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.