Symbols are a significant part of any pop star. For Ariana Grande, hers have largely been bunny ears and a sleek, high ponytail; markers of a superficial nature that make it easier for the masses to identify her. But for Grande, her career has equally been marked by the scale of devastation she’s endured at just 25 years old—few pop stars deal with the enormity of a terrorist attack, and the private pain of losing a loved one in under two years. Most artists don’t have to be concerned with having articles written about them—including this one—that contextualize their careers with loss.
But Grande’s losses are woven tightly into her gains. They are informed by one another, and in 2018, became the defining inspiration behind her art. The emotional excavation and self-care she prioritized for herself funneled into her luminous fourth studio album, Sweetener, her third to go number one on the Billboard 200. The 15-track record, produced in part by heavy-hitters Pharrell and Swedish pop mastermind Max Martin, is a milky, sweet album tracing devastation and hope, considered love and then delirious, head-over-heels love. These intangible, personal achievements of coping and responding to loss have become tangible successes.
Sweetener is also a celebration of women, and of a woman choosing to go her own way in a rigid pop sphere (“God Is A Woman,” a song that defines desire according to the female gaze, is nothing short of triumphant). “Thank u, next,” her caring tribute to her exes, earned her a debut number one slot on the Billboard Hot 100, which, according to Billboard, makes her “the first woman in three years to have a single debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100.” (I did a quadruple reread to ensure that I was correct. Because men, for the most part, have dominated the charts too vigorously.)
Writer Spencer Kornhaber for The Atlantic said that “Grande, for her part, has emphasized using escapist pop as a tool of healing” but that flattens too much what exactly her shimmering and saccharine music is. Grande’s pop music is not escapist as it is invitational and immersive; dealing with her trauma—our traumas—head-on with compassion and benevolence, not shame and transgression or the need to flee. For Ariana Grande, the peaks and valleys of existing, became the driving force for her most successful year—for her being the year’s most successful female pop singer. It’s not that she somehow ended up being this year’s “It” pop star. It’s more that we needed it to be her this year.
There is no illusion of closeness. Grande works hard to achieve parameters where she and and her fans can comfort each other.
It is important to note, here and now, that Ariana Grande is a Cancer. And that while we as a culture believe that astrology is an important expression of our personality (of which I do, your author, who is a Scorpio), mentioning this has a purpose. Of all the water signs in the zodiac (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces) Cancerians feel the most. They also give the most, too, often to their own detriment—any Cancer will begrudgingly echo this sentiment. The darkest blue of the ocean is the swirling well Cancers pull from, but not so deep and dark where little, vicious-looking fish live near the ocean floor, which would be attributed to the depth of feeling for mysterious Scorpios. Cancers have a remarkable capacity for love and devotion, which would be a decidedly bang-on description of Ms. Grande.
Grande cares about her fans. A lot. She cares about how they react to her work, what they love, what they don’t like, giving special attention to contextualize more often private, personal matters in her life directly to them via social media or in her work in a way most other pop stars would balk at. She even befriends them. We’re privy to, insofar as anyone would give strangers access, the emotional contours of her life. Grande said this of her fans in an interview in The Fader: “There are parts of my life that they would love to know about,” she says, “and hard times that I have been dealing with for the past year-and-a-half that they deserve to know about because they love me endlessly and care. I don’t want to hide any pain from them because I can relate to their pain. Why not be in it together?”
In 2018, relatability became an integral part of Grande’s professional ethos; not simply between us to her, but for her to remind everyone of the power of connection. Social media has become a perfect way for that to occur in parallel with her music. In The New Yorker, Paula Mejia wrote that “Grande is of the generation that intuitively understands how digital platforms act as a vessel for closeness,” a sentiment that captures the power dynamic between Ariana and the world around her. Her relationship’s are synergetic; not simply thanking them for being here and supporting her, but mindful of how they inform each other. There is no illusion of closeness. Grande works hard to achieve parameters where she and and her fans can comfort each other.
She does in an aural sense, too, providing rhythms and lyrics for which we can feel the extension of her invisible hand to us. There are instances on Sweetener where it feels like we’re listening to Grande’s therapeutic, self-care routine: “Breathin’,” with its repetitive, mantra-like chorus; “No Tears Left to Cry,” too, bears incantations (“I’m lovin’/ I’m livin’/ I’m pickin’ it up”); “Get Well Soon,” her tribute to Manchester, is both a reminder to Grande and to her fans, to those of us going through tragedy, that’s solace in understanding the process of grief, to “deal with it, don’t try to get by it/ Ain’t no time to deny it/ So we had to sit down and just write it.”
For much of Sweetener, she employs an almost methodical approach: open the wound, bear witness to it, and see how optimism snakes its way through to not simply healing, but thriving.
Pop music isn’t inherently abrasive. It’s sneaky by design; upbeat melodies taking over often subtle, brilliant lyrics devoted to introspection. Grande’s pop music is meant to function as an antidote. In the club, your car, or the privacy of your own ear buds as you stroll or dance down the street. Her anguish is inseparable from her triumphs. For much of Sweetener, she employs an almost methodical approach: open the wound, bear witness to it, and see how optimism snakes its way through to not simply healing, but thriving.
We can’t talk about Grande’s capacity for care without talking about Pete Davidson. The memes, the fast engagement, matching tattoos, even Piggy Smallz. I can’t bring myself to skip the song “pete davidson,” even long after their break-up! Davidson, a little too publicly slimy at first while processing the dissolution of his engagement, was devoted to Grande, and Grande to him. In a recent Instagram story, Davidson spoke of his mental health—something he’s been widely open about—and the difficult time he’s had with people leveraging vicious comments at him on behalf of Grande. Grande shared it and, of course, reminded her fans to “be gentle with others,” saying she doesn’t “endorse anything but positivity and forgiveness.” Which is true: that’s the crux of her megahit, “Thank u, next.” Compassion is the focus. She literally says, emphasizing on each beat, “I’m so fuckin’ grateful for my ex,” after listing off her four major ex-partners.
Grande’s unbridled empathy was a vital component for alleviation this year. An invitation to feel whatever we needed to with her as she felt the waves of her year, too. We saw a marked turn in Grande’s personal and professional lives: a maturation complete as an eclipse. Grande carried a specific sort of kindness and desire for us to participate in the spectrum of what she—and by proximity, we—felt. She became a vessel for whom we could see and feel joy, pain, loss, and, most importantly, hope. Looking for optimism and being disappointed when what exists is a discouraging world seems like a natural reaction.
Perhaps this is what The Atlantic meant by describing Grande’s music as escapist; it provides a realm that’s just gooey enough for us to slip into, without it becoming condescending, or infantile. That there is meaning behind the mental getaway. Because the thing is, you’ll never really be able to get away completely from your problems, and the things that haunt you. You need to make space to care for them, to nurture the good that sometimes emerges from tragedy. There is no pop star currently more nurturing than Ariana Grande.