Ariana Grande’s voice is a technical marvel: It’s lush and luxurious and smooth. Allegedly, she has a four-octave vocal range. Undeniably, she sings whistle tones like a first language. “The voice is expensive, and if you’re spending it properly, you’ll be able to keep spending it,” Grande told Vogue. At the first of her two Chase Center concerts (the penultimate shows of her Sweetener tour), a looping stage formed a giant catwalk for Grande and her entourage’s synchronized strut. They paraded across the stage, Grande’s voice serving as the beacon.
Grande is on her way to becoming a pop legend — if she isn’t there already. Grande was the first artist since The Beatles to claim the first, second, and third spots on Billboard’s Hot 100 list.
But before Ariana Grande was Ariana Grande, she was a musical theater kid. Grande starred in a production of 13 before she was cast in the hit Nickelodeon show Victorious as a quirky best friend with effervescent energy and red velvet-colored hair. She was 16 when the pilot premiered in 2010. A surprising amount of lighthearted controversy has followed the now discontinued series, especially since it resurfaced on Netflix for 2000s kids to reminiscence about simpler times (2019 was a weird year for nostalgia). Most of it consists of Victorious memes of Victoria Justice saying “I think we all sing” out of (allegedly — Justice herself has denied this) jealousy over Ariana Grande’s apparent early talent, which was never really given a chance to truly shine on the show.
In fact, it was actually Grande’s own YouTube channel (formerly “osnapitzari”) that caught the music industry’s attention. Grande would upload videos of her and her Victorious castmates goofing off along with various covers of artists like Whitney Houston, Frank Ocean, and Mariah Carey. A re-recorded cover of Carey’s “Emotions” (the original was deleted) actually hit over 33 million views. In the comments section of the video, user EssEm writes “First she was doing covers of other people’s songs, now people are doing covers of HER songs.”
Listening to Ariana Grande online is listening to a professionally recorded, polished version of the singer’s talent. Listening to Ariana Grande live is, honestly, like listening to the same thing, just with more fanfare and the added excitement of seeing the star as a moving dot in the same (massive) stadium. The giant orbs behind and on top of Ariana Grande’s stage reminded me of a blue and purple spotted galaxy, a neon green eclipse, the biggest Christmas ornament in the world, a giant fisheye lens reflecting funky distortions of Grande herself, a cage with no corners, and a fortune teller’s crystal ball. Sometimes it was hard picking a thematic connection between the orbs and Ariana Grande’s performance, but to be fair, most performers don’t have much past a Windows-style screensaver backdrop anyway.
Grande wasn’t much of a talker at her concert, but every conversational snippet sent her fans (“Arianators”) into a frenzy. “Mind if we change our costumes real fast?” Grande asked her rhetorical question as her crew was already switching outfits on stage.
“Take your time, girl!” someone beside me yelled. “Take your fucking time!”
Grande hasn’t been a stranger to her own fair share of controversies. She’s been accused of blackface (in a now removed article), of appropriating black culture (see “7 Rings”), and of course, who could forget the Japanese barbecue ring tattoo?
Her career, unfortunately, has also been marked by a series of tragic events. A suicide bomber killed 22 others at her concert in Manchester, England, in 2017. Her ex-boyfriend, rapper Mac Miller, died of an overdose the following year. These are things that Grande has been candid about in her public life (Grande hosted a benefit concert that raised $25 million less than two weeks after the terrorist attack) and in her music. The first album that Grande released following the Manchester bombing, Sweetener, contains a hopeful message (“no tears left to cry”) and ends with a tribute to the tragedy’s victims (“get well soon”). “Breathin,” another single off the album, is perhaps one of the most acute ways of capturing the struggles of anxiety through pop.
Grande’s music finds itself digging into the difficult parts of her life while finding ways to manifest and process them. It’s apparent how intrinsic her work is to herself, and how deeply she cares about the art that she makes. Following the end of her Sweetener tour, Grande released her first live concert album entitled “k bye for now,” and posted a photo to Instagram of a cat with the widest, saddest eyes. At the end of her San Francisco show (the second to last place Grande would play on the Sweetener tour), Grande kept repeating “I don’t want it to end.” The familiar dreamy beats of “thank u, next” started to play, and the crowd began singing along to the list of exes who she says goodbye to at the start of her song.
But Grande wasn’t singing. She was choking up, crying as one of the biggest eras in her present career was coming to a close. The song kept going on, carried by the audience’s uncanny memory of somewhat complex verse. Ariana Grande could take her time. We all knew the words anyway.