Being a pop star today is an elaborate ordeal; it's not enough to just be a gifted singer, you have to have an image and a gimmick to distinguish yourself from the rest.
Are you a blue-haired maiden who exists in a utopian Candyland? Are you a walking piece of pop art dedicating your life to obscure cultural references? Do you walk around with a halo of light emanating from your head because you are so flawless it renders you inhuman? Can you dance? Do you have an elaborate lighting scheme and staging situation? What social cause do you champion? What's your message?
There was, however, a brief period in time when the reigning pop stars needed nothing but a microphone.
Mariah. Whitney. Celine. They were the trifecta of ballad-busting, larger-than-life voices we now regard as the best. And they were hardly the first to exemplify the notion that you don't need all the theatrics or a social platform to resonate. Aretha, Gladys, Barbra, Dolly — the list goes on in terms of certified divas in culture. But the late '80s/'90s era of pop music was a special time.
A time in which Mariah Carey could get onstage at Madison Square Garden in a simple black dress and bring the house down singing "Hero" with nary a background dancer or pyrotechnic in sight. When Whitney could make the nation fall to the ground in tears while listening to "I Will Always Love You." It was music about love and about loss, and it was simply arranged, with little to draw attention away from the most important instrument at play: their voice.
Ariana Grande brings us back to that era.
It might be surprising for some to consider that the best pop album this year has been released by a 20-year-old Nickelodeon star, but here we are. On Victorious, the actress plays Cat, a kooky, zany character, innocent and a little airheaded. On her debut album, Yours Truly, though, she sounds like a bona fide diva in the traditional sense of the word.
The Mariah Carey comparisons are not exaggerated; there are moments on the album where Grande, who hails Carey as the best singer alive and her idol, sounds exactly like her. It maybe helps that Grande is a master at impressions. (Just check out this video of her imitating the likes of Britney Spears, Judy Garland, Shakira, and even a crying baby.)
Ariana could sound like any number of people and play into any number of genres, but she's smart. She loves '90s R&B, but, more importantly, she realizes how much her audience loves it, and how palpable the nostalgia for a certain era of ballads and ecstatic pop songs is right now. And, boy, does she deliver.
First off, the album is FUN.
It's a fine, fine line between bouncy and corny pop, and Grande expertly walks it; the music is effervescent and fun, but it never feels cheap, juvenile, or too syrupy-sweet. It doesn't take itself too seriously either, a problem among singers like Jennifer Hudson or even Christina Aguilera.
There's the undeniably catchy "Baby I," maybe the most direct Mariah homage on the album, complete with the rushed, spoken bridge, near whistle-register yelps, and even MC's signature giggle at the end. There's the slinky, feel-good jam, "Right There," featuring Big Sean, which samples Lil Kim's 1996 song, "Crush on You." As straightforward as it is, it's a vocal workout for Grande, whose melisma is in full force, escalating from breathy Janet-esque hushes to big belts in one go.
And, of course, there's her hit first single, "The Way," featuring Mac Miller, which — despite the slightly uncomfortable video — was a solid contender for Song of the Summer this year.
"You'll Never Know" is one of the brightest-sounding — but badass — songs on the album, in which Grande chastises a would-be lover for not speaking up and missing his chance.
But if you would have manned up
Put your hand up, stand up, tell me how you really felt
Then maybe it'd be different
If it was me that would have listened
But now I'm with somebody else
And he loves me too much for me to mess this up
There's an energy to it that feels familiar (3LW's "No More" comes to mind); it's about self-respect and self-worth without feeling like we're being knocked over the head with it. It's a testament to the fact that these concepts and affirmations can be a little more nuanced and effective than is currently obvious to today's crop of "be yourself" divas.
She also has fun with more nuanced, classic forms of pop music, with much of the album relying mostly on the piano. The excellent "Tattooed Heart" is an ode to '50s doo-wop, calling back to a more innocent time for romance, when courtship was king: "I wanna say we're going steady / Like it's 1954." There are finger snaps and background singers and soulful crooning, but its timelessness makes it feel fresh.
It's one of the most consistently great pop albums in years.
It's not enough to just have the voice; you need good songs to actually showcase it. That's where artists like Christina have ultimately failed — though she's had a few standout tracks here and there, most of her songs were largely forgettable. While every song on Yours Truly could stand alone as a single, the beauty is that it still works so well together as a cohesive piece. I never found myself wanting to skip to the next song or cherry-picking my favorites.
In a way, Yours Truly is Grande's version of Christina's Back to Basics album, which was bloated at two discs and 23 tracks. But Grande's album is just 13 tracks, tailoring it down to only the best. That she enlisted Babyface to produce several songs on the album is telling, knowing she go straight to the source for the master of the '90s R&B she's trying to resurrect.
Ballads are back.
Somewhere along the line in the last decade-plus, ballads fell out fashion. They were too big, too weepy, too hard to really pull off just right. Artists like Beyoncé have tried with songs like "Halo," but it never struck quite the right chord. The kind of sweeping, all-encompassing, religious-type experience that is "One Sweet Day" by Mariah and Boyz II Men is hard to come by.
Ariana's ballads aren't on that level just yet, but she shows a promising start with songs like "Almost Is Never Enough." It's a touching duet with Nathan Sykes of The Wanted, and the two singers go on a musical journey together, showing off the dynamism that each possesses. The song, fittingly, borrows liberally from "One Sweet Day" and its video.
(She really loves Mariah.)
What's particularly special about Grande and her ballads in particular is how normal she seems. She lets herself be vulnerable in a way that Lady Gaga or Beyoncé won't really allow themselves to be. Grande's laments are relatable to us; she has a big voice, but reasonably scaled wants and needs and feelings. She isn't looking to take over the world or assert her greatness, but rather share her joy and her sorrow.
The album's opening track,"Honeymoon Avenue," is a gem in this sense. The song opens with a string orchestra intro (which sounds a lot like Justin Timberlake's intro to "Pusher Love Girl"), and moves into an affecting mid-tempo ballad about a relationship that's veered slightly off the tracks. "Can we get back to the way it was?" she sings.
There is one person we've left out in all of this talk of "the voice" who does exemplify the vulnerability and simplicity of that kind of diva: Adele. And while she is able to be vulnerable, she's intense and dark, pained; by contrast, Grande is hopeful, less jaded. She possesses the key element of optimism, and a healthy outlook on reality of the ups and downs of life that's essential to the classic '90s diva.
Grande is probably most like Janet Jackson in this way. She has the same penchant for small-scale pleasures and small-scale romantic sadness that Janet has made a career out of, without ever having to belt like Mariah. There's a subtlety to Janet's feelings and her display of them that Grande is wise to learn from.
In fact, there's a lot to be learned from all of these divas, and Grande isn't ashamed or self-conscious enough to see her interpretations of them as anything other than an homage. And that's fine with us. Sure, eventually Grande will find her own style and her own unique flourishes, but for now, if she wants to bring us back to a time when pop music was about the voice, about the emotion, about the range, then we're all for it.