In 2018, only one woman held the No.1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 as a solo artist: Ariana Grande, courtesy of “thank u, next.” While Beyoncé, Camila Cabello, and Cardi B also reached the top of the charts, their singles were accompanied by male artists who had previously dominated streaming platforms and radio airplay. In addition to the male-heavy chart listings, it seemed as if the traditional pop that once ruled was being phased out by pop-rap from the likes of Drake and Post Malone.
The ‘It Girl’ of pop
In the past decade, pop music has undergone a changing of the guard. While the mainstream charts are slowly experiencing a resurgence of R&B and getting familiar with the power of hip-hop on streaming services, there have been many cries about the lack of pop music’s presence – particularly the style of female-driven pop that used to dominate the musical landscape. Where are the Madonnas, Whitney Houstons, Janet Jacksons and Mariah Careys of this generation?
Music fans are increasingly fickle and niche-orientated, and it’s becoming ever more difficult to maintain the kind of multi-decade chart domination and lasting cultural clout that used to define a pop star’s career. Many have argued the self-proclaimed “trap Selena”, Cardi B, now occupies this space, but Cardi’s music, while mainstream, exists in the hip-hop space first and foremost.
Enter Ariana Grande, who’s managed to attain the kind of pop-star mega-fame that has recently seemed extinct. Debuting at No.1 on the Billboard 200, her 2018 and 2019 albums, Sweetener and thank u, next, have brought “It Girl” pop back into the charts, while the singles “thank u, next” and “7 rings” have both broken Spotify streaming records to debut at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Grande has also become the first artist since The Beatles in 1964 to monopolize the top three spots of the Billboard Hot 100 with “7 rings,” “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” and “thank u, next,” respectively.
Grande not only comes from a school of leading pop ladies, but also debuted during a time when bubble-gum pop of the late 00s and early 2010s was starting to shift towards a more R&B and trap-influenced sound. In 2013, Katy Perry released the upbeat anthem “Roar,” but she quickly replaced that aesthetic with the Juicy J-assisted “Dark Horse.” Meanwhile, Rihanna’s red-hair days of loud dance-pop tunes and raving “We Found Love” performances were getting more unapologetic. Grande fit right in that mold with her debut “The Way,” which recalled elements of 90s R&B fused with a sample of Big Pun’s “Still Not A Player.”
Making pop more personal
The release of Sweetener on August 17, 2018 and thank u, next on February 8, 2019, marked Grande’s departure from her teeny-bop days and the start of a more mature era. Like former child stars-turned-pop sensations Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears before her, Grande’s albums followed a sonic evolution that took her from an “It Girl” to an “It Woman”. If the gospel and soulful flavors of Sweetener match Aguilera’s Stripped, then the dancefloor vibes and moodiness of thank u, next are akin to those found on Spears’ Blackout.
There’s an element of relatability at play here: all three are pop stars who weave their personal lives and tabloid dramas into their music. Both Stripped and Blackout addressed rumors and public perceptions head-on, and, in the era of always-on social-media saturation, Grande breaks down the wall between her personal life and her fans even further.
Across Sweetener and thank u, next, Grande displays the power of healing on your own terms. “no tears left to cry,” “breathin” and “get well soon” are all therapeutic dream-pop responses to the bombing that took place outside her concert at the UK’s Manchester Arena in 2017. She also confronts the loss of her ex-partner Mac Miller (“R.E.M.” and “ghostin”), the gain of a fiancé (“pete davidson”), their subsequent split (“thank u, next”) and her battle with public image and mental health (‘fake smile’).
Grande has also mastered the art of turning a music video release into a global cultural moment. Beyoncé upped the ante on everyone in 2016 with Lemonade, but for the past two years Grande has commended the world’s attention with one viral moment after the next; first with the surrealistic vision of “no tears left to cry,” then with the rom-com satire “thank u, next” and the flashy girl-power visuals of “7 rings.”
Sonically, Sweetener and thank u, next, released in a span of just six months, are very diverse. One could argue that Ariana Grande learned this best from Rihanna, who, between her 2005 debut, Music Of The Sun, and 2012’s Unapologetic, supplied her fans with almost a new album every year, and whose diverse singles signaled new trends in pop. Rihanna might be Grande’s greatest inspiration for the kind of swaggering attitude and unshakable confidence in her image and music. As with Rihanna’s 00s releases, tracks on Sweetener and thank u, next represent various eras of pop music – whether it’s the guitar-riffing electro-pop of “bad idea” or a revamped cover of Imogen Heap’s ethereal “goodnight n go.”
What really sets Grande apart from her pop contemporaries, however, is the constant unpredictably of what she’s going to do next. From a string of surprise singles to releasing two back-to-back albums in a short span of time and her openly revealing public persona, Grande has redefined what it means to be a pop star today.