Ariana Grande has had a rough couple of years. While she’s more successful than ever, she’s also endured being at the centre of the shocking and deadly Manchester Arena bombing in May 2017, the end of her two-year relationship with rapper Mac Miller earlier this year, his sudden death by overdose in September, and her brief but clearly intense engagement to Pete Davidson, which broke up within weeks of Miller’s death.
She’s still promoting Sweetener, the critically acclaimed album she made while processing all of the above events (except for the breakup, which came after its release, complete with a song named for Davidson) – though she’s muffled the resonance of its four hit singles with another, ‘thank u, next’, a wistful banger about moving on from hard times while carrying their lessons with you that namechecks Miller, Davidson and two of her other exes directly.
One of the hallmarks of Grande’s public persona is also that she shares her apparently unfiltered thoughts constantly with her fans (and non-fans) through her socials. This ranges from cheeky insta comments about Davidson’s junk and sassing random fans about not seeing her favourite movies, to a select few posts in tribute to Miller, who she called “[her] dearest friend. For so long. Above anything else”, and excited promo for her upcoming music or videos.
If you take away around 135 million or so of her followers, it’s about the same as what any woman in her early 20s would be doing on Insta. Her online presence and her increasingly personal, pointed and unapologetically feminine music fit together in a way that feels authentic and real – unless, of course, you’re one of these guys.
Grande has already had to hit back repeatedly at trolls blaming her – particularly her “flaunting” her relationship with Davidson – for Miller’s death, his mental health and struggles with addiction. Now she’s being told that mourning him openly, whether on her socials or in her work, isn’t acceptable either.
She’s perfectly capable of handling this garbage herself, with grace and eloquence:
But let’s be clear: just because she is already massively successful, that does not mean she doesn’t get to work through her grief and pain and heartbreak in her music or in public.
Artists use their personal lives in their work all the time. If she works with other creative professionals in order to realise her vision and shape it into something expressive and emotional and relatable and enjoyable: THIS IS ALSO FINE.
Kanye West made 808s And Heartbreaks following the death of his mother, and people were baffled by the lack of actual rapping, sure – but there was a real lack of “How dare you exploit your heartbreaking personal loss to sell records” narratives being thrown around.
Gang Of Youths’ massively successful debut album The Positions won them a swag of awards and made them one of Australia’s biggest bands – but nobody is going on Twitter to abuse Dave Le’aupepe for using his personal trauma and grief to make successful art that makes people feel amazing, or for talking about it honestly.
What are the odds that some of the people rolling their eyes at Ariana Grande reflecting on the recent and tragic death of a beloved person in her life in a song or a social post are the same people who believe all Top 40 pop is shallow, manufactured and empty of meaning, especially compared to music made with guitars, or performed by, say, men?
There’s a person under that iconic ponytail, and she doesn’t owe anyone a more authentic version of her grief or her happiness, no matter how many #1 singles she has.
If ‘thank u, next’ is any indication, the follow-up album to Sweetener will continue to see her working through the events we’ve watched unfold in real time, however she wants to.