Ariana Grande is rewriting the rules of pop stardom
30 November 2018 08:01
On February 3, 2017, Ariana Grande and her tour crew stood in an excited circle backstage at the Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona, hands interlocked, about to perform her Dangerous Woman stage show for the first time. As is customary for these kinds of moments, Grande gave her team a pre-show pep talk: ‘there’s so much scary shit happening right now, so like, let’s just make everybody feel safe in being who they are tonight, you know what I mean? And especially when they leave.’ At this time, I imagine that few people had realised the singer’s potential to become a truly impactful force in today’s society. She was just a pop star, and while her musical talent was undeniable, to the casual observer, all she did was make a few catchy songs.
Pop music isn’t for everyone, but to deny its significance within the world’s cultural landscape is to silence and undermine the perspective of its core fanbase. It’s no coincidence that a genre that primarily resonates with a female and LGBTQ+ audience is typically regarded by others as frivolous and unworthy of meaningful discussion. In Grande’s case, however, this all changed just shy of four months after her first backstage pledge to make her fans feel accepted and valued under the wing of her performances. The details of the terror attack at her Manchester show on May 22, 2017 are well documented and her bravery in the face of tragedy has been highly praised – having organised the One Love Manchester charity concert just a few weeks later, only to then continue on with her tour – but up until now, other than her openly discussing that she suffers from PTSD, the personal impact of this event on Grande has, understandably, been left largely up to the public’s imagination.
Yesterday, Grande released the Dangerous Woman Diaries, a makeshift four-part docuseries on YouTube, that pieces together home movie-style footage that was filmed throughout 2017. Sat in a bed post-tour, with her two best friends and choreographers, Brian and Scott Nicholson, she explains early on in the series that this project wasn’t planned, hence the choppy cuts between live performances. Filmed over the entire duration of the tour, one song can see Grande wearing multiple variations of her signature ponytail. The director, Alfredo Flores, only filmed snippets during her concerts to post on Instagram, it wasn’t until after the tour had ended that they decided to attempt to put it all together.
If anything, though, this improvised format only makes the project feel more personal. On top of concert footage, we see Grande and her dancers goofing around during rehearsals and backstage, touching clips of interactions with fans and Snapchat-style footage of her singing in the makeup chair. Full of energy, laughter and honesty, it’s not designed to be a cinematic masterpiece, rather it’s a gift for her fans, ‘something to commemorate [the] very life-changing experience [they] went through together’; a video scrapbook that closes this chapter of her life.
When the time finally comes to address the Manchester attack, Grande chooses to write a note to her viewers instead of addressing the event on camera. ‘May 22nd, 2017 will leave me speechless and filled with questions for the rest of my life,’ she says. ‘Music, pop music, stan culture is something that brings people together, introduces them to some of their best friends and makes them feel like they can be themselves. It is comfort, it is fun, it is expression, it is happiness, it is the last thing that would ever harm someone. It is safe. When something so opposite and so poisonous takes place in your world that is supposed to be everything but that… it is shocking and heartbreaking in a way that seems impossible to ever recover from.’ She goes on to detail how the spirit of the city encouraged her and the tour’s crew to carry on, and has irrevocably altered her perspective of the world. ‘I think of Manchester constantly and will carry this with me every day for the rest of my life.’ The film then cuts to Grande singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ in tribute to the victims at a later concert, struggling to sing through tears. It’s near impossible to watch without crying with her.
We rarely see public figures in such an openly emotional state, yet by allowing herself to cry on stage, revealing her open wounds to arenas full of people around the world (the European, Latin American and Asian legs of the tour were still to be completed), Ariana Grande reminded us all that there’s strength in vulnerability. In a world that’s becoming increasingly polarised, the last thing we need to do is build up more personal barriers that shut other people out; now is the time to be open, connect and find light in the dark.
I suspect that this was perhaps also the driving incentive behind the carefree approach to her highly publicised relationship with Pete Davidson earlier this year. She and her now ex-fiancé were paparazzied everywhere possible holding hands, kissing and professing their love for one another over the course of their five-month relationship. Many were quick to write off their engagement as either a publicity stunt or a hasty rebound from her previous two-year relationship with the late Mac Miller. But is it impossible to imagine that maybe she was just acting like a normal 25-year-old and having fun? In the Dangerous Woman Diaries, she says that the Manchester attack taught her ‘to not let hate win. But instead, love as loudly as possible and appreciate every moment.’ If Ariana and Pete’s relationship wasn’t loud love, then I don’t know what is.
Grande released her latest single ‘thank u, next’, a song boldly dedicated to her exes, just two weeks after she split from Pete and less than a month after the death of Mac Miller. Currently number one in the UK and in countless other countries, it’s a ballsy break-up song in which she discusses her past partners, individually naming them while triumphantly singing ‘I’m so fucking thankful for my ex’ during its chorus. While other pop stars opt for sly digs at past lovers in their lyrics, Grande, once again, is frank and upfront, laying herself bare in an act of inspirational resilience. The song’s music video will be released today, where she’ll take on the roles of chick flick heroines from Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004), Legally Blonde (Robert Luketic, 2001), Bring It On (Peyton Reed, 2000) and 13 Going On 30 (Gary Winick, 2004). Those who criticise pop music are also unlikely to be fans of those films, but Grande knows her domain and is owning it, while also reinventing its framework. While her work may not seem meaningful to many, its significance to those who support her – the kids at her shows who credit her for helping them on their journey to self-acceptance, the followers who she spends hours replying to on Twitter – is almost incomprehensible.
We’re privy to a lot of pre-show pep talks in the Dangerous Woman Diaries. Towards the end of the third episode – still on the first American leg of the tour – her manager, Scooter Braun, takes the lead. ‘The world is a very interesting place where they’re forgetting what history’s taught us,’ he starts. ‘Most artists are afraid to speak up. They’re afraid to say what really matters and stand up for all these kids out here, that are mostly in this crowd. And Ariana Grande is never afraid. […] So tonight, when you guys are on that stage, know that you are on with someone who is on the right side of history.’ At this point in her career, I believe there’s no doubt that Grande will go on to become a pop icon. Her music alone might not change the world, but her tenacious optimism sets the ultimate example for a younger generation faced with turbulent futures. As she advises listeners in ‘get well soon’, we simply have to ‘Unfollow fear and just say “you are blocked”’. Ariana isn’t just on the right side of history, she’s making it.