Ariana Grande is in purgatory. That’s the major takeaway from her endlessly listenable sophomore album, My Everything, which, for all its hits (I count at least two more potential radio cuts after the trio of “Problem,” “Break Free,” and “Bang Bang”) still finds the 21 year old without a firm identity or even one you can sum up in a single sentence. Near every song on the album finds her torn between two poles.
Her love life tends to find her sitting on a precipice, unsure whether to DTMFA, as Dan Savage would have it, or to commit to something more. But Grande, a lapsed Catholic who’s confessed to a belief in both ghosts and demons, can also sound as if she’s quite literally hovering on edge between heaven and hell.
The fourth song on her album and Ellie Goulding nod “Why Try” has a chorus that declares a pastime of “living like angels, living like devils.” A few songs later, “Best Mistake,” the Big Sean feature, discusses sinners and saints. On “Break Free,” she had been on the highway to hell, but soars to the heavens once she’s rid herself of a troublesome beau. And even the Jessie J and Nicki Minaj featuring “Bang Bang” finds the trio undecided about whether the song’s addressee needs a good or bad girl to blow his mind–probably because Ari’s not quite sure which one she wants to be yet, and neither are we.
This wavering, indistinct personality, is of course, a construct. Grande has writing credits for only a handful of songs on the record, and the persona expressed in her lyrics, such as it is, has to be assumed to be a product not just of her own personality but also of her team’s vision or lack thereof. The men standing behind her include Bieber manager, Scooter Braun, as well as various super producers, such as Max Martin (“Oops I Did It Again,” “California Gurls”), Benny Blanco and David Guetta. But even Ari’s positioning is vague; she’s in that not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman territory (another Martin production) but sometimes it doesn’t feel as if she’ll ever get to the latter stage.
That’s why the worst songs on My Everything are the stabs at sexiness. “Hands on Me” is decidedly lukewarm, a waste of A$AP Ferg’s bawdy talents, on which Grande is still too delicate to even reach the point of suggestive. Compare the opening lines of the song to the similar blasts of “Bootylicious” and you’ll see what’s missing, even though the Destiny’s Child cut is ostensibly a kiss-off. On “Love Me Harder,” she outsources the sexual quotient to co-star Abel Tesfaye, who scales down his drugs’n’nihilism m.o, in what feels like an attempt to meet the pop singer halfway. They both sound labored.
But at the same time, Grande doesn’t seem content with the virginal, girl next door persona she pushed on her debut, and when she’s best on this album, it’s when she’s forwarding her own desires. There’s the ditch-the-bitch duo of the lead singles, which find her reveling in a newfound freedom. There’s “One Last Time,” a likely radio hit and a lovely expression of desire which finds Grande actually turning the tables, taking on the dominant role where she shines. “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart” is another standout because, even as it finds Ariana groveling, she’s still asserting a firm opinion.
Wish we’d seen more of that on My Everything. It’s strange and frustrating to see Grande coming across as so indistinct, not just because Grande’s musical chops are legion but also because its quite clear that there’s a personality behind that left-tilted face. Her interviews are anything but cookie-cutter; The New York Times noted that the singer is “a genuine presence” and Grantland called her “weird.” That’s a compliment given that Grande’s career is so clearly directed by those who would prefer for her to come across as pop star typical, either as a sexpot, or someone Just Like Me.
Which is to say that pop stars tend to fall neatly into the male-constructed Madonna/whore complex. As Psychology of Women: Handbook of Issues and Theories would have it: “Normative social scripts about sexuality are… used to limit, direct, and otherwise control the sexual behaviors of women. The Madonna/whore bifurcation gives women two basic scripts around which to construct a sexual self, and society makes clear which is the appropriate choice.”
Our pop stars revel in these categories but our best ones confound them. Think of Beyonce, who mixes the categories together every which way, and sometimes flouts them altogether, flaunting her maternity, her sexuality, her politics and even her shortcomings on her latest album. Ariana Grande isn’t ready to shut down the VMA’s yet; her shaky performances last week showed us that. But it does seem as if she has more to offer than a reprise of “Good Girl Gone Bad” in extra slow-motion. If she’s not comfortable with being one or the other, the answer isn’t to hover between the two categories, but to be something else entirely.
The last song on the bonus edition of My Everything seems to hint at an unwillingness to open up, to show people a little more. “The girl you see in photographs is only a part of the one I am,” she sings. “Don’t judge me, cause that’s not reality.” The song is titled, aptly, “You Don’t Know Me.” Maybe so. But Grande’s music would be bigger, and better, if we did.