No One Agrees on This Year’s Song of the Summer, but for Artist There’s No Question

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Aug. 27 2014 8:35 PM

Her Everything

How Ariana Grande remixed a chunk of pop history and became the artist of the summer.

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As charming as these results were, they still left Grande with the same question every child star faces: How to grow out of it? Yours Truly sold well enough to make its follow-up, My Everything, inevitably more commercial, and Grande, 21, was old enough that My Everything would also be markedly more mature. Thankfully, Grande didn’t choose the shock-and-raw path blazed by Britney and Christina and Miley (whose entire race-baiting 2013 was an attempt to figure out how to provoke people when mere sex and drugs, as on Can’t Be Tamed, aren’t shocking anymore). Instead, Grande took the older, subtler route of hovering just under the radar—as on “Love Me Harder,” which is simultaneously a dreamy midtempo track penned by one of the Cardigans about wanting deeper love and a duet with druggy R&B libertine the Weeknd about rough sex.

But “maturity” doesn’t just mean subject matter. Most child stars looking to ditch the “child” adjective also find themselves in want of a new sound—and these days radio generally doesn’t embrace teen pop without a sonic growth spurt. For many artists, this is simple enough: 1) ditch the Disney jobbers, 2) hire Max Martin, 3) profit. For Grande, with a comparatively unorthodox debut, matters are a bit more complicated. While Babyface doesn’t return, and while Grande did in fact hire Martin for much of the production, My Everything isn’t all that dissimilar from Yours Truly when you get down to it. Single “Break Free” is just a counterpart to the EDM march that closed Yours Truly, “Better Left Unsaid,” with pricier producers and worse lyrics. The Sykes ballad is swapped out with a piano ballad penned by One Direction’s Harry Styles. (Styles himself does not appear; it’s a canny move, allowing Grande’s team to align her with hipper collaborators like Cashmere Cat and ASAP Ferg, while still ensuring that the mere mention of Styles’ name in the credits will lure Directioners in.) Even “Problem,” the most obviously now track on My Everything, isn’t so different—a contraption whose visible, flailing parts are Jason Derulo’s sax, the Ying Yang Twins via Big Sean chorus, and Iggy Azalea’s general presence, but whose core could be a Mimi track.

This sums up the album well enough: concerned with sounding simultaneously cutting-edge and throwback. In this, at least, Grande is perfectly timely. It’s the story of music in the streaming era, after all: the latest technology deployed to allow budding artists to take inspiration from wherever and whenever in music history they want. Some people—most prominently, Simon Reynolds in 2011’s Retromania—call this stagnation; others call it exciting, like having centuries of music collide into one another and watching genres fuse out of the shrapnel. My Everything is what happens when you take this idea and apply it to pop at its most commercially demanding, where albums are routinely focus-grouped to 10 demographics at once and where the biggest artists reinvent themselves once a single. (That’s not an exaggeration: Katy Perry’s Prism saw her transform herself from inspiro pop-rocker to po-faced balladeer to trap queen to ’90s raver to disco revivalist in less than a year.) In the big leagues Grande has catapulted into, reinvention is great, and retro is an option, but it’s no longer enough merely to sound like one era. You must sound like every period consecutively, even simultaneously if you can.

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Fortunately, Grande is both game enough and a strong enough vocalist for the job. She’s also a strong enough vocal presence, that more ineffable but utterly necessary quality, for My Everything not to sound too disjointed. Grande threads melisma and coquettishness throughout like twine to hold her disparate eras together. Ballads “My Everything” and “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart” could have been recorded at any point in the past two decades, and to Grande’s credit, they at least rank in the more listenable half. Cuts like “Be My Baby” and bonus track “Only 1” brush a light Drake cadence over the lush harmonies and pianos of 1997—specifically, of Jennifer Paige, whose “Crush” hit just before the teen pop boom. (This concept is less unlikely than it sounds; Haim and Jai Paul went there, too.) “Hands on Me” and “Best Mistake” dip into the urban-radio waters of the mid- and late 2000s, respectively. Time marches right on to last year: “Love Me Harder” and “Break Free” evoke 2013’s “Do What U Want” and “Clarity” down to the chord changes.

And on the album’s centerpiece, Grande finally tries everything at once: “Break Your Heart Right Back” samples Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” via Biggie’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” and sounds at once buoyant and a blur, blending Nile Rodgers riffs, trap snares, 808 “cowbell,” and Childish Gambino school-lunch jokes. Every part sounds like an anachronism alongside everything else, but none so much as Grande, trilling and twirling through every time jump like it’s the most natural thing in the world. For four minutes, My Everything almost convinces you that it is.

Katherine St. Asaph is a music critic whose work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, Wondering Sound, and other publications.

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