Review Summary: An unsettling definition of maturity.
In the never-ending quest for some sort of critical narrative to which an artist and her corresponding press campaign can anchor herself, Ariana Grande and her team have decided to dub her newest album, My Everything
, “more mature.” A star-studded cast has materialized so that Grande may shed the image of dumb, blinking teenager she cultivated so carefully through her various arts-related careers. Even the album art flashes big red “MATURITY” lights. Come buy my album,
the Ariana Grande posing vulnerably on the cover with the too-short skirt and the pure white stilettos seems to scream (or croon, or purr, whatever the “mature” alternative to screaming is). I know you admonished
Yours Truly for being too carefree, too saccharine. That was
years ago, darling. You wouldn’t even
believe how I’ve changed since then! Cashmere Cat is here! Childish Gambino is here! Even The Weeknd is here! Just listen to the slick, seductive beats I’ve had prepared special for you. You know you want me, dearest. All this I do for you.
If this sounds a bit unsettling and retrograde, it’s because all the purported maturity Grande was supposed to strut here belies much darker things. Yes, at best the production takes a significant step forward from the hit-or-miss EDM of the worst songs on Yours Truly
: the sexy, simmering snares and synth sidechaining of “Love Me Harder” are pure swagger, a walloping slow-burner for the ages, while the cocksure sax hook from the already-well-tested “Problem” still feels energizing when paired with Big Sean’s one positive contribution to Grande’s music and that signature simplistic 808 bass. The only issue, though, is that the extra-slick instrumentals mask any form of emotional progression Grande might have wanted to show. At times, they’re even too slick: the tom rolls and candy-coated hooks of “One Last Time” make an already uncharacteristically dull vocal performance skew even closer to the no-man’s land of countless ex-TV belles like Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato. The song isn’t bad, sure, but it’s not Grande at her best - it’s crafted as generic as possible, every inch of her voice pumped with maximum memorability and minimum personality.
The unfortunately average vocal performances reveal the root issue with My Everything
: despite all the claims Grande’s PR team might be making about the album as a legitimate step forward from the naivete of Yours Truly
, there’s really no logical progression of maturity to be found here. Grande spends most of the album weeping about the industry-standard nameless lover, at the end of a young romantic fling instead of her previous album’s relationship beginning. She’s older but no wiser, still stuck on someone whom she alternately hates, feels inferior to, is totally done with, and wants to crush. It’s clearly been a breakup about which Grande feels Swiftian levels of anger and sadness, but unlike Taylor’s scathing indictments of her ex-lovers, Grande lets herself be used, a cheater’s “fool.”
So, she’s “matured” in the sense that she’s at the end of a romantic cycle instead of the beginning, yet she can’t take enough pride in herself to become stronger - she’s inextricably tied to a lover who’s not worth her time. This disconnect is made even more disturbing by terribly-placed physical-above-all-else odes like the (gasp!) explicit references to “making love” in “Hands On Me,” complete with a vaguely objectifying and totally out-of-place verse by none other than A$AP Ferg. The unsettling subtext of abuse permeating My Everything
represents the crux of why this album is unenjoyable. It makes it difficult to appreciate an otherwise gorgeous and swanky “Be My Baby” (a shame, as Cashmere Cat really shows his chops as a pop producer). Even worse, it can make seemingly throwaway lines - like the Big Sean clunker “I know sometimes it's hard to realize I'm the man that you need / I had a dream we branched out started a family tree” - almost sinister.
Viewed through this perspective, the cloying closer “My Everything” reveals itself to be close to horrifying. A seeming throwback to the ballad-heavy Yours Truly
, the song’s claims of “He wasn’t my everything till we were nothing” bang harshly against Grande’s accusation that she could “tell that [he was] just with her.” This is precisely where the album fails: the focus is not on Grande as a strong young woman with a fantastic voice. Instead, the focus is on everything but Grande: we only know how she feels through the lens of the mystery man featured here. This is not maturity. This is losing everything to a love that isn’t worth your time. It’s easy to argue that this is the antithesis of any value a young woman looking to Ariana Grande as a role model should have.
Obviously, as a young man who feeds into the energy bestowed upon me by The Patriarchy and such, I’m not in a position to critique Grande for serving as a poor role model. She’s independent (or at least as independent as it’s possible to be as a radio-friendly pop star, fashionista, and ex-TV “starlet”), and has every right to make an album about an abusive relationship she’s faced. After all, so many amazing albums have dealt with less-than-gleaming anti-women issues - the work of Grimes, Sharon Van Etten, and Jessie Ware come to mind. Shouldn’t Grande be able to voice her thoughts and inner demons in a meaningful way? We’ve already come to know her as a bit of an outcast through her interviews, self-described as “literally the most sardonic person you’ve ever met,” and it makes sense that she’d be able to write interesting songs based around rough experiences.
The issue that lies herein is this: there’s a serious rift between the music and the lyrical content. It’s all well and good to deal with tough topics through music, but My Everything
puts on a breezy pop face that severely hinders the potential poignancy of Grande’s words, morphing them into a more disquieting figure. It’s one thing to embrace the melancholy within your words through the music and turn the experience into something more than that, but it’s another thing entirely to shove the lyrics behind happy-go-lucky EDM and sing-along ballad piano. It’s a weird
disconnect, and in this case that weirdness isn’t a good thing at all.
Tying everything back to the idea of the album as a showcase for Grande’s newfound maturity, My Everything
ends up ringing hollow. Of course, it’s quite likely I’m reading far too deeply into this. After all, at face value this is just a somewhat forgettable pop album with extra-smooth production, much like any other eventually faceless Disney star. But in their search for narrative, Grande’s PR team seems to have overlooked a concerning interpretation - one which makes any sort of solely musical appreciation nearly impossible. The frankly awful separation between this and the general carefree attitude of everything about the album, from the production to the features to Grande’s pose on the cover, makes for an uncomfortable experience in the worst way.