For Ariana Grande, 2018 has all been about healing. The catastrophic events that took place in Manchester last year dealt a sobering blow that no twenty five year old should ever have to endure. Irrevocably changed and forever marked, Grande threw herself into her music in an attempt to understand and untangle her emotional reaction to the devastation.
The resulting twelve months saw her redefine what it means to be a popstar in the public sphere, bucking against a continued wave of personal hardship to dominate the charts with music ardently wrought in feeling and truth. She has played out the narrative of her life under an intense lens, but has the body of work which ensued been enriched by this deeply intimate connection?
Sweetener was an album Ariana had to make. While I don’t think it reaches the heady heights of her magnum opus Dangerous Woman, it is her most personal work to date. Like a snapshot of everything that she was dealing with, the album offered Ariana a means to work through issues which ensnared her. From anxiety and the treatment of women, to the resulting devastation of the terrorist attacks at her concert in May 2017, each track on Sweetener acts almost as a coping mechanism for the singer.
But what is remarkable though is how Ariana is actually coping. The music she created for the album is not imbued with melancholia or despondency, but a sort-of gentle optimism instead. It’s a mood that seems to permeate Ariana’s outlook. Despite the toll the attacks took on the singer, her immediate response was to rise above and help however she could. Her “we won’t let hate win” statement fuelled a sense of recovery in fans, the city and Ariana herself.
So aware how her life seems to be a series of peaks and troughs, Ariana freely concedes that she’s both “really lucky and really unlucky at the same time.” Just as Sweetener was dominating the charts and promotion was ramping up, tragedy almost inevitably reared its head once again. The death of her friend and ex-boyfriend Mac Miller placed Ariana at the centre of yet another maelstrom of emotion. A month later also saw the demise of her fervid relationship to SNL cast member Pete Davidson.
At a time when most people would spiral, Ariana Grande flipped the script, releasing a new single, Thank U, Next, without any prior warning. A track from an as-of-yet unreleased album, Ariana demonstrated once again how music is her means to clarity and peace. She is an artist who takes control. In an industry so saturated in the status quo, Thank U, Next was not only a life vest for the songstress, but also a symbol for how she was going to eke out a pop career her own way.
Dropped unceremoniously during the Sweetener era, the song is literally about moving on, not in malice or regret but courage and dignity — an incredibly powerful sentiment from one so young who has been burdened with such adversity. It destroyed records, landed Grande her first Billboard Hot 100 #1 and spawned a litany of memes. Everyone found something to relate to in the song as Thank U, Next became a universal mantra for people brushing off the tribulations of an ever demanding world.
Ariana has always maintained a fairly close relationship with her fans, but this culture has a tendency of being somewhat of a double-edged sword. Artists can release work, and no matter the perceived quality, people will throw themselves at the altar, extolling greatness that may not be present. It’s easy to get swept up in the caprice of media hype but Ariana seems to be balancing the situation quite well at the moment. She is being honest with herself but is also releasing content that, even had we not been privy to inner workings of her life, is objectively good.
Ariana Grande is a rare breed of popstar. Not only steeped in genuine talent, she has the enviable audacity to want to create a career for herself that reflects her as a person. The music she released in 2018 has been both cathartic and experimental. Some of it hit the mark, some of it didn’t, but at the very least Ariana can say that it fully represented how she was feeling. Her music is her own, it is a tool she uses to cope and gain perspective in the hopes of unburdening herself from a series of events that could have spelled disaster. It’s been a bittersweet year for Ariana Grande and I don’t think anyone could blame her for wanting to say “thank u, next” to it.