ARIANA GRANDE at Soctiabank Arena, Wednesday, June 26. Rating: NNN
Ariana Grande is 26 years old. I know this because last night, I was among 20,000 fans in Scotiabank Arena who serenaded Happy Birthday to her.
Standing onstage surrounded by back-up dancers outfitted in matching 90s baggy streetwear with a pink sedan graffiti tagged “Ari 26” behind her, Grande blew out birthday cake candles before kicking into her hit 7 Rings. For a singer who’s emerged as a symbol of strength, optimism and empowerment for young girls and women of the Millennial and Gen Z cohort, it was definitely an Instagrammable moment.
But for a pop star playing a victory lap concert at the zenith of her zeitgeist wattage – on her birthday, no less – something felt missing.
Coming off the heels of two critically- and commercially-acclaimed albums, Sweetener and Thank U, Next, Grande has established a sound that throws back to 50s doo-wop and slick 90s R&B. While there has been criticism of cultural appropriation, her work with producers like Babyface and Pharrell suggests a commitment and rigour in navigating hip-hop and R&B sounds that carry more weight than her Blackfish spray tan. So it was disappointing that that work wasn’t shown. Instead, the concert’s staging and visual presentation suggested a shallow and superficial engagement with that nostalgia. While Ari the vocalist was present, the stage presence and staging was not fully formed.
Grande opened strong with Raindrops shifting seamlessly into God Is A Woman in a Last Supper-meets-Burlesque tableau. Strutting along the curved catwalk, she riled up the frenzied Arianators in their oversized tour merch sweaters, thigh-high boots and double buns with her troop of dancers, swinging her high ponytail and clomping in thigh-high PVC platform boots. (Clearly, Madonna isn’t the only pop star with a complicated relationship to her Italian Catholicism.)
Shifting into the moody Bad Idea, the overhead half-globe projection went fish-eyed, showing surveillance-like footage of the performance on stage. This seemed somewhat meta, especially since after the bombing at her 2017 Manchester show, Grande’s concerts have required venues to adopt a clear bag policy. But then the large globe hanging above the audience pit seemed straight out of Drake’s Boy Meets World tour, making me wonder if Director X lent his Nuit Blanche globe to Grande’s tour rider.
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Ariana Grande
Ariana Grande at her Sweetener World Tour opener in Albany, New York on March 18.
As Grande breezed through the show, interstitials slowed down the concert’s momentum. They also seemed to be pulled from other artists. The vintage VHS footage of a young Ari talking about Titanic recalled Beyonce’s own inclination towards analog personal archives. During the second act, an entire row of 7-year-olds and their moms sang “I’m so successful, yeah!” during Successful. By the time Grande was in the third act with Break Your Heart Right Back, that same group that was so riotious and enthusiastic seem deflated and tired. (But maybe it was past their bedtime.)
That’s not to say there wasn’t any energy. Grande, who has opened up about her PTSD following the Manchester attack, bravely dived into the audience pit within the circular catwalk, directly engaging with fans in a way other stars would reel far from. By the time she ramped the energy back up with Dangerous Woman, there were girls strutting and boys voguing down in the floor. Even the AV techs manning the sound booth were feeling themselves.
As Grande belted live about feeling like a dangerous woman and doing things she shouldn’t, it reminded me of the recent New York Times profile on Madonna, and her reaction to being told by the interviewer that saw her live as a young girl at one of her mid-1980s Madison Square Garden shows: “I’m happy to hear I was a part of the beginning of your being woke as a female.” There is something undeniably powerful about young girls, women, femmes and LGBTQ folks expressing their true selves for their own selves and one another. It’s a coming of age ritual that may mark their own “being woke” journey.
In recognizing this journey, stars like Madonna, Beyonce, Rihanna and Taylor Swift have been savvy in creating a throughline from their album personas to the concert stage. Looking back on the Madonna that I had – yes, I am dating my self, it was circa Ray Of Light – it was clear how those earth mother and geisha personas fed into the sound, but also staging. There was a transparency and artfulness in how those references were conveyed for fans to pick up on, an awareness that this platform provides access to all this talent that can shape and grow your aesthetic.
The Ariana Grande brand is strong, especially online. Here’s hoping that this presence translates into the IRL for the next tour.
@nowtoronto | @reeraw