The title of Ariana Grande’s latest album, Sweetener, reclaims the often-used knock on radio-ready sing-alongs as “saccharine.” Perky music doesn’t just make life yummier, in Grande’s view. It makes life bearable. Her first album after the 2017 terrorist attack on one of her concerts, Sweetener arrived with lyrics about responding to bitterness with sugar, dark with light, suffocation with breathing. There were no tears left to cry, and she’d been crying with good reason.
As is almost always the case in pop, though, music could be heard as a rough synonym for love. The sweet/light/air in Grande’s lyrics were presented as stemming from a you, and listeners could envision that you as someone specific: Pete Davidson, the Saturday Night Live comedian Grande began dating in May and got engaged to in June. Calling their relationship “public” would be an understatement. They Instagrammed about their matching tattoos. He joked at length on SNL about being with her. She named a Sweetener song “Pete Davidson.”
This was personal life as performance and product, showing optimism that even the participants acknowledged was extreme. “If we break up, and we won’t—we will—but we won’t. No, I’m kidding. But, like, in 10 years if, God forbid, that ever happened, there will be a song called ‘Pete Davidson,’ like, playing in speakers at Kmart, and I’ll be working there,” Davidson cracked on SNL in September. Grande described her frankness about her whirlwind romance as a reaction to her past traumas, tweeting, “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.”