March 31, 2017
Every half-decade or so, the landscape of pop music shifts and new stars emerge, eager to claw their way to the top. The last wave, circa 2008 to 2012, sure had its fair share of superstars who made their mark on pop culture: Lady Gaga, Adele, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars, just to name a few.
Over the last few years, the next group entering superstardom has begun to emerge, led by Ed Sheeran, The Weeknd, Sia, Meghan Trainor and, of course, Ariana Grande. Indeed, one cannot think of contemporary popular music without Grande — as Nicki Minaj declares on “Side to Side,” “Ariana run pop.” In just four years, she’s had eight Top 10 singles and two No. 1 albums; her latest, Dangerous Woman, narrowly missed becoming her third, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart.
Expectations were therefore high when the ponytailed pop star brought her Dangerous Woman Tour to the Forum in Inglewood on Friday night. The crowd at the sold-out show, which consisted mostly of young women and gay men, eagerly awaited this new tour de force in pop music to take the stage and inspire them with her incredible, one-of-a-kind voice — and, they might have hoped, some uplifting message.
Grande opened with “Be Alright” off her latest album, projecting black-and-white images of vogueing dancers as she and her dancers, dressed in all black, also vogued live onstage. Call it an homage, but it also felt as if we were watching a performance from Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition Tour (Grande is an avid Madonna fan). Despite the opening being a bit derivative, Grande attempted to take it one step further by splicing in images of herself and her dancers crying tears between the shots of them vogueing. The inclusion of vogueing, a direct call-out to gay history, with images of tears falling as Grande belted out the lyrics, “Hey, we’re gonna be alright” was moving to say the least.
This segued into some run-of-the-mill pyrotechnics that accompanied “Everyday,” followed by images of a cathedral for the next song. Was Grande showing the clash between homosexuality and religion? If she was, then kudos to her, but it felt more like she just checked the gay reference off her list and then thought the fire looked cool and the cathedral looked pretty.
The rest of the show continued to grab from a smorgasbord of themes and visuals that may have fit a particular song but lacked an overarching message. For “Side to Side,” Grande re-created her MTV VMA performance, turning the stage into a gym complete with a spin class. For “Greedy,” the arena turned green as money fell from the ceiling. For “Sometimes,” giant pink balloons were dropped on the crowd. Grande attempted to return to her "love is love" theme from the beginning of the show for “Thinking 'Bout You,” projecting animated silhouettes of all different kinds of couples, straight, lesbian and gay. While the message was certainly appreciated, it seemed a bit generic.
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In a similar fashion, Grande tried to make a statement on feminism with a video featuring images of herself under words like “empowered,” “strong,” “divine” and, finally, “female.” Once again, the message was important and understood but the execution seemed forced. The video read more like a bragging list from a narcissist than a message of feminism. Perhaps spotlighting women other than herself, such as the strong women in her own family whom she’s publicly praised, could have done the job better. Or perhaps even employing more women on stage — only one of her 10 dancers is female, and none of the band members — could have sent a more effective and inspirational message to the young women in the audience. (Beyoncé, who also speaks a lot about feminism, only features women onstage.)
Throughout the show, the only consistent theme was Ariana Grande herself. Even before the show began, she had a slow-motion video of herself and her dancers with a 10-minute countdown clock leading up to her arrival onstage. While all pop stars are egocentric, the best of the best harness their brand to convey some kind of larger message. For Michael Jackson, it was "heal the world." For Madonna, it was (and still is) sexual liberation. For Beyoncé, it’s female and minority empowerment. It seems as if Grande wants to emulate this technique but hasn't yet figured out what statement she wants to make.
If the theme of the night was Ariana Grande, then the main conduit of that theme was her voice, which was one aspect that did not disappoint. Many of our greatest pop stars are not known solely for their singing, so this is what sets Grande apart not only from her peers but from pop stars of yesteryear as well. It was during the moments featuring her alone onstage belting out songs like “Leave Me Lonely,” “Moonlight” and the encore, “Dangerous Woman,” that Grande truly connected to the crowd.
Perhaps Grande just needs more time to learn how to properly execute what she’s trying to say. But as one of the biggest stars to emerge from the latest batch of pop singers, she has some work to do if she wants to still be relevant by the time the next batch comes along.