Essays

Ariana Grande Isn’t Actually Your Little Plaything

Her mix of childlike cuteness, sex appeal and political engagement confuses the fuck out of people who are stuck in the past.

by Lauren O'Neill
28 February 2017, 12:30pm

Illustration by @thepoopculture

Do you remember where you were when Ariana Grande licked the donuts? In case you were in a coma, the story is this: on 4 July 2015, Ariana Grande entered Wolfee Donuts in Lake Elsmore, California with friends, and was captured on CCTV committing the following acts, listed here in ascending order of heinousness: 1) making out with her then-boyfriend; 2) licking donuts she had not paid for and; 3) uttering the immortal words "I hate America," on that great nation's very birthday, no less. Gasp.

What quickly became known as #DonutGate was a media event on the scale of a major political crisis, covered by legitimate outlets from the Guardian to TIME. And though it reportedly cost Grande a coveted gig at a White House gala, #DonutGate also held another function: it proved that she's a bonafide pop star, in the mould of the greats.

All of the real, proper pop princesses have been involved in news cycle-stopping scandals at some point in their careers: Britney and Madonna open-mouth kissing at the 2003 VMAs, unleashing a world of theretofore unknown sexual possibility to a generation of girls; Christina rocking the world with her post-Disney penchant for assless chaps; Janet Jackson ditching her dad as a manager and coming out with a pounding reminder that her "first name ain't baby" on 1986's "Nasty". It's almost as though the ability to cause media shockwaves is part of the criteria for being a god-tier pop act.

There are other criteria too, a certain path that seems laid out for pop princess-hood – though it's been some time since anyone actually walked down it. While Beyoncé, Rihanna and Lady Gaga have all transcended the "pop star" label, too complex to be pigeonholed as such, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry have side-stepped the "choreo plus sex appeal" standards set by Janet Jackson and J Lo. But Ariana – pure, distinctive pop whichever way you cut her – is taking up the mantle, in many ways filling the pop princess mould in the style of those who went before her: Britney and Christina, and Madonna before them. And she speaks up about everything from gender double standards to sexism – all while dressed like a childlike 60s go-go dancer – in a way that makes her public persona more of a mind-fuck for people who still think pop stars are as apolitical now as they were in the early 2000s.

Like Spears and Aguilera who, famously, were members of Disney's Mickey Mouse Club, Ariana cut her teeth on children's TV. As she made the jump to music, she savvily copped herself a high-ponytail signature look in the manner of Britney's schoolgirl pigtails, or Madonna's cone bra, and, like them, has consistently made material that reflects her bold personality and showcases her distinctive vocal. Though Brit and Madge are hardly the strongest singers, there's no chance you could listen to their music and not know it was them; Ariana is the same, except she's got that dolphin sensitivity-level range to back it up, too – even though, with her diction, we can only understand about 12 percent of what she's saying.

She also has the adoring, famous boyfriend in rapper and producer Mac Miller. She endorses various products, like perfumes, which means she's a brand as well as a musician (crucial for a full-package pop star), and she has been known to lend her expertise to others as a TV judge – only when Christina does The Voice, Ariana lends her opinions on lace front wigs to the queens on RuPaul's Drag Race. This choice is telling. Ariana is a vocal supporter of gay rights, and her ties with the LGBTQ community are strong, not least because it comprises a large part of her fanbase. And her willingness to speak out on their behalf, as well as openly and publicly discussing her discovery of feminism and her opinions on sexuality, means that contemporary pop's new Supreme (if Nicki Minaj said it, it must be true) is just that – contemporary.

Back when Britney and Christina's careers were taking off, they were everywhere – at least visually. But as people, they were rarely heard other than when performing their hits. That desire to listen to the songs without hearing the voices behind them – to gaze freely at tits in music videos without knowing about the values held by the women beneath the bikini tops – might have resonated with audiences in the relatively comfortable late Clinton and early Bush years, but it's not what they want now.

With the advent of social media, pop stars are now more in touch with their listeners than ever, and young, social justice-savvy stans expect their idols to use their platforms well. Recently, for example, Zayn Malik left a number of his fans cold after failing to condemn his girlfriend Gigi Hadid for appearing to mock Asian people as part of a year-old photoshoot. One fan went right to Zayn's mentions on Twitter to tell him: "If you wanna be another celebrity that burns out bc theyre [sic] so ignorant go ahead but you'd waste everything you worked for." These days, then, pop stars' very success seems to depend on the way they approach the pressing issues of the day – and if a pop princess needs to embody the culture, then Ariana fits right in. The notion of a Purely Woke Star is obviously not a reality – and people will more often than not end up disappointed if they expect all musicians to perfectly echo their views – but Ariana speaks up, even when she seems to contradict herself.

More than anything, she's a 23-year-old woman finding her way in the world. And though she may have the face of Taylor Townsend from The O.C. and the range of a young Mariah Carey, like many others her age, she is discovering what is important to her and standing up for it. In September 2015, she spoke to gay TV's overlord Ryan Murphy for V Magazine about her passion for LGBTQ rights – "It's outrageous to me when I see people hate on someone because of their sexuality [...] I hate the intolerance. I hate the judgement" – and the question of her own sexuality. 

She told Murphy: "Some days I feel more comfortable using sexuality in my work, and then some days I feel like being a little more reserved [...] I don't need to pick or choose. I can show skin and swear like a sailor but also be a good role model." Her multi-faceted image, which both gives to, and takes from, the male gaze seems to confirm this: leotards and bunny gimp masks dominate, though elsewhere she can look disconcertingly childlike, with fluffy pom poms and A-line skirts on her small frame. It is complicated and confusing and very much on her own terms: nowhere near as straightforwardly, for-his-pleasure sexy as the pop princesses of yore.

Very much in control of her own presentation, Ariana has a strong handle on her sexuality, as she proved late last year by issuing a statement on Twitter after a fan objectified her: "I felt like speaking out about this one experience tonight because I know very well that most women know the sensation of being spoken about in an uncomfortable way publicly," she wrote. And this wasn't the first time she has loudly voiced her views – in 2015, after her split from rapper Big Sean, frustrated by interview questions which centred him rather than her career, she posted a declaration of her feminism, citing Gloria Steinem and discussing the double standard faced by women in the media. Months later, she took the piss out of radio hosts who tried to pigeonhole her as a girly airhead on LA station Power 106. This past January, she attended the Women's March on DC. Time and again, she puts her money where her mouth is, making an effort to learn the ways inequality's woven into society – in the process she constantly redefines the position of pop princess.

The thing is, we need pop princesses like we always did: these almost mythical, always female stars are part of the fabric of heavily mainstream pop music. But gone are the days of the silent sex symbol. 2017's pop princesses need to have voices beyond the ability to belt out a tune, and they have to connect to their fans in a real way, because that's how the world works now. Thankfully, we've got Ariana Grande, a sexually self-possessed mega-diva who is the peer of her fans at the same time as embodying a fantasy that is all her own. Welcome to the new breed.

You can find Lauren thinking about Ariana Grande on Twitter.

(Lead illustration by @thepoopculture)