Review Summary: Wrong Heads Ariana Grande Wrong Bodies Max Martin Pharrell Williams TBHits | Cartoon Animation Cool Fun 47 Minutes
In his 2017 essay “Something is wrong on the internet,” technology writer James Bridle delineates the horrifying relationship between young children who watch YouTube videos, creators who make those videos, and the YouTube recommendation system which connects them. The author’s central conceit is that when relatively unsupervised machine-learning tools are applied to the experiences of particular sets of end-users, particularly ones as powerless and impressionable as children, deeply disturbing things can result. Bridle argues that the relentless regurgitation of algorithmically salient keywords and the search engine optimization power of including them in a video encourages low- and mid-budget YouTube producers to churn out content packaged within recommendation-friendly templates at a breakneck pace. He examines a couple of these templates, which are at best innocuous (toy unboxing videos, for example) and at worst content that under no circumstances should be recommended to children (bootlegged videos of Peppa Pig being tortured by a dentist or drinking bleach are tame compared to others online).
One of the trends Bridle discusses is “Wrong Head,” a style of video in which the creator separates cartoon heads from their associated bodies and shuffles them among other now-headless bodies for a while. Though certainly closer to the innocuous end of the bizarre-kids’-video spectrum, these videos are nevertheless unsettling enough that most of the featured characters’ target demographic should not be watching them, especially without parental oversight. (I know I would have had nightmares for days if I’d unknowingly clicked on any of these videos at age six or seven.) Elsa’s head plastered upon Wreck-it Ralph’s neck isn’t inherently inappropriate, but it is certainly uncanny to see that head smiling or giggling blithely as though nothing were wrong, and, as Bridle notes, it is even more so to see that head sobbing as it grasps the magnitude of that situation’s wrongness.
in a nutshell. The album is essentially an exercise in “Wrong Head,” Ariana Grande’s head passed between the bodies of the two producers who dominate its sound. Grande, who for her past two albums had entrusted Swedish savant Max Martin with shaping the majority of her artistic signature, opted to include the equally prodigious Pharrell Williams as part of her primary songwriting team. Sweetener
, in no small part thanks to Pharrell’s iconoclastic distillations of her bombast, has been touted as Grande’s most groundbreaking, boundary-pushing album yet. It is certainly her least straightforward, the streamlined perfection of Martin’s work inverted, twisted, and shredded by Pharrell’s spartan 808s and hi-hat hisses.
Unfortunately, the latter producer’s mechanical coldness tends not to suit Grande very well. The singer’s voice is stunningly emotive, but when she restrains it to suit Pharrell’s compositions the result is inexcusably bland, Elsa sobbing on top of a body that isn’t hers. Of course, it doesn’t help that his productions are wildly inconsistent; while their highs together are astronomically high, their lows are even lower. I cannot say enough good things about “the light is coming,” sinewy kicks and extraterrestrial bleeps strangling its vocal sample as lithely and effortlessly as a python while Grande breathily kisses off the song’s subject. I similarly cannot say enough bad things about the title track, a shambling Frankenstein of bizarre pop-music ephemera - an uncomfortable, memeable triplet-flow chorus from Lil Pump’s playbook, flat piano chords from gnash’s, and ad-libs from, uh, LeBron’s？- stitched together with the fastidious attention to detail of the aforementioned YouTube Kids algorithm.
Moreover, the transitions between the two producers’ modi operandi induce a mood whiplash painful enough to stonewall the album’s flow. Pharrell’s kitchen-sink minimalism and Martin’s tightly-controlled maximalism complement each other poorly, and the dueling sounds spend their time fighting for prominence instead of symbiotically bringing out the best in each other. Many of the songs here work better as isolated singles than in the context of Sweetener
as a whole. “God is a woman” on its own is utterly majestic, Grande a firework soaring over the glorious neon of Martin protégé Ilya’s wormhole bass; “R.E.M,” a Pharrell-penned preceding track so torpid that even Grande asks “does this end？” near its conclusion, robs the former song’s opening guitars of their otherwise supernatural power. “borderline,” an impossibly suave encapsulation of the Neptunes’ sound at its best, but right after the colossal groove of “no tears left to cry” its sinuous bass feel like drinking three cups of coffee too many the morning after a late night out.
To be fair, Pharrell’s incongruity is partially attributable to the way Grande has spent the past half-decade defining her sound. She and Martin have worked so closely together for so long that his sonic fingerprint is inextricably intertwined with hers. When she’s firing on all cylinders - “Love Me Harder,” “Problem,” “Into You” - Grande makes the whole world spin, singing so commandingly and tempestuously over such ruthlessly grandiloquent production that nothing else matters until the song ends and the listener can finally reacclimate to the world around them. Martin’s brand of pop production is defined by that same immediate viscerality, and - as with their previous collaborations - their work together here is unconscionably powerful, particularly the slithering bass of “everytime,” embedding itself so far in the listener’s gut that it’s hard to imagine life before it could have even happened. When Grande swaps him out for someone else, though, be it Pharrell and his disaffected cool or the aqueous, immersive melodies of frequent collaborator TBHits’ Chainsmokers-leaning works on the album’s back quarter, it sounds wrong. Grande’s head is usually in the right place when it’s over Martin; when it’s not, the result ends up uncanny and inhuman.
Isn’t that appropriate, though？After all, this album is called Sweetener
. “Sweetener” implies something augmentative and artificial, Splenda added to coffee to make it more palatable. Grande is adding herself to several distinct sonic palates, putting her own indelible stamp on fundamentally disparate productions while letting them exist in different spaces. It doesn’t sound as free and natural as much of her previous work, but maybe that awkward hollowness is the point. We know Grande enjoys making people squirm: she’s laughed about “all her friends le[aving] crying” from a Jaws-themed birthday party she hosted when she was five, and says she’s “still that way” years later. If she’s trying to unsettle her listeners, she’s certainly succeeding.
That said, I think there’s a fundamental difference between playing with discomfort and playing with discomfort in a productive way, and I’m not convinced Sweetener
is the latter. On a perfect album, Grande should be able to swirl a myriad of diffuse instrumentation into a potent brew with her lightning-rod vocal presence, but that’s not what happened here. Off-kilter pop can be revelatory, but awkwardly and inexplicably wrong-sounding off-kilter pop - especially when threaded around particularly effective pop playing to previously-acknowledged strengths - usually isn’t anything more than the surface-level reaction it evokes. “Wrong Head” videos, in wholesale slapping one head onto another barely-related body, are disconcerting without resolution, only satisfying when the proper parts align; Sweetener
, unfortunately, is no different.