[25 August 2014]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
“I hate acting,” Ariana Grande told Rolling Stone in May of 2014, which is a telling statement from someone who starred in TV shows like Victorious, Sam & Cat, and even was in the original Broadway production of Jason Robert Brown’s child-performed musical 13. Regardless of what she thinks about the medium now, Grande’s Broadway pedigree was truly important to her professional development because it shaped her as a traditional singer instead of a shrill pop star that has to rely on production to sound good. If you ignore her 4 Non Blondes-quoting first single “Put Your Hearts Up” (which she very much does, calling the song “inauthentic and fake” and the video shoot “straight out of hell”), Grande blasted onto the scene in 2013 with “The Way” for good reason. Those pipes were absolutely out of this world. Her voice was forceful and strong, sensual when she wanted it to be, and it wasn’t long before she was showered with comparisons to Mariah Carey, both in terms of sound and substance.
Yet Ariana Grande isn’t Mariah Carey, but therein lay the problem: Grande doesn’t know who the hell she is. Although her voice is incredibly distinct, she has yet to truly find her sound, and bounces between pop producers with wild abandon, as if she’s just throwing things at the wall just to see what will stick on the charts. While there were some breezy fun moments on her 2013 debut album, her attempts to create more rap-leaning tracks never really landed the right way, instead finding her comfort zone in tunes that either quoted or deliberately aped ‘90s R&B and pop tropes. With the run-up to the release of sophomore album My Everything, it seems that everything Grande touched turned into a chart hit, her appeal wider than ever, but as the album plays on, Grande sounds more and more like a guest vocalist on her own album, her grab bag of producers leaving their own distinctive marks instead of truly letting her own personality flourish.
After a lovely mostly-acapella intro, the album blasts into high gear with the Iggy Azalea collaboration “Problem”, which has a dynamic, punchy verse that is ace Max Martin songwriting. The sax and doo-wop elements give the song character and feature a pre-chorus that really allows Grande to show off her vocal fireworks. It’s a fun song despite its understated chorus, while “One Last Time”, a David Guetta joint, strikes all the dance-pop and EDM-lite poses it needs to without leaving any significant impression afterwards. Much like the pre-release single “Break Free” featuring Zedd, Grande can sing on dance tracks just fine, but she never feels at home in the role of dance-floor siren, largely due to the fact that effective club tracks often need to have singers adopt some sort of autonomy in order to ride the groove, which, with Grande’s textured vocal range, is something she’s incapable of doing. The songs work fundamentally, but still sound like Grande was shoe-horned in to a track that was already made instead of actually going through a collaborative process to make something of her own.
In fact, Grande’s personality deficit can be attributed to a lot of things, the biggest one being that she only co-wrote four of the tracks on this album (one of them the intro) compared to the five she did on her debut. “Why Try” is a Ryan Tedder-penned track that runs in the same stable as his other big diva ballads like Beyonce’s “Halo” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone”, playing to his template as a songwriter instead of Grande’s strengths as a vocalist, as just about any other diva with a big enough paycheck could have bought and tackled this song and ended up with the same end result. This, along with tracks like the atrocious Darkchild number “Hands on Me” (which itself is paired with an annoying verse by A$AP Ferg) makes My Everything truly sound like a grab-bag of ideas, lacking any sort of conceptual unity or overall theme. A diversity of sounds on a pop album is always a great thing to have, but on My Everything, it sounds just downright erratic.
Yet My Everything still has some moments that genuinely work, and most of them actually have Grande’s glossy fingerprints all over them. The closing title track is a light piano ballad that sounds not too far removed from being a Broadway torch song (and is inherently more powerful than the Harry Styles-penned prom number that is “A Little Bit of Your Heart”), while the dark, sensual throb of the Weeknd collaboration “Love Me Harder” actually showcases Grande’s voice in its most effective setting, the slow-motion strobelight jam allowing her to come off as teasing, assertive, and knowing all at once, letting her know that if her potential mate is really serious about keeping her, they really have to up their game.
“Love Me Harder” might actually be the best song Grande has put out to to date, although running a close second is the Big Sean collaboration “Best Mistake”, wherein hesitant piano chords meet a minimal beat and pretty outstanding verse from Big Sean himself, his own voice never overpowering the sparse atmosphere, his rhymes measured and metered in a way that fits the song perfectly. Although her singles paint her as an outright pop diva, Grande seems to feel most at home when playing around with some slightly darker histrionics, seemingly going against type but actually unearthing more of her real personality in the process.
On “Bang Bang”, the Jessie J/Nicki Minaj song that is included in the Deluxe Edition of My Everything, Jessie J continues her quest to be famous in the most obvious way possible, stretching and screeching out her voice as far as it can go in an effort to sound like she has range. When Grande takes her verse on the amped-up Max Martin number, she hits the same high notes without an ounce of effort, contrasting the difference between a wannabe pop sensation and an actual, nuanced singer to an almost embarrassing degree. By the time My Everything came out, it was established that Grande could easily run circles around virtually any diva on the radio and still have breath to spare. It’s just a shame that in trying to sound like everything else on the charts, she continues to have one of pop music’s most distinctive voices that unfortunately has little to actually say.