Ariana Grande 2024
Photo: Katia Temkin / Republic Records

Ariana Grande Sees Heartbreak in a New Light on ‘Eternal Sunshine’

Throughout Eternal Sunshine, Ariana Grande investigates the concept of ignorant bliss, asking the question, is it better to remain unaware of great pain?

Eternal Sunshine
Ariana Grande
8 March 2024

The concept for Ariana Grande‘s seventh studio album comes from the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which Jim Carey and Kate Winslet play exes who attempt to wipe their brains of all memories of each other. In the music video for “We Can’t Be Friends (Wait for Your Love)”, Grande undergoes a similar medical procedure. Leaving a doctor’s office, Grande’s character passes her ex, and the lack of recognition between them implies he received the same treatment. Throughout Eternal Sunshine, Grande investigates the concept of ignorant bliss, asking whether it is better to remain unaware of great pain.

This question has been central to Grande’s post-Sweetener output. The title, Sweetener, captures the 2018 album’s mission to find saccharine moments in massive heartbreak. Giddy pop production from Pharrell Williams accomplishes this goal, making even contemplative tracks feel smooth. “Better Off”, a dreamy, synth-driven ballad, assesses a sacrifice Grande made to preserve her sense of self. The song maintains a mellow tempo as she confesses: “On the road had to keep it a thousand / So that I’m better off not bein’ around ya.” 

Conversely, on the follow-up, 2019’s Thank U, Next, an openness to grief serves as the record’s organizing principle and reclaims the narrative of heartbreak that encompassed Ariana Grande after a string of tragedies: the bombing of a 2017 concert in Manchester, England, which resulted in the death of 22 fans, the accidental overdose of Grande’s ex, rapper Mac Miller, and the abrupt end of Grande’s engagement to comedian Pete Davidson. 

Eternal Sunshine marries the dueling methods of processing pain presented on Sweetener and Thank U, Next, weaving heartbreak throughout an album that never lets the tears spill as freely as they did on “Ghostin”, a ballad from Thank U, Next. The even-handed approach of Eternal Sunshine reframes tabloid drama as hardship with a self-awareness that allows Grande to navigate it without alienating her fanbase. 

Speaking with Zach Sang, Grade described the process of layering vocals and creating harmonies as “my heaven”. “True Story” allows her production and arranger skills to shine on the bouncy hook layered over the song’s chorus. As Grande belts, “No, this is not what I need / Not what I want,” another set of vocals echoes beneath that phrase, which, without backup, may have fallen flat. The addition of “gimme love”, repeated in the background, implies desperation and foreboding as the melody becomes deeper throughout the song. Grande stitches together cliches, usually a pitfall of pop songwriting, and uses them as platforms for her harmonic experimentation, making any utterance a vague form of empowerment. 

A deference to lyrical specificity bolsters Ariana Grande’s aloof persona. Any celebrity must strike a balance in terms of what to share and not share to maintain a level of mystery. “True Story” serves the dual purpose of addressing the media and an ex: “I’ll be the villain if you need me to,” Grande says, reminding listeners that the narrator of Eternal Sunshine is a character she fully controls. 

When speaking of the break from making albums that Grande took while filming an adaptation of the Broadway musical Wicked, she said, “It was nice to spend time with a character instead of a characterized version of myself.” By breaking the fourth wall of her studio albums and resurrecting it on Eternal Sunshine, Grande flexes the power of her celebrity. She can admit pop music relies on character while using it to shift an allegedly real media narrative. 

“Don’t Wanna Break Up Again” reprises Ariana Grande’s role as a merciful goddess, leaving behind a clueless boyfriend. On Thank U, Next such a goodbye came on “in my head”, through a penetrating look at an ex with a tough exterior: “Your Gucci tennis shoes / Runnin’ from your issues.” In “Don’t Wanna Break Up Again”, Grande merges kiss-off and gentle let-down, sounding charitable as she glides through the chorus and confesses she doesn’t want to mess with her ex’s head. But his crimes lurk in the verses: “I fall asleep cryin’, you turn up the TV.” 

Hitmaker Max Martin (Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry) produced most of Eternal Sunshine, and the title track best represents the potential strengths of a Grande-Martin collaboration. As Grande’s fluttery vocal animates the chorus, a trap beat drops in the second section, so the same melody repeats twice, once with and without the trap beat. Martin’s production allows the song to traverse between melancholy confessional and pop banger. “Deep breaths, tight chest / Life, death, rewind,” Grande says, displaying her ability to sneak a profound level of heartbreak into what the entertainment industry requires of her: pop music. As her career has progressed, the vehicle for her stories has become an essential part of the narrative. 

However, the de-facto opener “Bye” doesn’t strive for introspection. Although dismissive of an ex in its hook, Ariana Grande described the song by saying, “With love, I am emigrating from the situation.” In full command of her signature cool detachment, Eternal Sunshine makes a new case for Grande’s preferred method of dealing with pain: transforming it into something light. 

This strategy makes sense for a pop star. The Martin-assisted tracks on Grande’s breakout album, 2014’s My Everything, contrast Eternal Sunshine by focusing on Grande’s voice-over persona. However, in recent records, Grande has transcended pop conventions by using the humanization of her initially boilerplate persona as a tutorial for how to process grief. 

The tracklists of Eternal Sunshine and Thank U, Next have two acts, although the mood of each is reversed. While the latter ends with a trio of number-one singles, Eternal Sunshine ends with mellow songs that follow upbeat disco, trap, and house tunes. The irreverent lead single “Yes, And?” bridges the two acts of Eternal Sunshine by offering a humorous take on the breakup bangers that preceded it. “Why do you care who’s d*** I ride?” Grande asks, referring to the media’s adverse reaction to her relationship with Wicked co-star Ethan Slater

Following a scolding (“Don’t comment on my body, do not reply”), the explicit callout exemplifies Grande’s sleek sense of humor. Its absurdity reveals that Grande perceives the irony of the tabloid press’s ability to make intimate secrets into national news and her ability to reply on a massive scale. Public drama can tank a celebrity’s career for two reasons: a given celebrity might appear villainous, or, regardless of guilt, the oversaturation of a story might alienate an audience. In “Yes, And?” Grande vindicates herself and makes her presence palatable through an, albeit lewd, joke about the nature of celebrity speculation itself. 

“We Can’t Be Friends (wait for Your Love)” kicks off the second act of Eternal Sunshine, reaping more benefits of the Grande-Martin collaboration. Grande’s delicate delivery of the line, “We can’t be friends, but I’d like to just pretend”, unveils the concept that has underpinned the album thus far: the hardship of forgetting lost love. The content of this song would seem to warrant soft, acoustic production. However, Grande and Martin’s choice fulfills the record’s purpose: to avoid meeting pain on pain’s terms. The thrumming baseline conveys resilience, becoming a sonic representation of the act of moving on. 

Ariana Grande became a definitive voice of her generation by stretching her persona to reflect the fallout of the tragic Manchester bombing. Although her breakout hits were rigid, formulaic pop, Grande has proven to be an amorphous public figure who can experiment musically. Eternal Sunshine strikes new ground by including confessional hits that don’t appear to have a goal beyond the act of confession. Pop music is meant to accomplish something: it’s a genre characterized by a rigid set of expectations for the purpose of commercial success. By definition, there has to be an ulterior motive. 

Grande, before she is a lyricist or even a pop star, is a vocalist. Playing Glinda in Wicked will allow her to flaunt her pipes in a way she hadn’t done since her first few albums when a strong vocal performance was her clearest path to mainstream success. Although Ariana Grande has proven she has a point of view that transcends her abilities as a singer, her career is an exercise in using music to channel emotions that, through their insistence, become their own source of eternal light. 

RATING 9 / 10