Before I embark on this defense of Ariana Grande, I’ll admit that I get some morbid satisfaction out of finding proof of artistry or real talent in “mainstream” musicians. For reasons I can’t explain, I breathe a sigh of relief when I see an article like the one in The Atlantic about how Taylor Swift is our generation’s Leonard Cohen (which I think is a stretch, although I completely agree with the author that the intricately layered “All Too Well” is a beautiful feat of storytelling). Maybe it’s just an attempt to rationalize my guilty pleasures in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m betraying all of the better-quality art that I also love. Or maybe it’s just an extension of my habit of assuming good intentions in everyone (not that good art and good intentions are necessarily the same thing, but that’s another conversation).
The longest-standing client of my (admittedly unsolicited) service of vindicating popular artists is Ariana Grande. After hearing her say in several interviews that her all-time favorite artist is English singer-songwriter Imogen Heap, I was intrigued. Heap, one of my longtime favorites, is a pop artist, but she undeniably has depth and artistry. She breaks molds more often than she fits into them. Could Grande be hiding similar artistry that we’re not seeing in the predictable pop she’s been putting out?
Nobody can deny that Grande is a talented vocalist. But for a long time I’ve wondered: Is there more? I’ve been trying to figure it out for a few years now, and after watching her perform “Jason’s Song (Gave it Away)” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon last week, I think I’m finally ready to argue that yes, there is. Grande isn’t a songwriter by any means, but she has soul, and it comes out when she’s doing the stuff that she seems to really love: going back to her Broadway roots or doing R&B filled with ambitious vocal gymnastics. Her choice to perform “Jason’s Song” last week was unanticipated; it’s an exclusive track on the Target deluxe edition of her recent album, Dangerous Woman, and it’s co-written with acclaimed Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown, who gave Grande her start in the cast of the Broadway musical “13.”
Brown wrote an endearing blog post about the process of writing with Grande; it’s clear from his description of their time working together that she knows what she wants, and for this song, she wanted something Broadway-inspired that would put her strong vocals at the center. Brown puts it sweetly when he mentions how she changed “about seven words” to the lyrics he wrote for the song.
“She has a perfect sense of what fits her,” Brown said.
It’s clear that “Jason’s Song” fits Grande perfectly. Her vocal performance of the song on Fallon is flawless, powerful, and silky-smooth all at once. When watching her move exuberantly to Brown’s impressive piano solo in the middle of the song, it’s clear that this is the kind of thing she really loves.
The soulful side of Grande comes out sometimes: in her duet with Babyface performing Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” at a tribute event (Wonder’s exclamations at Grande’s vocals are amazing to watch), or in a song on her new album featuring Macy Gray, “Leave Me Lonely” (the album version is disappointingly polished, but her live versions are filled with gorgeous, deeply affecting ad-libs). Still, it’s often easy to forget that this side of her exists. I couldn’t bring myself to listen to most of her second album, My Everything, what with its litany of catchy pop produced by Max Martin and others in the EDM-pop world. It was such a far cry from her first album, Yours Truly; this early project showed her youth with its many cringe-worthy, cheesy lyrics, but it was also a showcase of her gorgeous vocals and homage to all sorts of R&B and retro influences (the doo-wop parts of “Tattooed Heart” and “Honeymoon Avenue” are, I think, some of the most successful examples of the album’s blending of past and present).
From what I’ve heard of her third album, Dangerous Woman, it seems like Grande is trying to combine the priorities of her first two albums, toeing a balance between pop and R&B, moving with ease between soaring vocals and catchy hooks punctuated by rap verses. I’m starting to realize that maybe we can learn something from what Grande is doing. At a place like Wesleyan, where everyone is immersed in one form of high art and culture or another, it’s easy to judge enjoyment of pop music or to belittle it as a guilty pleasure. But as one of my favorite authors, Ali Smith, said when asked what her guilty pleasures are, “I don’t have any guilt about pleasure.”
It seems very possible to enjoy both catchy pop and quality pieces of music, as long as one understands the differences between the two. And maybe that’s what Grande is doing; maybe she’s enjoying pop because she can and because it’s fun, while also holding her Broadway past and R&B influences close to her and bringing them out whenever she can. Of course, there are other possible reasons for her turn to pop–making money, appeasing label-heads–but for argument’s sake, let’s assume that she’s doing it because she enjoys it (and it does look that way). If that’s the case, what do we have to complain about? I don’t mean that those of us who love her for her R&B and Broadway modes have to listen to her pop songs, but we should at least learn not to be ashamed of saying that we enjoy her music (even if it’s just some of it).
After her performance of “Jason’s Song,” Grande tweeted, “That was my favorite performance I’ve ever done I think.” She thanked Brown for “using [her] voice the way it’s meant to be heard.” Grande clearly values this side of herself, so can we blame her or belittle her talent because she enjoys spending some time in the pop world, too? As long as she comes back to her roots every now and then and lets us witness her voice in all its glory, I’ll proudly call myself a fan.