Image description: Ariana Grande in mid-performance.
Ariana Grande is probably the only artist of the moment who can truly be identified as a ‘pop star’. There are other pop artists, to be sure – Dua Lipa, Camila Cabello, Doja Cat – but none of them come with the glittery sparkle and cult of personality that used to define the megastars of music like Rihanna or Beyoncé.
Ariana, however, is the exception. She is a distinct personality with a distinct style, the enormous ponytail, fake tan and doe-eyed pout so easily recognisable you could dress as her for Halloween. The minutiae of her personal life are discussed and debated in the tabloids. Her army of stans will aggressively get her name trending on Twitter. Everything she touches seems to turn to gold.
“She is a distinct personality with a distinct style, the enormous ponytail, fake tan and doe-eyed pout so easily recognisable you could dress as her for Halloween.”
It is too often forgotten that she also has genuine talent, with an amazing vocal range and some truly memorable singles behind her – ‘No Tears Left To Cry’, ‘God Is A Woman’, ‘Into You’, and the iconic ‘Thank U, Next’ – and so it is a shame that her recent record, positions, is so samey and easy to ignore, lacking the charisma and energy that propelled her to fame.
As the title implies, positions largely consists of downbeat slow tunes about Ariana discovering new love, and more importantly, having a lot of sex. This would not be an inherently awful concept – after all, she proved she could do sultry love jams in 2014’s Love Me Harder – if the tracks weren’t so charmless and boring.
“As the title implies, positions largely consists of downbeat slow tunes about Ariana discovering new love, and more importantly, having a lot of sex.”
‘34 + 35’ at least gives you a fun maths problem to solve as you listen to it, but even Ariana gives up on subtlety and spells it out for the more arithmetically challenged at the end: ‘it means I wanna 69 with you baby,’ she says as the outro fades out, in a jarring matter-of-fact tone that ruins whatever vibe the song had going for it.
Dull tracks like ‘nasty’, ‘my hair’, and ‘love language’ are equally unappealing, but also run into strange instrumental problems: the odd 70s orchestration in ‘love language’ is more appropriate for a year 6 disco than a soulful R&B jam, and the other two have string accompaniments oddly reminiscent of show tunes your grandma would listen to, being very pedestrian and devoid of heat. These failings are only sharpened into relief by the success of ‘WAP’, possibly the biggest song of 2020, which proved that filthy songs about sexual liberation can be dirty, funny, and fun – none of these adjectives could be used to describe Ariana’s album.
“filthy songs about sexual liberation can be dirty, funny, and fun – none of these adjectives could be used to describe Ariana’s album. “
The title track and lead single, ‘positions’, is notable for being one of the only songs on the record with some semblance of energy and life. It’s a catchy enough single, but also has some unsettling undertones. The music video tries to turn it into an empowerment anthem by showing Ariana as the President in the White House – women as world leaders! Let’s go! – yet that was definitely not the song’s intention: ‘Cookin’ in the kitchen and I’m in the bedroom’ sings Ariana, to demonstrate the lengths she’s going to keep her man by constantly changing things up. Whilst this could be interpreted as simply keeping the relationship exciting, it doesn’t quite come across in the right way for my taste, with Ariana portraying herself as some sort of half housekeeper, half sex-slave so that her partner is never unsatisfied.
The final track, ‘pov’, is probably the best one – even though its sound isn’t original, the lyrics at least touch on different themes beyond the bedroom. ‘I’d love to see me from your point of view’ sighs Ariana, and her self-esteem dilemma will surely strike a chord with the unconfident around the world.
“The final track, ‘pov’, is probably the best one – even though its sound isn’t original, the lyrics at least touch on different themes beyond the bedroom”
In the end, positions ultimately fails because it offers nothing new, and what is there is all so similar the individual songs merge together into one homogenous blob. There are few memorable moments, and several are outright skips (‘off the table’, ‘obvious’, and ‘west side’ have already disappeared from memory). The pared-down, R&B style of the album does nothing to help this identity problem, nor that most of the tracks are barely 2 and a half minutes long and therefore have little chance of making an impression.
“In the end, positions ultimately fails because it offers nothing new, and what is there is all so similar the individual songs merge together into one homogenous blob”
The advent of streaming, and increasingly short attention spans, have popularised the short-form song, yet this format does the album no favours when there isn’t much worth paying attention to in the first place. positions will be lapped up by her fans, but for the rest – it makes for acceptable background music if nothing else.
Image credit: emmarsheehan via creative commons