What Is Ariana Grande Doing?

In her first songs since the Manchester bombing, the singer has triumphed with a rare pop commodity: inscrutability.

Ariana Grande sits astride the world for 'God Is a Woman'
Republic Records

In the middle of Ariana Grande’s “God Is a Woman” video, the music cuts out, the pop star disappears, and a gopher screams. The rodent’s a puppet, one of a few who’re poking out of holes in a parched desert, and it shrieks like a man on fire might, or like small furry mammals actually sometimes do. Then the video flashes back to the main show—a purple-blue fantasia of Grande in goddess poses—never to return to gopherville.

Huh? What? Why this interruption? As music, “God Is a Woman” conjures an enveloping swirl of trip-hoppy R&B and soft rock, but the screaming critter jolts viewers out of the reverie. Or maybe it snaps them to attention. It’s a piece of grit in a pudding cup, or a pearl shell. In any case, it suits Ariana Grande’s vibe in 2018. She’s weirder, bolder, and funnier as she processes tragedy in the most intriguing album rollout of an overcrowded superstar season.

When she transitioned from Nickelodeon actress to hitmaker in 2013 and 2014, Grande’s big public narratives were tied up with superficial signifiers. Her breathy vocal talents resembled Mariah Carey’s, and the accusations of knockoffdom were so fierce that they included the rumor that she, like Carey, would only ever show one side of her face to cameras. Diminutive, sloe-eyed, and perpetually ponytailed, she also got hit with a jokey conspiracy theory, “Is Ariana Grande Actually an Adult Baby?” Such peanut-gallery antics spoke to an assumption that she represented simply the latest in a line of sparkly and substance-free props for the music industry’s super-producers.

As pop qua pop, the results have been great all along: There’s no more reliable a dance diva this decade than Grande, and Max Martin, king of the aforementioned super-producers, has done some of his best work with her. As a public figure, she’s proven herself a charmer in TV appearances, and landed in only one true scandal, an arguably endearing episode of donut-licking. Still, she played by a clear rulebook. When her 2016 album, Dangerous Woman, employed a swollen low end and clutch of steamy videos to insist she be seen as grown and sexual, it felt like the fulfillment of an ancient ritual.

Then came a much more horrifying injection of gravity with the May 2017 suicide bombing at her concert in Manchester, England, which killed 22. Suddenly, Grande joined the sickeningly growing class of performers whose art has been made a backdrop to mass murder. Reactions by such musicians have ranged: Jesse Hughes of the Eagles of Death Metal became an extreme political figure after the 2015 attack on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris; Jason Aldean went stoic, mostly ignoring the 2017 Las Vegas shooting on his latest album. Grande, for her part, has emphasized using escapist pop as a tool of healing. Less than a month after Manchester, she threw a benefit concert, and in the time since, she sang at the March for Our Lives rally to end gun violence. “When you’re handed a challenge,” she told Time, “instead of sitting there and complaining about it, why not try to make something beautiful?”

Which could, for many stars, be a recipe for triteness. But the singles for Grande’s forthcoming album Sweetener have instead sparked with a sense of defiance and rattled mortality: It’s like she’s realized life’s too short to be predictable. Trippy visuals by Dave Meyers, the veteran video director whose output is often anything but workmanlike, have helped out. “I felt more inclined to tap into my feelings because I was spending more time with them,” Grande also told Time, describing her post-Manchester recording and writing process. “I was talking about them more. I was in therapy more.”

Her return began promisingly with April’s “No Tears Left to Cry,” one of the best pure pop singles in memory. In it, a somber opening passage gives way to a party with the arrival of crunchy breakbeats likely inspired by U.K. garage music and perhaps the late-’80s “Madchester” scene. Over long phrases and short conversational bursts, Grande’s voice curls in surprising ways, from husky to flighty and back. Most glorious are the keyboards: The progressions verge on jazziness, with each chord stabbed out in a manner that evokes someone touching a hot surface. The lyrics describe being all cried out, but the arrangement clearly suggests a flood of tears on the dance floor.

The video’s tableau of Inception-like impossible architecture—walls become floors become ceilings—is lush and transporting, aestheticizing the idea of one’s feet searching for solid ground. In a campy middle segment (a screaming-gopher moment of sorts), the image goes kaleidoscopic and Grande appears to try on multiple faces. The metaphor may be heavy-handed, but it’s rendered with such bizarre whimsy that it’s hard not to hit “replay.” All in all, “Tears” is a trip of a comeback statement—and the fact that it reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 is no small thing given the hostility of recent commercial trends toward both Grande’s female peers and songwriter/producer Martin.

Then came a truer curveball, the least digestible of her three singles: “The Light Is Coming.” Grande reportedly told the song’s producer, Pharrell Williams, to “make the weirdest thing we can first” during their sessions, and the results include a tinny beat skittering like an egg timer, a looped sample of an angry constituent yelling at Senator Arlen Specter in 2009, and Nicki Minaj’s guest verse sitting not at the traditional bridge spot but rather at the opening. For the chorus, Grande emits a Gwen Stefani–like bleat that teases and scratches at the ears: “The light is coming to give back everything the darkness stole.” It’s millenarian fervor delivered with Millennial detachment, and accordingly, the art-school lark of a video fuses The Blair Witch Project horror and Instagram glitz.

Now arrives “God Is a Woman,” completing the trifecta of pseudo-spiritualism and sneaky innovation. Glinting with Echo & the Bunnymen guitars, set to the tempo of a wind machine, garnished with hip-hop ad libs, it has Grande aiming for that place between ballad and reverie; I thought of George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90,” but maybe that’s just the gospel coda doing its work. The title’s sentiment asks to be taken as empowering and/or sacrilegious, but the politics of the lyrics are faint: She’s talking, most obviously, about her man’s post-coital praise.

The video, though, emphasizes the lyrics’ feminist implications with an overload of religious signifiers: sacred geometry, swirling galaxies, eternal flames, Sistine Chapel send-ups, the voice of Madonna quoting Samuel L. Jackson quoting the New Testament, etc. Meyers employs a variety of visual filters, some recalling effects from a freeware video editor, and at one point, cartoonish men hurl written-out epithets at a grande Grande (yes, “adult baby” is among the insults). There’s a comedy to the video’s conceptual overload and shabby-chic CGI effects, but what exactly the punchline is isn’t clear.

Isn’t some inscrutability refreshing, though? In an era of overdetermined pop narratives, Grande and her team now give listeners the sense of holding on to some secret; she smirks as she sings. The sensibility emanates even from her public relationship with the SNL comedian Pete Davidson, to whom she entered into an engagement with perplexing speed and who has, as a result of the attention, become synonymous with the term “big dick energy”: intoxicating, unworried confidence. Somehow, Grande’s music and videos radiate just that energy as well. “How can they tell you shit that you’ve been through?” she trills on “The Light Is Coming,” seeming to address anyone who’d want her to fit into a particular narrative—whether as a female 20-something, a pop star, or a survivor of tragedy. If god is a woman, she’s working in delightfully mysterious ways.