On April 19th, about a month into Ariana Grande's Sweetener world tour, the pop star tweeted, “Making [music] is healing. Performing it is like reliving it all over again and it is hell…i just feel empty and i wanna have more to say / better energy to give to u and rn i don’t have anything. love u.”
It was hard not to have this on my mind as I watched Grande's performance at The Forum this past Friday, her third sold out show in Los Angeles last week (the first two were at the Staples Center). While Grande was able to demonstrate her outstanding vocal chops, the show itself seemed lacking for one of the biggest pop stars in the world right now, something that almost certainly is linked to Grande's current state of mind.
It was obvious that the heartbreaking terrorist attack at her show in Manchester, England, on her last tour two years ago took its toll on her. Grande had a “plastic bag policy” at the Forum show, meaning purses were not allowed into the venue. Cameras were not allowed in the venue either, including simple point and shoot ones (despite the fact that everyone's cell phone is also a camera). It's commendable that Grande wants to make sure she and her fans are safe, but the venue already has metal detectors, so it seemed a little excessive, especially since the venue was charging $5 to check cameras and purses if you didn't want to trek back to your car to drop them off. The attack, combined with the death of Grande's ex-boyfriend rapper Mac Miller by accidental overdose and her public breakup with SNL cast member Pete Davidson, has no doubt given Grande a rough couple of years.
While her personal life may have been in disarray, all the trauma and pain perhaps led to some of the most celebrated work of Grande's career so far. In February of this year, she became the first artist since the Beatles in 1964 to simultaneously hold the number 1, 2 and 3 spots on the Billboard Hot 100 song chart with “7 Rings,” “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I'm Bored” and “Thank U, Next” (“Thank U” had also previously reached number one, which was Grande's first number one hit on the chart). This level of success for Grande was as monumental as the impact Madonna had in the '80s, Mariah Carey in the '90s or Britney Spears in the early 2000s. Grande is literally at the top of her game, the peak of her career right now, so one would expect her corresponding tour to represent that.
In some ways, it did. There were tons of young girls at the show dressed as Grande, complete with thigh high boots and high ponytails, similar to all the girls who dressed in cross necklaces and lace at an 80s Madonna show or in double pigtails and bare midriffs at a Britney concert in 2000. The fans were definitely enthusiastic—their screams for Grande were deafening and most knew the words to almost every song she sang, including the deeper album tracks. For the more casual fan, the setlist was very heavy on songs from Grande's last two albums, Thank U, Next and Sweetener, which could make the show drag a little bit waiting for Grande to play one of her big hits.
The one hour, 45-minute show also seemed to lack any sort of cohesion, with no common theme or message to tie it all together. While not every concert needs a message or theme, it would have been nice for Grande to have used her platform as one of the biggest artists in the world right now to showcase something a little deeper, especially after all she's been through. One would also expect an artist and tour of this caliber to pull out all the stops and feature a few jaw-dropping moments, but those never really came. Sure she had dancers, and she did some choreography alongside them, but sometimes her energy was so lackluster that I found myself watching the dancers even more than her.
Ultimately, the show seemed very uninspired, like it was sloppily put together because Grande was under contract to go on tour, not because she actually wanted to. The most aesthetically pleasing set was a giant moon that came down from the ceiling for her song “NASA,” complete with stars and space on the giant LED-screen behind her, but even this was done and gone after a few minutes. Perhaps she could have even extended the space theme to fit the entire concert, or at least the act, for a little more cohesion. She said how much she appreciates her fans, but besides for shouting out LA a few times, she barely even spoke to the audience. It seemed like this, combined with the bare-minimum energy put into the show and into her performance, gave off a feeling like Grande actually does not appreciate her fans because she knows they'd show up no matter what (and they probably would).
With the premiere of Beyoncé's Homecoming film on Netflix chronicling her performance at last year's Coachella festival, everyone can see an artist who puts everything into her show. The singing, the dancing, the representation, the visuals, the musicality all exceeded anyone's expectations. The film showed how Beyoncé put eight months of work into the performance, and it showed. With Grande, even though the vocals were on point, it seemed more like she just rolled out of bed and got on stage. And for some artists, that's ok. But for the biggest female pop star right now of her generation, I expected a little more. And if she can't deliver more right now, then maybe she shouldn't be on tour.
Correction: Mac Miller's death was ruled to have been caused by an accidental overdose, not suicide as the author originally wrote in this article. We apologize for the error.