Ariana Grande‘s Positions is a perfect pop album in a very conservative sense of the term. The songs average under three minutes. Innovation is on hold for the moment, and the experimentation—the muffled house of “Motive”, which imagines Grande and Doja Cat as Godmode signees, or “Love Language”, which throws us back to pop’s post-“Get Ur Freak On” bhangra obsession—is tasteful rather than boundary-breaking. The album ends just before it overstays its welcome, and its 14 tracks careen into one another. This album will resonate with people who intellectually appreciate immaculate verse-chorus confections as “great pop songs” and admire when artists and their writers and producers splash against these confines without fully breaking free of them.
Because Positions isn’t really about the seasons of Grande’s soul, because the sex isn’t with anyone you might recognize, it’s hard not to see this as a victory lap, a lightweight capstone to the monstrous recent run of albums that minted her as pop’s empress. Positions is about craft. But what craft! Her sly way of writing about sex seems anachronistic in the “WAP” age (“hard to think when I’m under you,” she flutters on “Obvious”). “My Hair” finds her approximating Diplo’s distant-chipmunk trick with her whistle register, which she banked on early in her career but nowadays pulls out merely as an afterthought. There’s a string section throughout, in case you were wondering if those still exist, and they’re not the sad MIDI kind we get on a lot of pop ballads but the Nelson Riddle kind that sweep and swoon around her voice like one of her sumptuous dresses. You can hear the tension on the individual strings as they illustrate her sighs and innuendos. There’s a real sense of a budget, of humans at work.
Grande remains Grande: unbothered, unfazed, not without her troubles but together enough to work through them rather than wallow in them. “All the demons helped me see shit differently,” she sings as the album opens. “Don’t be sad for me.” Much of her aspirational cult has to do with how stoically she’s navigated the awful shit she’s had to deal with since her rise to fame: the bombing at her 2017 Manchester concert that left 23 dead, the death of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller. Her recent work explores this with grace and wit, but this is not an album about turmoil but instead a rarified state of mind. With little conflict and few psychological insights, Positions zeroes in on the enviable confidence that only pop stars on top of the world and with nothing to lose can afford. It’s easy to write it off as empty calories, but pop has always been described in such terms: cake, candy, chocolate, confection. Positions isn’t a “sweetener” but pure sugar.
The thing about junk food is you feel a little guilty after you eat it. The dissonance of listening to this daydream amid international turmoil is hard to ignore. Though stars have no obligation to address social ills, the very feeling of being unconcerned with the background noise of the world seems anachronistic. “Keep opinions muted for the hell of it,” she sings on opener “Shut Up”, a fuck-the-haters anthem that sounds like the singer pulling the cover over her head for another hour.
Escapist entertainment is good and fine. But there’s the sense that Positions is about the ability to escape the inescapable, be it economic catastrophe or the controversy around her appropriation of Blackness that won’t seem unfounded to anyone who tries to imagine these lyrics coming out of Meghan Trainor’s mouth. When The Beatles came out in 1968, some critics called it out for not being political enough. No one would lobby that accusation at it now, but I wonder if the singer would be so Teflon had this album dropped in June.