This article originally appeared on i-D UK.
Two years after the Manchester bombings, and almost a year after her split from Pete Davidson and Mac Miller’s death, Ariana Grande has done what some might consider impossible: played 60 of the scheduled 103 dates of her celebrated Sweetener tour. It’s a huge undertaking for anyone -- not least an artist who’s battled against some of the most public traumas in pop cultural history. But her fans are starting to notice that it’s taking its toll.
Anyone who’s seen that aforementioned arena spectacular will know that Ari has established a unique way of transcending what’s hurt her, creating a rousing show dedicated to self-care and brushing off hate. It’s a 29-song-strong celebration of rising above bullshit to be a happier person -- but it’s not necessarily laden with the kind of frank emotional expressions some might expect it to. After all, Ariana Grande’s most private moments were dragged out of her hands and transformed into cultural hysteria for media outlets around the world. Everybody seems to know everything that she’s been through, so when it comes to her standing on stage, performing a pop show for pop fans, the unfiltered lectures on anxiety, depression and PTSD are nowhere to be seen. For two saccharine sweet hours, she’s a star without a care in the world.
But if she’s suppressing it for her own sanity -- an understandable move, perhaps, considering the emotional toll having a teary breakdown on stage every night would have on your soul -- then we need to ask how healthy that is long term. She’s happy on stage, but if facing a crowd of fans every night freaks you out, then maybe it’s best to take a step back for a sec. To recharge and take another stab at it later down the line.
In a post to her Instagram stories, Ari unveiled how a mental health blip has led to her cancelling all future meet and greets. Instead of hiding behind management and promoters, she made the statement herself.
“Hi my loves. Time for some honesty,” she said on IG stories. “My depression and anxiety have been at an all-time high lately. I have been giving you all I’ve got and trying to push through as hard as I can and mask it. Today has been an extra rough one. After a handful of panic attacks, I feel like the wisest decision would be to not do soundcheck party or M&G today and preserve my energy for the show.”
She continued: “I wish I had control over these attacks but as anybody with anxiety or depression understands, sometimes you can only operate on its terms and not your own.”
"Once upon a time there would be outcry from die-hard fans if their favourite star cancelled their tour. We wanted a ceaseless stream of music that performed well and a flaw-free public image. Breakdowns or being vocal about mental health issues were a sign of weakness; that your fave was no longer on top form."
Many of her fans understand. It was not met with annoyance but sympathy -- some fans even pushed Ariana to cancel the tour altogether. Die-hard Ari stan Alex tweeted: “Please @arianagrande cancel the rest of the tour if u need to. don’t do the second leg in the US if u feel like it’s way too much for your mental health.” Meanwhile, French stan Micka said that “if at any time [Ariana] felt the need to cancel the rest of the tour,” she should do it. “Do not be afraid because we understand you without any problems,” he added. “You need to rest [...] because we want the best for you, take time for you and do not put pressure on you on the tour. you are our therapy and we are perhaps yours...”
Once upon a time, probably not that long ago, there would be outcry from die-hard fans if swirling rumours of their favourite star cancelling their tour arose. The very nature of stan culture involved a peculiar mix of undying loyalty to an artist and pushing them, harder and harder, to do well. To be labelled a flop -- say, if a competitor’s show sold more tickets or their song charted better than your favourite’s -- would be a cancellable offence. We wanted a ceaseless stream of music that performed well (anything charting outside the Top 10 would be an embarrassment) and a flaw-free public image. Breakdowns or being vocal about mental health issues were a sign of weakness; that your fave was no longer on top form.
But things have changed, the discourse surrounding stan culture has matured and self-care has entered the mainstream, as much a trend as it is a human necessity. Subjects once sidelined are now part of what we might call ‘the conversation’; the stigma attached to something like mental health is alleviating. In tandem, pop culture is evolving at an unprecedented rate. Movements like Times Up and #MeToo have exposed how fractured and fucked up the entertainment industries are from the inside, while the streaming age has proved how hard it is for pop stars to make any money from their work. Songs that were once destined to hit number one the moment they hit radio now clamber their way up the charts. Just look at Lizzo -- her track ‘Truth Hurts’ hit number one in the US this week. It’s two years old.
As a result, we’ve learned that being famous isn’t actually 100% amazing all the time, and that those in the public eye might just find celebrity life is as gruelling as glamorous. It’s had an inevitable knock-on in the interactions between fanbase and artist. Ariana, the most visible pop star on earth, now finds herself in a place where her stans will push her to get better, not bigger. They’ll sacrifice what makes them happy (more music, live shows) for what they think she should prioritise (her own mental state).
The flipside argument to this is that, by telling Ariana Grande she can cancel her tour, you risk infantilising her. She’s a 27-year-old woman, and if she wanted to stop touring she’d surely have the power to make that call, no? Well, in a now-deleted tweet, she summed up that dichotomy between making music and performing it perfectly. Responding to a fan who commented on how music was clearly her “therapy”, Ari said: “‘Making it is healing. Performing it is like reliving it all over again and it is hell.”
Ariana is not the only star who’s recently been met with a positive response for their emotional candour. After taking some time out of the spotlight to have some well-needed personal time, returning sporadically as a featured artist on songs by Ed Sheeran and DJ Khaled, Justin Bieber released an Instagram statement that dwelled on his past. In it, the i-D cover star breaks down how fame at an early age fucked up his moral compass and ego, leading him down a path of drug abuse and depression. "It's hard to get out of bed in the morning… when it feels like there's trouble after trouble after trouble," he said. "Sometimes it can even get to the point where you don't even want to live anymore. Where you feel like it's never going to change."
It’s a frank and disarming statement to make, but his fans -- some famous, others not -- responded with enthusiasm. “Friends from the beginning, here until the end. Miley Cyrus wrote, while a fan known as @shakiramd7 weighed in with their own message. “Always see a Doctor when you feel down, please!!!” she commented. “You’re too wonderful and we adore your talent, smiles and just all of you. God bless you.”
"Ariana, the most visible pop star on earth, now finds herself in a place where her stans will push her to get better, not bigger. They’ll sacrifice what makes them happy (more music, live shows) for what they think she should prioritise (her own mental state)."
Elsewhere you’ll find Jungkook from BTS catalysing a gigantic #GetWellSoon trend. He injured his foot on the band’s arena tour and couldn’t dance for a few nights, and cried on stage; the crowd cried back, shouting out and tweeting in support. Similarly, young fans are rallying around Billie Eilish as one of the few teenage girls given the space to discuss anxiety, self-harm and mental health publicly. For Billie, these issues are at the heart of her work, and despite still being incredibly young, she seems to have the agency to make her emotions known publicly without fear of backlash.
It is, undoubtedly, a generational thing. Celebrities and stans alike, particularly those born in the mid-to-late 90s or early 00s, have established a new code of conduct in pop culture. It’s one that prioritises something greater than success. In 2019 pop stars can cause a cultural earthquake (see Ariana’s comeback "No Tears Left to Cry"), not see it translate into eye-watering, jaw-dropping sales (the song missed the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100), and yet still find a way to be content with their art. The pressure, relatively speaking, is off. Other things matter more.
Which is why it’s totally fine for Ariana Grande to make her own call when it comes to the Sweetener Tour, and how much of her emotional soul she throws into it. If she cancels the whole thing tomorrow, the disappointment felt by her fans will be fleeting. And in its place will be a wholesome sense of happiness, that the pop star of their hearts has the freedom to get better on her own terms.