Every year, starting around May and ending whenever critics pass out from sheer verbiage, America debates the Song of the Summer. Sometimes the winner is near unanimous, as it was when its name was “Call Me Maybe,” and sometimes it’s Stockholm syndrome–anointed—as seems to be the case this year. For artist of the summer, though, there’s no debate: It’s Ariana Grande. The newly anointed pop heroine has earned three consecutive smashes with “Problem,” “Break Free,” and the Jessie J collaboration “Bang Bang”—all of which occupied last week’s Top 10 simultaneously—and her sophomore record, My Everything, is poised to garner sales to match.
Yet as preordained as her rise seems, it’s also a little unlikely. On the one hand, Grande is a singer whose ascent’s been unfailingly smooth. She’s risen from teenage Broadway baby to breakout star of Nickelodeon’s Victorious (in one of kid TV’s frequent ventures into meta, a show about aspiring teen performers), and from Radio Disney pop princess to pop pop princess, with zero stumbles. But Grande’s also an Imogen Heap superfan who’s multitracked herself with a Boss RC-50 since her teens; a girl who, to bloggers’ ongoing glee, derailed a Complex feature unprompted to talk at length about seeing supernatural signs of demons at “one of the seven gates to hell on earth”; and a performer who grew up flinging herself into Broadway’s most extroverted songs yet comes off shyer and shyer as her star grows bigger. Then there’s the unlikeliest persona of all: the biggest star of now whose music sounds like then, and the nascent pop starlet whose first album was about the music.
Yours Truly was that rarest of albums: a teen pop debut with substantial commercial impact and widespread critical praise. (A snapshot: While Ariana Grande isn’t the first teen pop vocalist to win over the typically teen pop-allergic Pitchfork—Alexis Krauss of RubyBlue and Robyn, to name two, predate her—she is probably the highest profile.) Even just one of these accomplishments would be remarkable. A supporting role on a Disney or Nick show is usually enough to guarantee you at least one album, but not all of them make it out of their respective fan haunts, let alone go No. 1 like Yours Truly did. And critics find a taste for bubble gum LPs from time to time—this decade, some crushed on Charli XCX’s True Romance and Carly Rae Jepsen’s Kiss, for example—but as much as we’d all love our plaudits to translate into cold hard SoundScan numbers, they don’t.
Grande, it turns out, had the right idea at the right time. Teen pop has a reputation for being prefab, but in reality it’s more of a test lab: With less immediate pressure to impact mainstream pop radio and with fan bases who’ll pretty much show up no matter what, it’s an arena for artists to recruit the ideas of upstart writers and producers—such critical darlings as Frank Ocean and Sky Ferreira got their start here—and to try out new sounds. Grande’s manager, impresario Scooter Braun, said as much to the New York Times: “We had the liberty to take [the risk of bucking trends] because of who she was.”
For Grande, this meant eschewing the safe pop-rock that the likes of showmate Victoria Justice were releasing in favor of something else, a killer pitch: using her substantial vocal skills and newfound whistle register, plus the songwriting of R&B songsmith Harmony Samuels and stubbornly traditionalist legend Babyface, to wipe the dust away from Mariah Carey’s early ’90s discography. Every part of it worked. The hits clicked, the fans rallied, the tastemakers found in Grande’s revivalism something paradoxically timely (around the same time rose Mad Decent’s walking yearbook pastiche LIZ), and, with just one album in the can, critics already charted Grande on a career as long as Carey’s.
The Mariah parallels were always somewhat overstated. Grande, like many teen aspirants to Broadway, trained as a belter, a more natural fit for her voice than the R&B soubrette she hadn’t quite grown into. Even now her singing can come off a little mush-mouthed and forced. And where Carey’s strengths lie in adapting her inimitable voice to the exact sound of whichever era she was recording in—listening to Emotions is as much like listening to 1991 in summary as it is like listening to Mariah Carey—Grande’s strength lies in sounding out of time entirely. “I wanna say we’re going steady like it’s 1954,” Grande sang on Yours Truly’s “Tattooed Heart,” and the rest of the album evoked a similar idea: a floaty, amorphous sound, flecked with piano and embroidered with doo-wop and vocal curlicues. It sounded nothing like 2013, it didn’t sound much like 1991 either, and it was certainly no 1954. Rather, it evoked some imagined, purer time, vaguely but pleasingly retro. Even the obligatory features by goofy rapper Mac Miller and the Wanted’s Nathan Sykes fit seamlessly into this world.