to them, and be completely unapologetic about it. They remind us that personal choice and exercising agency over one’s narrative, in whatever way they find most healing, is the ideal example to set within discourses on self-love, women empowerment and feminism. And their skilfully crafted stories, songs, selves, which have such power, pushing their way onto radios and Instagram feeds, force us to listen. But of course, listening is a meeting in the middle; we too, must make the effort to listen with awareness and intelligence.
After all, a truth in a pink wrapper is still as important. And if it’s too bitter, there is much sweetness, still, to be found, and made, in the world we live in.
Photograph courtesy of The Fader