ariana grande’s sweetener is about the healing power of love
On 'Sweetener,' Ariana Grande proves that the light really did come to give back everything the darkness stole.
courtesy of Ariana's Instagram
When Ariana Grande announced the full tracklisting for her fourth album Sweetener, her fans were perplexed. While there was a buzz of excitement about the record, one song in particular was causing contention: pete.
Things got worse when Ariana decided to change the song’s title, later renaming it fully after her new fiancé, Saturday Night Live star, comedian and actor Pete Davidson. Some people tweeted at the singer stating how “dumb” she was to be naming a song after someone who had so recently entered her life. You see, Pete and Ariana had only been together (publicly at least) for a few weeks before they announced their engagement.
Ariana wasn’t to be dissuaded by her fan’s comments. “forreal. the truth is i been the fuck thru it and life’s too short to be cryptic n shit about something as beautiful as this love I’m in,” she tweeted.
She isn’t lying. As practically everyone on the planet knows, last year at her concert in Manchester, a suicide bomber entered the arena and detonated an explosive device, killing 22 people and wounding a further 139, most of whom were children. In one of the boldest and awe-inspiring shows of solidarity and defiant strength, Ariana organised a benefit concert just a week later to honour those who had lost their lives and to raise money to help the victims and their families. The One Love Manchester concert was symbolic of the restorative joy of pop.
In the year following the atrocities, Ariana also saw the end of her relationship with Mac Miller after two years together. According to a tweet by Ariana, issues surrounding Mac’s sobriety had turned the relationship toxic. “I am not a babysitter or a mother,” she wrote, “and no woman should feel that they need to be.”
Having undergone such enormous and, in the case of Manchester, incomparable life events, is it any surprise that Ariana might want to explore the lighter side of life? She even went as far as to describe the album’s title as “about bringing light to a situation, or to someone’s life, or somebody else who brings light to your life; sweetening the situation”.
Listening to Sweetener, however, it’s clear that with her fourth album Ariana Grande wanted more than just an added layer of sugar and saccharine pop. Instead, across its 15 tracks, Sweetener explores love in all its different faucets and how, whether it’s accepting the love of others or realising you can love yourself, it can help you heal.
Opening with raindrops (an angel cried), a short cover of The Four Seasons’ An Angel Cried dedicated to her late-grandfather, Ariana makes clear the mindset she was in post-Manchester. It’s not mournful, but rather a nota bene, emphasising the context of the resulting album.
Immediately though, blazed, produced by Pharrell Williams, pivots away from grief. With shuffling Michael Jackson-style beats and breezy double bass, Ariana introduces the concept of finding strength in the love of others. Like the production, which whips around her soft vocals, the lyrics are euphoric, drunk on newfound love. This is replicated on the cloud-like R.E.M. and its soft montage of romantic vignettes. Out of Ariana’s vocal harmonies pours a universe where goofy come-ons and the admission of love becomes heavenly.
Where Sweetener’s mission of writing a fantasy world brimming with positivity comes up short is the disparity between Pharrell’s production and her message. The title track begins optimistically but is marred by Pharrell’s grunting and the odd Bop It!-style breakdown. Likewise, the light is coming, featuring Nicki Minaj, fails in its worldbuilding credentials; Nicki’s verse is confrontational rather than celebratory and the verses are frenetic and filled with grievances. Then there’s borderline, which relishes the chase more than the destination, the dissonant chords and superfluous Missy Elliott verse making it hard to marry a dating game with the concept of the transcendental power of love.
That’s not to say that the experimental aspects of Sweetener don’t align with Ariana’s vision. The Imogen Heap homage goodnight n go, which interpolates Heap’s 2005 song of the same name, is on the right side of cute with its playful and sexy lyrics and dreamy outro. Like with R.E.M., Ariana fashions a blanket of safety with her harmonies, covering herself, and the listener, with a comforting wave of sound.
It’s with God is a woman and Sweetener’s middle section where Ariana’s exploration of love becomes multi-sided. On everytime, Ariana recognises how precarious a reliance on romantic love can be. Clearly about her relationship with Mac Miller, the song spins around just how reckless that love left her, with the space-age synths and bouncing bass hanging over the track with danger.
If everytime is Ariana’s acknowledgement of the negative aspects of that relationship then better off, the closest the album comes to a ballad, is her demonstrating self-love by choosing herself above the toxicity of a lover as she sings: “If we’re being honest / I’d rather your body than half of your heart / Or jealous-ridden comments… I’m better off without him.” Instead, on God is a woman, Ariana’s sexuality, and, in fact, the sexuality of all women, is given agency and religious reverence. Sex, pleasure and the partner she shares that with are no longer mired with negativity.
Self-love takes on a different form with breathin and no tears left to cry. The former, perhaps the album’s highlight, is sermonic with its reminder to “keep breathin”. It seems simple enough, but given the song’s context about Ariana’s struggles with anxiety, it’s the most important form of self-recognition and self-care on the album. The production, handled by Max Martin-cohort Ilya Salmanzadeh, juxtaposed against the lyrical content, drives the song forward with boppy drums and swelling synths in the chorus. Like a comforting sibling, no tears left to cry exemplifies that there’s normality to be found on the other side of mental illness: as she sings, “I'm lovin', I'm livin', I'm pickin' it up.”
This narrative concludes on get well soon as Ariana opens up about her experience with anxiety, sharing her love with fans as she explains that “this is for everybody”. Throughout the song, she climbs above the difficulties she’s experienced while also offering a hand to those below her on the ladder still hoping to break through. She understands the importance of talking about her mental health, appreciating how discussions about what she’s been through can positively impact someone else’s life.
With the One Love Manchester benefit concert, Ariana and all those affected were trying to figure out where to find happiness when presented with a world filled with so much nastiness. On Sweetener, and after a year of reflection, Ariana is providing answers. Through her own relationships, her connection to her fans and the solace of music, she’s pieced herself back together. It’s an album that provides hope -- a little sweetener, if you will -- to those struggling with their own demons.
In fact, Sweetener’s objective is perfectly summarised on pete davidson, the song that, initially, her fans were trepidatious about. After the trauma of Manchester, the collapse of her relationship and other issues, Ariana still believes in the power of the universe to deliver something true and wholesome in her life as, almost like a mantra, she sings “gonna be happy” repeatedly. We stan a queen who truly understands.