Ariana Grande's 'Sweetener': A grandiose pop panorama
It is impossible not to think of the Manchester tragedy when talking about Ariana Grande’s new album, Sweetener.
The dust of this traumatizing event had not settled yet when Grande returned empowered and enthusiastic. She headlined the One Love Manchester benefit concert two weeks after the incident, belting out one chart-topping hit after another with gusto, delight, and newfound confidence.
This is exactly what Sweetener has come to represent.
A survivor’s sonata
Reinvention is an important facet of Grande’s career. The Boca-Raton, Florida-born artist who started as a thespian transformed herself from being the wide-eyed and innocent Cat Valentine in Nickelodeon’s Victorious to the multi-awarded diva that she is now.
Yet chance, circumstance, and capability cement what Grande has also become in this generation: a spokesperson for relevant issues in a world that seems to bruise and shape itself further to imperfection.
While one expects Grande to release a poignant, meditative record prefaced by the Manchester incident, she employed pop hitmakers Max Martin, her longtime collaborator who produced some of her well-received tracks like "Problem" and "Into You," and Pharrell Williams, most well-known for his infectious track “Happy”, to help her shape her project.
The result is surprising as it is novel: a record that both celebrates, and detours from, the festive and upbeat elements and formula of pop. She pulled back from monochromatic album artworks she maintained in the past and gave color to this one. She also had her titles written in small letters, much like the poet e. e. cummings’.
Headshot upside down and hair bleached, Grande exudes a maturity that comes not just with experience, but with fearlessness and excitement.
Her carrier single released last April, "No Tears Left to Cry" is reminiscent of a 90’s disco anthem brimming with youthful exuberance. She yanks us into her world with mellow, soulful cadence as it peaks up into its vibrant hook: “I'm picking it up, picking it up/ I'm loving, I'm living, I'm picking it up”.
The song is piercing and potent. It encapsulates Grande’s journey from, and attitude on, various points of her life climaxed by the Manchester tragedy. Her voice lingers like a gospel, fueled with earthly knowledge, “vibing” and “coming out," like a small sun rising into a grandiose production.
The music video is equally symbolic. It showed Grande defying space, reality, and gravity. It is a speculative performance that showed how much of fantasy Grande can fuse with reality, akin to how much artful impulses can be produced from a terrifying experience. To the awe of fans, the video ended with a bee —the motif adopted by Manchester since the Industrial Revolution, and its public symbol against terrorism after the incident—flying up and away, a graceful symbol of respect and tribute to Manchester.
Pop music compass
The album saw the most collaborations with Pharrell, whose sound syncopated with Grande’s. The result itself is “weird," something Grande reportedly wanted the album to sound like. Much about these collaborations motivated the departure of her approach to sound and diction.
In general, Grande surprisingly came out more coherent in this album. This is not to say that her earlier songs are vague. Her vocal style is sometimes criticized when her voice seems to sink with the melody, dissolving her lyrics. She sounds more confident in Sweetener, however, enunciating every word tastefully between jazzy chords and bright hooks.
Pharrell’s signature sound, teetering between bouncy and juvenile, is elevated into blazed, one of the distinctive sounds new to Grande’s discography. It is a self-aware yet self-assured love song in careless bliss.
The collaborations lent elements that contributed to the album’s eccentricity. Nicki Minaj’s presence in "the light is coming," like much of their former partnerships, is a loyal Grande listener’s satisfaction. Their creative visions converge, and its chant-song peripheries provide the album a delicious balance with Grande’s pure and guitar harmonies. "Borderline," featuring Missy Elliott, is as sassy and bold, albeit limited.
In the pulsating track "successful," Grande disguises her didactic message with a ringtone melody. The title track and R.E.M. are dialogic and seemingly-extemporaneous. The tracks are wondrous reminders of her theatrical roots. Sweetener’s play of syllables with a “sheesh” between lines is an empowering anthem that blends percussion and harmony—something peculiar, something very Pharrell.
A warming bonus to Grande’s fresh sound is her cover of another experimental and majestic artist’s song, Imogen Heap’s "Goodnight and Go." It comes right before a short track, "Pete Davidson," clearly about the Saturday Night Live comedian who is Grande’s fiancé. (READ: Pete Davidson on engagement to Ariana Grande: ‘I feel like I won a contest’)
The longest track in the album is also its last, fittingly entitled "get well soon." It ends with a soothing silence, much like a prayer for those who were affected by the Manchester incident.
Sweetener is a record to be reckoned with in this generation of Auto-Tune and where pop music is becoming artist-relative. Ariana Grande is one of the artists in our generation with a really distinct vocal prowess. Her 4-octave range vocal has always been compared to that of Mariah Carey’s, but her themes and messages are fiercer and more aggressive, attuned to this generation’s issues.
She is an artist who remained malleable through every phase. She is a compass in the industry, one hand safely anchored to the comforts of the craft, the other eternally exploring. This way, Sweetener was able to stay on either grounds, although at some points, it showed inconsistency and restriction.
Grande’s vocal register is ingeniously utilized—and suitably, too—in "God is a woman." She flutters effortlessly from a soft opening to a thought-provoking chorus. The combination of her powerful lyrics, raw melody, and eloquent music video easily turned the track into a general favorite.
Between these themes of empowerment, Grande explores as well the power of agency and urgency of healing.
“I’ve always had anxiety,” Grande said in one interview. “I’ve never really spoken about it because I thought everyone had it, but when I got home from tour, it was the most severe I think it’s ever been.”
She echoes this anxiety in breathin, “Some days, things just take way too much of my energy/ I look up and the whole room's spinning." It is one of the biggest standouts in the album: upbeat and honest, it is a reminder of self-care; sort of a pre-performance ritual backstage and a counsel for when the curtain closes.
It is exciting to sit back and wait for what Ariana Grande can come up with in her next project. The Manchester incident caused a great tremor in history, but Grande made it her own and allowed it to seep through the cracks of her already buzzing musical career that now seem to just grow bigger and better. It would be stellar to find her exploring this “weird” voice alone—although that would require more agency.
“You want to just not be afraid because of course that’s what they (terrorists) want,” Grande explained upon returning on tour after the Manchester tragedy. “If you give them that, they’ve won.”
In "No Tears Left to Cry," Grande sang in clever rhyme: “I just want you to come with me/ We on another mentality.” This record is a telling and majestic response to all the bitter phases that shaped it. Grande defuses the acrimonious instances of our time and held us resolutely by the hand, leading us right to Sugarland in a map of chaos and terror.
For this, she emerges victorious. – Rappler.com
Ivan Jim Layugan is a writer based in Baguio City. He teaches literature, research, and art appreciation at the University of Baguio.