Ariana Grande Stages the Gentlest Pop Show of All Time

In the three years since Ariana Grande’s first trip to Australia, her whole world has changed. In September 2014, when she was here to promote her second album My Everything, Grande was still a former Nickelodeon star in transition. “Problem” had hit #2 on the Billboard charts in May, but she was still seeking out publicity, as up-and-coming stars must. She got more than she asked for—the Australian media, who demand humility from celebrities above all else, branded her a diva.

Three years later, headlining her first Australian shows, Ariana’s a bonafide pop A-lister. After the tragic bombing at her Manchester show in May, no one would have blamed her for cancelling the rest of her tour. Instead, she led by example, arranging the One Love Manchester benefit show just two weeks later. If she could hold her head up high, spirit unbroken, then we too could hold it together. As a result, the cloud of Manchester doesn’t hang over tonight’s show at all. Security’s unusually tight, but that’s it. There’s no sense, as there was with Justin Bieber’s recently cancelled tour, that the machine’s forcing her to grind on. The show goes on, and for once it’s not a cliché, but a collective choice.

She opens her first of two Melbourne shows with “Be Alright”, an ode to perseverance through hard times. Onstage, Ariana’s the image of composure—small even in impossibly high platform heels, framed by dancers and her four-piece band. But onscreen, she and her dancers weep silver tears. As she executes complex vogue choreography, her voice not missing a beat, their onscreen images’ individual sadness turns to a collective joy. When Ariana sings “we’re gonna be alright,” she’s every bit as believable as Kendrick, but it’s not a rallying cry—she’s gentle, soothing.

Fingerclicks, deep house piano, Hollywood strings, black-and-white visages—Madonna’s “Vogue” looms large. Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition tour, immortalised in her Truth or Dare documentary—three years before Ariana was born!—is ground zero for the modern pop show. Unapologetic sexuality, costume changes, overarching visual themes, act breaks, even the amount of trouble you can get into over a months-long world tour—the core principles haven’t changed, even as the sound of pop’s evolved. But it’s uncommon to see someone channel Madonna so explicitly, even down to the all-male dancers. In fact, Ariana’s the only woman onstage—a curious choice, if it’s a choice at all. The presence of live backing vocalists is sorely missed.

Performing all 15 songs from last year’s Dangerous Woman album, Ariana’s voice is immaculate throughout, whether she’s singing over trap beats—”Everyday”, “Touch It”, torch songs—”Leave Me Lonely,” or opening “One Last Time” a cappella. The doo-wop ballad “Moonlight”, which she delivers sitting at the front of the catwalk, could have stunned audiences on The Ed Sullivan Show 60 years ago.

Live pop vocals are a balancing act. Popstars have to juggle emotional expression, breath control, choreography, click tracks and backing harmonies all at once. A certain amount of smoke and mirrors is to be expected. But Ariana’s a master of her instrument—as virtuosic as an opera singer, delicate even at full volume. She becomes a pure conduit of emotion, as if she’s tapping into a force beyond her own small lungs.

“Serious” music fans tend to associate vocal runs and melisma with American Idol-style wailing, but Ariana’s always tasteful. There’s no ego in her voice; she’s incapable of oversinging. When she takes full flight, the crowd’s not singing along, so much as singing backups to an Olympian-level vocalist. It’s an oddly humbling experience, but we try anyway. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard 10,000-plus people attempt the high G in “Bang Bang” and (mostly) succeed.

Grande’s never strained to be a role model. If she is one, it’s because she’s always acted authentically under the spotlight. Her “FEMALE” video interlude is a highlight—she writhes like a fitness model while descriptors flash onscreen: sensual, divine, soulful, ferocious, FEMALE. The crowd roars—we’ve seen her embody all these things before.

Even Grande’s move into more adult subject matter hasn’t ruffled feathers. Songs like “Greedy” aren’t raunchy—she gives voice to young women’s sexuality in a way that feels honest, approachable, and occasionally hilarious. At One Love Manchester, Grande told of how she’d planned a serious, respectful show, until she spoke to a victim’s mother – who said her daughter would’ve wanted to hear the hits. So she performed “Side to Side.” It shouldn’t be possible, but think about this: Ariana’s voice can turn a song about getting dick so good you can’t walk straight into a celebration of life.

When she sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” as she’s been doing since Manchester, she takes on everything it’s meant to the culture since Judy Garland first sang it in 1939. It’s a statement of eternal, childlike optimism, and not being afraid to cross death’s threshold. Tonight, her voice falters with the last refrain—the only time she misses a note during the show. The crowd fills the silence; she holds it together long enough to finish the song. Manchester could have been a loss of innocence, but through Ariana, it became a coming of age, a redoubling of her idealism. Not just for herself, but for the young girls, women, and everyone else who finds themselves through pop music.

Ariana brings down the house with an encore of “Dangerous Woman”, which is still a misnomer—there’s nothing threatening about her. But that’s a strength. This could be the gentlest pop show ever staged. There are no monuments to her ego, no songs about how hard it is to be a celebrity. She’s just quietly, supremely confident. If the show’s relatively low on spectacle, it’s unbelievably high on potential.

Without trying, Ariana seems to reflect all our own best impulses. Her idealism never falters, but she’s not naïve. Her mistakes have only made her more human. Her music isn’t escapist, simplistic, or apolitical. It’s pure. And in times like these, we could use more grace.

Richard S. He is a pop producer and award-winning critic. You can tweet your grievances to @Richaod.

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