Healing has been an important process for Ariana Grande. The catastrophic events at Manchester Arena in 2017 dealt a blow no twenty-five year old should ever have to endure. Irrevocably changed, Grande threw herself into music in an attempt to untangle her emotional reaction to such devastation.
The resulting twelve months saw her redefine what it means to be a pop star in the public sphere. Bucking against a continued wave of personal hardship, she dominated the charts with music ardently wrought in feeling and truth. She has played out the narrative of her life under an intense public lens. Has the ensuing work been enriched by this deeply intimate connection?
Sweetener was an album Ariana had to make. While I don’t think it reaches the heady heights of her magnum opus, Dangerous Woman, it is her most personal work to date. A snapshot of everything that she was dealing with, the album offered Ariana a means to work through her issues. From anxiety and feminism, to the resulting devastation of the Manchester attacks, each track on Sweetener acts as a coping mechanism for the singer.
What is truly remarkable is how Ariana is actually coping. The music she created for the album is not imbued with melancholia or despondency, but a sort-of gentle optimism. It’s a mood that permeates Ariana’s outlook. Despite the toll the attacks took on the singer, her immediate response was to rise above and help however she could. Her “we won’t let hate win” statement fuelled a sense of recovery in fans, the city and Ariana herself.
All too aware of her life’s peaks and troughs, Ariana freely concedes that she’s both “really lucky and really unlucky at the same time”. Just as Sweetener was dominating the charts and promotion was ramping up, tragedy, almost inevitably, struck again. The death of her friend and ex-boyfriend Mac Miller placed Ariana at the centre of yet another maelstrom of emotion. A month later came the demise of her fervid relationship with SNL cast member Pete Davidson.
At a time when most people would spiral, Ariana Grande flipped the script, releasing a new single, ‘Thank U, Next’, without any prior warning. With this titular track from her new record, Ariana demonstrated once again how music is her path to peace. She is an artist who takes control. In an industry so saturated in the status quo, ‘Thank U, Next’ was not only a life vest for the songstress, but also a symbol. She was going to eke out a pop career her own way.
Dropped unceremoniously during the Sweetener era, the song is literally about moving on, not in malice or regret but courage and dignity. An incredibly powerful sentiment from one so young, and so burdened with adversity. It landed Grande her first Billboard Hot 100 #1 and spawned a litany of memes. Everyone found something to relate to in the song, as ‘Thank U, Next’ became a universal mantra for those brushing off the tribulations of an ever demanding world.
Not in any mood to slow down, Ariana followed up with ‘Imagine’. A simple, almost nostalgic track chronicling the highs of an unspecified relationship. Pure and unguarded, the song feels at once authentic and dreamlike, like she’s allowing us to step inside a significant memory. ‘Imagine’ further emphasises how much Ariana is willing to share with her audience in these moments of convalescence and reflection.
Next came ultimate celebrity self-care single, ‘7 Rings’. Ditching relatability, the song decadently lists the vast purchases Grande has made in an effort to reinvigorate herself. Set to the tune of Julie Andrews anthem ‘My Favourite Things’, the track is unadulterated release and artifice. A millionaire’s version of buying a few takeaways and a new dress. It is caustic, yet truthful, and what it lacks in depth it makes up for in brutal, luxurious honesty. Is it her best work? Not by a long shot. But it is catchy, demonstrating a pomp and posture that only Ariana can pull off right now.
Ariana Grande is a rare breed of pop star. Brimming with genuine talent, she has the admirable audacity to build a career in her own image. Her music is both cathartic and experimental. Some hits the mark, some doesn’t. At the very least Ariana can say it is truly reflective of her feelings. Her music is her own, a tool she uses to cope, to gain perspective, in the hope of unburdening herself from her trauma. It’s been a bittersweet couple of years for Ariana Grande, but she seems capable of not only dominating the charts, but also recovering and growing as a person in the process.