Screw the four-octave voice—the truly remarkable thing about Ariana Grande is the way she’s been so relentlessly smart about her branding.
Lesser minds would have opted for a template that’s proven foolproof for almost two decades. It goes something like this: take a formerly squeaky-clean teen and then do your best to convince the world that beneath the fresh-faced veneer lies an about-to-blow cherry bomb. There’s a reason Britney Spears will always be remembered for shaking it in a Catholic-schoolgirl uniform. And why Christina Aguilera is forever associated with baring both cheeks in assless chaps. And why Miley Cyrus is burned into our brains riding a wrecking ball in her birthday suit.
All three icons became megastars by selling a healthy dose of suggestive sex with their fabulously craptastic pop. And in doing so, they proved that America actually doesn’t give a shit if you’ve got talent—more often than not, it’s all about the shiny box instead of what’s inside.
Which brings us to Grande. The soprano has something in common with Spears, Aguilera, and Cyrus. And by that, we don’t mean a propensity for beefing in front of the hired help. Or for reportedly drinking enough to float the boats of Michelle Rodriguez, Snooki, and Kirsten Dunst. Or for carrying herself in a fashion that suggests she might be suffering from mild brain damage.
Grande is connected to the three teen-pop divas by the fact that she started out as a child TV star before making a bid for something more.
But that’s where the similarities seem to end.
Those who came before her seemed carefully calculated to outrage parents who’d never heard of some trollop called Madonna. Grande has gone the respectable route.
Someone evidently decided that the last thing America needed was another girl gone wild. The idea of disappointing perverts everywhere started with the deep-sixing of the cover art for her debut album, Yours Truly. Grande was originally shot sitting on a bed of roses against a pink backdrop and sporting lingerie, which was made weirdly disturbing by the fact she looked about 13 years old in the photo.
When fans suggested that the former Victorious star looked like something ripped from a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, a Plan B was quickly implemented, with a tasteful black-and-white shot ultimately gracing the cover.
And that has been pretty much it for the sex. Which is impressive for no other reason than, for a welcome change, we’ve got a stadium-size pop star who has gone stratospheric because she can sing, not because she’s singing about kissing girls who taste like cherry ChapStick while strapping whipped-cream cum cannons to her chest.
Grande has been carefully positioned as some weird missing link between ’50s-era Sandra Dee and ’90s-vintage Mariah Carey. In an era when all of America—to judge by the Internet—looks like some sort of filthy reboot of Plato’s Retreat, the 21-year-old is selling herself on the basis of her God-given assets. And get your mind out of the gutter, we’re talking about her voice, which can do things that we only seem to hear once a generation.
Even when she’s playing things slightly dirty, Grande somehow comes across as the kind of girl who doesn’t exist outside of Leave It to Beaver reruns. While “Love Me Harder”, off her platinum-selling sophomore release, My Everything, contains the come-on “When I get you moaning you’ll know it’s real/Can you feel the pressure between your hips?” it’s delivered by the Weeknd.
Grande might very well go on to filthier things; in the video for the glitter-bombed banger “Break Free”, she’s depicted firing missiles from her chest, but because it’s all set in outer space and during some sort of intergalactic war, that falls under the category of self-defence, instead of designed-to-titillate. As she told the New York Times recently, “Maybe one day I’ll get away with something naughty.”
For now, the former Nickelodeon star gets to be branded as a legitimate throwback to a fabled time when the likes of Carey and pre-crack-is-wack Whitney Houston ruled the charts. Like those giants, the 21-year-old has pipes that make you feel sorry for anyone who’s come of age in the era of Auto-Tune. And, of course, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and that loudmouth enjoying her 15 minutes of fame on the wrecking ball.
Ariana Grande plays Rogers Arena on Thursday (April 16).