It must be the most simultaneously amazing and terrible thing to be Ariana Grande right now.
The ponytailed princess has completely dominated pop music in 2019, coasting off the strength of her albums Sweetener and thank u, next, which were released only six months apart.
Thank u, next in particular scored the year’s second biggest debut sales week, while its three singles allowed Grande to match a record set by the Beatles. With “thank u, next”, “7 rings” and “break up with your girlfriend, I’m bored”, she became the second act in history to occupy the entire top three positions on the Billboard Hot 100.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest reasons why she’s gone from merely famous to insanely mega-famous this year is because of how often her name has been attached to tragedy.
In the wake of the suicide bombing at her Manchester concert, the death of ex-boyfriend Mac Miller, and her subsequent ill-fated engagement to comedian Pete Davidson, everyone became curious as to how Grande would respond, and what she would do next.
Addressing these issues directly in her music was always going to be a recipe for a No. 1 hit single.
As soon as Grande rattled off the list of her famous exes by name in the opening lines of “thank u, next”, which did indeed become her first-ever chart-topper, a switch was flipped in the pop-culture consciousness.
The image of the picture-perfect, larger-than-life pop star was shattered completely, and people were relieved.
In a way, Ariana Grande has become a new kind of pop icon—one for the social-media age. We’ve never seen another megastar at her level of fame be quite so open, quite so human.
Grande has been able to anticipate people’s assumptions and subvert them, jumping one step ahead and masterfully controlling her narrative.
Most people assumed the worst after Grande tweeted a seemingly dismissive “thank u, next” in response to some of Davidson’s jokes about their breakup on Saturday Night Live, then started teasing a song of the same name with Mean Girls references.
Instead, she flipped everything upside down, turning the film’s infamous “Burn Book” into a book full of compliments in the accompanying music video, the “thank u” completely genuine. As the song’s lyrics state, she “learned from the pain, and turned out amazing”.
These subversions all started with “no tears left to cry”, written as a tribute to Manchester victims. Instead of the expected dramatic and overwrought ballad, the song is an up-tempo and triumphant dance-pop number about moving forward.
It was a strong and thoughtful way of addressing one of pop music’s most horrific tragedies. On May 22, 2017, a suicide bomber linked to ISIS detonated a bomb minutes after Grande’s concert at Manchester Arena came to a close, injuring 139 and killing 23, most of them children.
Grande’s presentation of herself as someone to rally around about Manchester, continuing onwards, has been fascinating and empowering to watch.
But it doesn’t always line up with the person that we see.
Grande interacts with her fans directly on her social-media platforms, often speaking candidly about her trauma and even posting an image of her brain scan showing the PTSD she developed after the Manchester attack.
The thing about finding so much success and being a public persona so open on social media is that it can also be a double-edged sword.
A massively popular yet deeply personal album doesn’t always translate well to a tour, and it can’t be easy for Grande to revisit her trauma on a nightly basis while performing these songs.
Understandably, performing tributes to Manchester victims or to Miller cause her to break down in tears during almost every show.
Also understandably, some of her fans have become concerned about the effects on Grande’s mental health of embarking on such a tour, sending her messages asking her to change the set list, or even cancel the tour if it weighs so heavily on her.
She actually did take some of this advice to heart, removing “goodnight n go”, a breakup song surrounding the end of her relationship with Mac Miller, and replacing it with self-love anthem “get well soon”.
“It’s hard to sing songs that are about wounds that are so fresh. It’s fun, it’s pop music… but these songs to me really do represent some heavy shit,” Grande revealed in a recent interview with Vogue.
Publicly recognizing that her fans are concerned about her, Grande has posted numerous extended messages to her social-media platforms reassuring them that she’s doing just fine.
She also revealed in the Vogue interview that settling into a distracting routine or schedule was actually suggested by multiple therapists. What better schedule for a world-dominating pop star than a nine-month global tour?
Grande has asserted that although the songs do contain such heavy subject material, performing them to stadiums full of adoring fans every night does help her with the healing process.
Her most recent reassuring message, posted to Instagram, read “I’m grateful for the sea of love I have around me every day. I’m grounded by gratitude and promise not to give up on what I’ve started.”
“I feel everything very intensely and have committed to doing this tour during in a time in my life when I’m still processing a lot … so sometimes I cry a lot! I thank you for accepting my humanness,” it went on to say.
When people see her tears flowing on stage, it’s easy to assume that Grande is depressed, or having a bad time on tour. In reality, having the courage to get out there and perform her songs (much like the Manchester benefit concert she organized mere weeks after the attack) mirrors the persona of strength she puts forward in her music.
Grande is still in the process of healing, and nobody should be surprised by the fact that she’s still sad. Being able to get up on the biggest stages of her career and openly cry in front of the world doesn’t show that she’s fragile or she’s weak. It shows that she’s correctly engaging with her emotions, and processing them in a healthy way.
Being that vulnerable is a pretty badass thing to do, and it’s a lot better than keeping all of these feelings inside.
Just because an artist frequently opens up to her fans about her struggles doesn’t open the door for anyone to play psychiatrist with them. Fans acting like it’s a huge deal and spinning the narrative that she’s forcing herself to sing these songs probably only inadvertently makes the situation seem worse than it is.
It’s probably a strange thing to conceptualize, putting yourself in the shoes of the world’s biggest pop star. But it’s clear that for someone like Grande, translating these horrible things into massive pop anthems, performing them live, and being met with so much support, helps her work through this pain. And we’re seeing that process happen live in front of us.
It might seem counter-productive to share your lowest moments with crowds of thousands night after night.
But perhaps you need to receive emotional support differently when you’re the world’s most-followed woman on Instagram.