Then you come through like a sweetener….
That’s been the mantra for Ariana Grande since last summer when her most iconic album, Sweetener, dropped — and things have only gotten sweeter ever since. Despite the smash-hit success of Thank You, Next, particularly its title track and her much-debated foray into rapping on “7 Rings” — how dare a woman do what so many men have already been doing! — it’s still “Sweetener” that functions as the high point and the centerpiece of Grande’s latest tour.
Perhaps she knows this, or maybe that’s how it feels to her, personally, too. Maybe that’s why she kept the name in place even when her next album began to eclipse the 2018 release. (Well, I know it was probably a logistics thing, but there are few things more sacred in pop than projecting deep meaning onto logistical concerns.) Either way, by the time she gets to this song in the early third of a massive, nearly two-hour set, it’s clear that Ariana has learned the power of taking any bitter cup and, instead of just drinking it, insisting on flipping it into something better.
After what she’s been through — terrorist attacks (while on tour, no less), the death of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller, the dissolution of her engagement to Pete Davidson — this sentiment doesn’t read as heavy-handed treacle, but real, wise advice from a woman who has lived several nightmares, and has still repeatedly found her way back to joy, despite it all. If anyone was worried that this tour would get weepy or tragic — as songs like “Ghostin” and “In My Head” indicate it might — the mood onstage is much more “No Tears Left To Cry” than anything else.
That was the same vibe at her Coachella headlining performance, too. During the first weekend, Ari brought out Mase and Diddy, Nicki Minaj, and NSYNC (minus Justin Timberlake, natch) to honor both her past collaborator in Nicki, and songs she’s interpolated from and clearly been inspired by throughout her career. Freely giving credit to the hip-hop and pop legends that she’s built her sound around, it was Diddy who had something to say about the way Ariana has impacted the elder generation of musicians. He took a moment to shout out how much she’s been through and asking the crowd to acknowledge that before he left the stage. Though she kept her composure, surely this was another moment where life gave her back a little sweetness, as a hip-hop icon lauded her ability to keep going, through it all.
Grande’s is a very outward-thinking, expansive message in an era of inward-focused pop, and reminds me of a line from another show that has completely stood out in culture lately, This Is Us. In the show’s plot, new parents are awaiting the arrival of triplets, but one of the baby’s lives is lost during labor. “Take the sourest lemon life has to offer, and turn it into something resembling lemonade,” advises an old, wise doctor, who is urging the young couple to adopt another baby who was left abandoned that same day. I won’t spoil the rest of the show’s narrative arc, but his advice falls right into the “Sweetener” mindset — there is nothing too bad, too bitter, or too painful to justify becoming that way yourself. There is always a way back to the light, to the sweet, and to the path of love. That is the real power of this tour.
Even if the six or seven costume changes are eye-popping, the fact that Ariana never sits down or has a moment to stop and breathe, but keeps dancing and singing around the arena catwalk the entire time, is a little unreal, and the big moon sitting above it all, projecting every image and home video, is like the sky itself has come to life with her memories. Even with all the technical and undeniable things that Ariana Grande can do with her voice, night after night, without missing a hint of pitch or a single note, it’s the times she takes to talk to the crowd, thanks them for the support and encourages them to keep going, that have just as much of an impact.
All of those things are what make her a pop star, and one of the brightest of our era if not the history of the genre itself. But her insistence on love and light, and ability to weave those themes of joy and positivity into her music and into her show, that’s what makes the Sweetener tour a legendary one. I’m a 31-year-old woman who is deeply touched by her message, but I assume that the eleven and twelve-year-olds who were sitting next to me are being impacted in an even more meaningful way. A generation of young women is growing up, watching this woman not just survive, but thrive, through some of the most trying circumstances most of us can imagine. As perfect as “NASA” and “Fake Smile” are, that’s what will outlast even her hits.
And this tour is also a good reminder that as much as Ariana’s resilience and strength is something to be praised, it’s also a finite resource. There will definitely be a time in the very near future where she needs to rescind again, and go back and do more of the work alone, outside of the public eye and away from the studio. And that will be just as important, and just as sweet.