The doughnut licking incident seems like a lifetime ago.
Remember that? In 2015, before she became the unassailable heroine who will arrive at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday, March 26 (and again on June 24). Before she became the first artist since the Beatles to simultaneously have three songs atop the Billboard singles chart, Ariana Grande was an inexperienced and untested pop star.
The then-22-year-old singer made pretty gross TMZ and tabloid news by being caught touching her tongue to a variety of glazed goodies in a California bakery and — gasp! — saying, “I hate America.”
The vocalist with the Brigitte Bardot high ponytail who began as a teen actress on the Nickelodeon show Victorious apologized. She said she didn’t really hate America; she was just concerned with sugar intake and childhood obesity. And she said seeing herself “behaving poorly” on a hidden camera video made her feel “so disgusted with myself.”
America forgave her, thank goodness, and Grande’s career survived the mini-scandal. She went on to do spot-on musical impressions on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and display comedic flair hosting Saturday Night Live, where she introduced herself as “a singer, not a coffee drink.” (Nowadays, though, she is the spokeswoman for a coffee drink as the face of Starbucks’ Cloud Macchiato.)
In retrospect, it all seems so innocent. Because since then, Grande has been forced to grow up in public in much more harsh and tragic ways.
The way she’s responded has everything to do with how the singer who once seemed like a lightweight, cat-eared, pre-fab star — albeit one with a four-octave voice, dubbed the “mini-Mariah” — has emerged as a major force completely in charge of her own career, even as she’s been buffeted by life-changing events beyond her control.
As Grande has gotten more and more famous, her music has taken on added gravitas. And while dealing with personal and public trauma, she’s still delivered the kind of earworm bangers she had a knack for going back to early hits like “Problem” and “Bang Bang.”
From David Bowie and Madonna on, creating an ever-changing public persona (the more controversial the better) has been the essence of the art of pop stardom. Controlling an image, and being smart about how you share it, is the essence of pop performance, every bit as big a factor as the actual music that binds artists with fans, if not more.
In the pop star playground, career-defining dramas are often ginned up as selling points to launch a new album or movie. Grande has proved to be a unique and excellent celebrity in that she’s been forced to deal with a hailstorm of horrific drama not of her own making that you wouldn’t wish on your worst frenemy.
And though the diminutive singer capable of reaching super-high “whistle tones” with her voice could still pass for a child starlet — “the world’s cutest human,” as a fan called her on Twitter this month when Grande was spotted in Lancaster County while rehearsing at Rock Lititz — she’s dealt with all the drama with a surplus of grown-up grace that’s only increased her stature as an artist.
The turning point, of course, was the May 2017 terrorist attack at a Grande concert in Manchester, England, in which 22 people were killed and dozens more were injured.
The violence happened two years after the attack at the Bataclan nightclub in Paris that killed 89 at an Eagles of Death Metal concert and a few months before the Las Vegas sniper attack at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival that killed 58.
There’s no ranking horrific acts of mass murder, but the Manchester attack had an added tragic element in that so many victims were young. Grande’s preteen “Arianators” were mercilessly killed at what was for many their first concert, what should have been an entree into a lifetime of joyous experiences.
Grande has talked about how she’s suffered from PTSD since the massacre, but she’s carried on and performed, beginning with the One Love Manchester show that followed a few weeks later.
The notion of carrying on in the face of tragedy is central to Sweetener, her fourth studio album, which came out in August and which gives its name to the tour that kicked off last week in Albany, N.Y. — with seven costume changes, according to Elle, all featuring over-the-knee boots.
The first single from Sweetener, “No Tears Left to Cry,” moved on from the trauma of Manchester, vowing, “We’re way too fly to partake in all this hate.” And the album’s title song takes an upbeat attitude, aiming to counter nastiness at every turn: “When life deal us cards make everything taste like it’s salt / Then you come through like the sweetener you are, to bring the bitterness to a halt.”
Along her road to maturation, Grande has distinguished herself as a feminist hero as well as a savvy social media user.
She’s frequently clapped back at haters criticizing her skimpy outfits, dating to when Bette Midler admonished her that “you don’t have to make a whore out of yourself to get ahead.” Grande tweeted back back she had always been a fan of Midler’s, “an artist who stood for women doing whatever the F they wanted.” Midler apologized.
And at this year’s Grammy Awards, Grande sent the message that she’s not about to be manipulated by the awards show industrial complex when she pulled out of a performance rather than let TV producers dictate what song she could sing.
After enduring the trauma of the Manchester bombing, Grande’s 2018 was dominated by her personal life. In May, she and Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller broke up.
Shortly thereafter, she started dating Saturday Night Live jokester Peter Davidson in a whirlwind romance that involved a quick engagement, the adoption of a pet pig, and a song called “Pete Davidson” on Sweetener. Happiness, it seemed was finally hers.
But it was not meant to be. in September, Miller died of a cocaine and fentanyl overdose, inspiring tributes from Elton John and the hip-hop world at large. (The Sweetener tour begins with a Miller video tribute.) And a month after Miller’s death, Grande and Davidson also broke up, with the latter now making tabloid news on the rebound with actress Kate Beckinsale.
All that personal drama led to thank u, next, the title of the song and album that has launched Grande into the stratosphere.
The track was released in November, and it’s a terrifically catchy, undeniable bop of a song that puts Grande’s Creamsicle voice to work. Its genius, though, is the way its title might lead you to believe it’s a cruel or bitter breakup song, as it mentions Miller and Davidson, as well as her other exes, rapper Big Sean and dancer Ricky Alvarez, her doughnut shop co-conspirator.
But instead of being bitter, “thank u, next” is sweet. Grande’s “one taught me love, one taught me patience, one taught me pain” lyric launched a thousand memes, and, more important, communicated a generosity of spirit and a determination to put self-care first that’s endearing and certainly well deserved. Responding to online gossipers who felt she’s moved on too fast, she announced that the “someone else” she’s met is a new most important person in her life: “This one gonna last, ‘cause her name is Ari.”
The response to the song was immediate and enormous — it set a record for the most streams by a female artist in a single day, with more than 8 million. And it created a career momentum for Grande that’s been cool to watch as well as to hear.
The song was released as “a loosie,” an individual track not attached to a planned album, an increasingly common practice in the internet-enabling days of the music business.
But its success made a new album make a lot of sense, so Grande went on to record what became thank u, next in a mere two weeks. It came out last month, with the help of producers like Tommy Brown, Swedish hitmaker Max Martin, and Philadelphian Andrew “Pop” Wansel.
thank u, next isn’t quite as good as Sweetener, but it doesn’t feel dashed off in the least, and its most powerful songs, “Fake Smile” and “Ghostin,” continue Grande’s growth as an artist who’s capable of imbuing her songs with a haunting sadness while keeping the bangers coming.
Last month, Grande reached her commercial apotheosis so far when she put a troika on top of the Billboard Hot 100, with “thank u, next” third, the frisky “Break Up with Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” second, and “7 Rings,” a not-great ode to retail therapy and consumer capitalism that builds off the sing-song melody of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Favorite Things,” coming in first.