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

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Aug. 27 2014 8:35 PM

Her Everything

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

Photo by Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
Ariana Grande performs during the MTV Video Music Awards in Inglewood, California, on Aug. 24, 2014.

Photo by Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

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 simultaneouslyand 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 examplebut as much as we’d all love our plaudits to translate into cold hard SoundScan numbers, they don’t.

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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.

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.

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.