The hardest part of the Ariana Grande concert comes before the beginning, when everybody’s still out on the sidewalk, stuffing their stuff into little plastic bags. The rules are taped to the door. No purses, no knapsacks, no clutches, no totes, nothing of the sort allowed inside — not after a terrorist’s bomb blast killed 23 people at a Grande concert in Manchester, England, nearly two years ago. So get out your phone, your debit card, your lip balm, your car keys, and if you think you can Ziploc your anxiety inside a clear pouch of low-density polyethylene, please try.
After that, everything else feels easy. Grande has become exponentially admired in recent years for responding to the asymmetrical traumas of her life by staying the course — and on Monday night at Washington’s Capital One Arena, that means singing bright, effortless pop songs that feel immune to gravity and unconcerned with gravitas. Songs that make “fun” feel more like “power.” Songs that seem entirely aware of their utility, but their ephemerality, too. Grande’s music doesn’t make the outside world go away. It just stashes it in a plastic bag for a couple hours.
And you can still see it without breaking the seal — for instance, during “Thank U, Next,” a confectionary rebound anthem where she lists her exes by name, including the rapper Mac Miller (who died of an accidental drug overdose in September), and the comedian Pete Davidson (who famously became Grande’s ex-fiance in October). After decades of listening to singers aestheticize their personal lives in poetry-codes and metaphorical mist, (plus a few years of Taylor Swift playing guess-who-I’m-singing-about), Grande has completely collapsed the mystery zone between person and persona with this song, not only by naming names, but by transforming real suffering into something sweet and weightless. Has a song this heavy ever been light enough to instantly float to the top of the pop charts?
More than four months after it materialized, “Thank U, Next” still feels like a beautiful, disconcerting alchemical act — and unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to re-create in real life. Onstage, Grande trembles through the names in that first verse, then invites her faithful to sing most of the hook, apparently smothering her own tears.
And there’s so much to see, hear and wonder about in this moment — how music fuels celebrity and celebrity fuels music in a dizzying loop; how it remains impossible to locate the moment in a song where a human being ends and a media image begins; how Grande’s iconic ponytail keeps swinging from the crown of her head, marking time like a magic pendulum; how she’s bouncing across the stage in impossibly high stilettos, as if the entirety of the Earth’s surface was just one giant Sealy Posturepedic. Also, her voice.
As a culture, we finally seem to have reached the consensus that singing is merely one part of a pop singer’s grand undertaking — but can we also agree that it’s the very central part? Grande’s voice is the fount of her fame, as well as a sonic manifestation of it. Her singing is equal parts breathy and acrobatic — like a flat tire singing Mariah Carey’s greatest hits — and she knows how to hit a big note like she’s whispering it straight in your ear. Her lyrics aren’t always completely intelligible, and that makes sense. Think about it: The easiest and the most difficult times to understand what we’re being told are when we’re being whispered to and shouted at. Listening metaphorically, Grande’s voice transmutes the very idea of stardom into sound. She pulls us very close while keeping us very far away.
Let’s assume that she learned all about stardom as a Nickelodeon kid actor nearly a decade ago, just as she learned how to sing in the age of iTunes — an era when producers began using digital compression to make every track inside your iPod feel as loud as the next one, and as a result, quiet and loud started to feel like the same thing. You can hear that echoed in the steamrolling force of Grande’s music — a sort of luminous, uncompromising flatness that she smartly turns into an asset onstage. At the heart of Monday night’s big singalong, as she hopscotches from “Sweetener” to “Successful” to “Side to Side,” her singing doesn’t feel like an escape or a transcendence so much as a tunneling through.
It sounds demanding, but it looks like fun, with Grande singing about love from every angle, but in the same voice, which gives her conversational lyrics a lot of work to do. And when her spiciest lines evaporate from her mouth, they seem to fly toward the coastline, as if en route to fulfill their destiny as boardwalk T-shirts: “Break up with your girlfriend . . . I’m bored,” and “F--- a fake smile,” and maybe even her greatest and most devastating lyric, which comes during the reggae-hued “Bloodline,” in which Grande dumps some dryer sheet of a dude in the most cosmic way possible: “Don’t want you in my bloodline.” Incredible. Most of Grande’s couplets fit neatly inside a text bubble, but here, she’s suddenly looking at a picture that spans centuries.
Can such small music really be that vast? If anything, Grande’s music proves that everything is contextual, and that the increasing brutality of our world gives her lightness meaning. On a planet with an expiration date, it’s good to hear someone sing about a bloodline that flows into the future. In a society overrun with hateful violence, it’s good to hear Grande sing about how necessary it is to “keep on breathing.” In a country where women are too often silenced by too-powerful men, it’s good for a generation of girls to be singing along with an idol who refuses to “fake another smile.”
And inside an arena where it’s impossible to leave your cares at the door — where you’re asked to carry them with you in a clear plastic bag — it’s very good to live through a few hours of music where everything is fine.