Ariana Grande Is This Generation’s Pop Star, All on Her Own Terms
In spite of everything, she’s controlled her narrative and created her best work in years.
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July, 2015. The scene of the crime is a doughnut shop in southern California, where the glaze is sticky and the pastry is hot. Ariana Grande-Butera, then a 23-year-old major star-in-waiting, does what a young, carefree person does. She prods a doughnut, with the tip of her tongue, then doesn't buy it. Kinda gross but nothing too bad. We’ve all fondled the inside of a cookie jar, or sipped a housemate’s juice mouth-to-carton.
For the sake of contemporaneous reporting, you should remember a few more details too. Like the fact it was a dare – a double-doughnut dare, if you will – involving Grande and her then-boyfriend Ricky Alvarez, who also prodded one of Wolfee Donuts powdered delights with his tongue. Then – when a shop worker returned with a tray of disgustingly huge pastries – Ariana laid down some truth. “I hate Americans and I hate America”, she said, presumably in response to the ostentatious sugary mountains that had been laid on. Sure, as a result, Ariana was disinvited from the White House (I guess being into America is one of the many entry clauses), but – but! – White House, Schmight House: licking that doughnut became a turning point in her career.
Last week she released “7 rings”, the third loosie single since her most well-received album to date, 2018’s deliriously addictive sweetener. Like “thank u, next” and “Imagine”, the track is the next in a series of releases that’ve cemented Ariana’s position as Gen Z’s pop queen. More on that later though. First, back to the doughnuts. Because despite the media backlash, that moment made her more relatable (tell me you haven’t duped a self-checkout or stolen free samples or whatever). And second, because the doughnut licker was Ariana Grande, the pop star, it presented us to Ariana Grande-Butera, the human, who in another life is your best pal or someone you know. Ariana the human is, for example trained in the French horn, made songs on GarageBand as a kid, and absolutely adores Imogen Heap (just see her cover-ish track “goodnight n go”)
Since the doughnut licking, it feels as if Ariana has become more visibly comfortable in her kooky, weird self. Not long after, she referenced the event in an infamous and lauded self-deprecating SNL skit. A year later, she spoke to Billboard for a 2016 cover story. It was a good move, because crucially, she levelled up, and – with the SNL sketch – she started to own her narrative. Though she initially won her fanbase from a stint as a Nickelodeon star, then again with 2013’s Yours Truly and 2014’s My Everything – especially with singles “Love Me Harder” and the Iggy Azalea-featuring smash “Problem” – her new album was different. For Dangerous Woman, in 2016, she took on a kind of bunny-ears and latex alter-ego. From the Billboard piece: “Whenever I doubt myself or question choices I know in my gut are right – because other people are telling me other things – I’m like, ‘What would that bad bitch Super Bunny do?’ She helps me call the shots.”
Today, Ariana is in charge of her image more than ever before. This is Ariana Grande-Butera: thriving, growing, winning. That’s what we saw with “thank u, next”, her fizzy first single since her last album. Given everything that’s gone on – and you can read the gossip columns for that – there was lots of talk prior to its release. What would her next piece of music be about, would she address the passing of one lover, the break-up from the next, and if so – how? Decontextualized it’s an A-grade pop song. But add in everything else, all the messy bits? Damn. It was a timely, expert piece of songwriting. Listening to it, you can’t help but feel joy, as though cheering on a friend in the face of adversity.
But not only is Ariana proving to be hard-as-nails – like, I can barely deal doing work on a hangover – she also owns her current ‘was lucky in love, now is deeply unlucky in it’ predicament, banging out some of the best pop songs of this era. Like “thank u, next”, “7 rings” is among her best work. And it just so happens that both these songs are also some of her most personal. As the story goes, this new one is based on a shopping trip Ariana took – after giving her engagement ring back to Pete Davidson – with a few pals. As she told it to Billboard, in her Woman of the Year interview: “Me and my friends went to Tiffany’s together, just because we needed some retail therapy. You know how when you’re waiting at Tiffany’s they give you lots of champagne? They got us very tipsy, so we bought seven engagement rings, and when I got back to the studio I gave everybody a friendship ring. That’s why we have these, and that’s where the song idea came from.”
As much as the track is an (albeit embellished) re-telling of a personal event, it’s also the ultimate flex. A rich bitch anthem. A tune for anyone who owns a black card (or daddy does). But, despite the capitalistic tinge to the lyrics, there’s a personal power in the track too; one where money isn’t an imperative, even if that’s how it reads on the surface. Essentially, as Ariana told Twitter, “7 rings” is “friendship anthem. How the homies WANT u to feel. What the ‘thank u next’ energy evolves into while embracing a new chapter”. Really and truly, it’s self care in its most lavish way, even if the closest you can get to that is living vicariously through the song, which, in a lot of ways, is what all the best pop music is about: a form of transportation, to feel like Prince at his very best, Adele at her most heartbroken, Gaga in the middle of a sweaty club.
The openness that’s at the root of her new chapter extends beyond Ariana’s music, and into everything else too. During her acceptance speech for that Billboard Woman Of The Year award, she acknowledged how the past year had been both the best and worst of her life and how, even if it seems like it on the outside, she still doesn’t have her shit entirely together. Watching her speak was both upsetting and joyful, as she seemed equally hurt and happy. But perhaps more so, it felt empowering. “I’m not saying this for sympathy,” she said. “I want to say if you’re someone out there who has no idea what they’re doing, you’re not alone in that.” And while words can sometimes mean nothing, in Ariana’s case, with the backdrop of her experiences, they landed pure and direct. She’s inspiring, as influential pop-stars should be.
Elsewhere, she’s using her social media feeds as a place to be somewhat accessible and relatable. It calls to mind Rihanna, who – before posting Fenty product after Fenty product – would post entire holiday pics to Facebook, or tweet stuff like “FUCK U SATAN!!! Fuck right off!!!!!"” And still, tbf, even she does post Fenty products, she can be as funny as ever, posting up blooper reels. Essentially, Rihanna set a blueprint for a different type of pop star – one that’s not as out of reach as Beyonce, but slightly within touch, like an old friend you hung out with in sixth form or a cool person you once met in a club who has a wild sense of humour. Ariana follows Rihanna’s template to a degree, drip-feeding information, still letting fans in enough that they feel close. But, like the 1975 – arguably the other big pop-stars of Gen Z – she does so with the parlance of the internet, whether that’s writing every song in lowercase on sweetener, or quote-tweeting fans in a language that falls between text-speak and emoji.
Of course, “7 rings” isn’t without its problems. Ariana's been criticised for blackfishing, by co-opting the language around black hair and extensions. Then there’s the video, complete with rap tropes. Soulja Boy, Big Sean and Princess Nokia are just three acts to call her out. But – as important as that discussion is – it’s one for another time, or at least another thesis that involves several thousand more words. Peer issues aside, what Ariana does with the song is undeniably hers. It’s a true story, for starters. More importantly, it’s a woman having complete agency over her narrative. Doughnutgate may have introduced us to Ariana Grande-Butera, doughnut licker and fan of ghost stories. With these new songs, we’re bearing witness to Ariana Grande-Butera, this generation’s pop star supreme.
You can find Ryan on Twitter.