The problem with Ariana Grande

Republic

By Gibson Johns, Daily Arts Writer
Published September 28, 2014

Ever since she dropped “Problem,” the lead single for her sophomore album My Everything, Ariana Grande has been unavoidable throughout most of 2014. She’s had three top-10 singles and a No. 1 album, she opened this year’s VMAs and has appeared on nearly every major late-night and morning show, including as the musical guest on the season premiere of “Saturday Night Live” this past weekend. It’s easy to look at Ariana Grande’s skyrocketing fame and success and blindly assume that she must possess all the elements of a superstar. But in reality, despite her label (intelligently) pulling out the stops to ensure her success, it’s plain to see that that’s simply not the case.

Let’s start with Grande’s debut album Yours Truly. Piggybacking off of her popularity as a star on two Nickelodeon shows and the positive reception of her Mac Miller-assisted debut single, “The Way,” the album shot to No. 1 and was widely praised for its ’90s R&B sound. People said she was the second coming of Mariah Carey. Though the rest of the album didn’t yield any other genuine hits, there was an overwhelming amount of excitement surrounding Grande. She won New Artist of the Year at the 2013 American Music Awards following a stellar, soulful performance of album track “Tattooed Heart.” The retro performance garnered her a standing ovation and put her powerful voice in the spotlight. She stole the show on one of music’s biggest nights and had a lot of people highly anticipating her next move.

Fast forward to April of this year with the release of “Problem.” Quickly, and deservedly, the song shot to No. 3 on the Hot 100 and was immediately inescapable. Though her team may have “taken a risk” by launching her second album with a track that didn’t even feature its singer on the chorus (Big Sean whispers it), it still ticked all the boxes. Expertly produced with an on-trend saxophone backing (see: Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty”)? Check. Lyrics penned by none other than pop-mastermind Max Martin? Check. Features by not one, but two of mainstream hip hop’s biggest names (Iggy Azalea and Big Sean)? Check.

Listen, I’m not claiming that everything released to Top 40 radio these days isn’t similarly calculated to ensure success. But whereas someone like Rihanna seems heavily involved in making those calculations to ensure her perspective remains intact, I can’t help but feel as if Grande probably isn’t involved in making many of those decisions. What is her point of view? Does she even have a signature sound? She all but abandoned the ’90s R&B vibe that garnered her so much praise for Yours Truly for dancefloor-ready beats that fit right in with everything else on the radio these days. I acknowledge that artists, especially ones as young as Grande, need to evolve their sound to keep things exciting for their fans and to stay current, but My Everything represents such a change in sound that, in my mind, the Mariah Carey comparisons don’t really hold up anymore. It seems as though Grande (read: her label) decided on a regression of originality in order to achieve a progression in fame.

“Break Free,” another incredible pop song that features EDM-powerhouse Zedd, was the second release from My Everything and represented an even further departure from her original sound than “Problem” did, while simultaneously proving to be equally as pervasive. “Love Me Harder” is perhaps the best song on the album and is Grande’s upcoming third single. It’s a sexy Max Martin-written track and will surely be another smash for her.

Though individually these songs are undoubtedly remarkable pop confections, together they fail to represent a cohesive image of Grande as an artist and seem to be the result of a by-the-numbers approach to achieving pop success. Again, this isn’t all that unusual in the world of pop music, but as becomes easily evident during her live performances and interviews, this may be a result of Grande’s apparent lack of distinguishable personality and stage presence.

Most of Grande’s live performances lately go like this: the universally recognizable first few seconds of one of her hits plays before Grande is revealed at the center of the stage on a raised platform. She’s wearing thigh-high go-go boots and some sort of extravagant leotard, her hair done up in her signature high ponytail. After being helped down the stairs by one of her many back-up dancers, she breaks into dance during the song’s chorus. Her dancing is lackadaisical, and her eyes exhibit a deer-in-the-headlights discomfort. Probably as a result of her extensive dancing, she sounds out of breath and fails to enunciate throughout most of the verses. She might even yell out a “Let’s go!” to try to get the crowd into it. For the money note, Grande almost nails it as she brings out some Aguilera-esque arm waves. As a viewer, though you are trying your hardest to enjoy the performance (a song this deliciously catchy deserves an equally amazing performance), you likely feel just as uncomfortable as Grande does. Comparing this to her aforementioned American Music Awards performance from last year and this is particularly disappointing.

You don’t have to look very far for examples of these performances. This happened at the VMAs, the iHeartRadio Festival and “X Factor” Australia, among others (let’s not even get into Rihanna laughing at her in the audience during her iHeartRadio Music Awards performance). In interviews, most notably with Matt Lauer on “TODAY,” she displays a similar disinterest in her surroundings and spits out repetitive answers to every question posed at her. Though this initially comes as a shock, it falls directly in line with the rumors of her diva-like behavior and continuous scorning of fans. None of it is shockingly offensive or disrespectful, but one can’t help but think that the predictable nature of her breakout year is an attempt by her label to distract us from her lack of the “it” factor. Where is the spark and passion in her eyes? In the year following the uniquely outrageous breakthrough of Miley Cyrus, Grande’s feels especially uninteresting. Miley may have lacked a bit of taste, but at least she sparked discussion and made sure that every little thing she did represented her point of view and wacky personality.

Grande’s music may represent some of the year’s best Top 40 offerings, and the general public may be embracing her for what her label wants the world to see her as — a flawless pop starlet whose talents and looks check off all the boxes — but does she genuinely have everything it takes to be a convincing global superstar? The answer may still be unclear.

As for yours truly, I’m not so convinced.