Home Music Music Features

Ariana Grande May Be Entering Her Boldest Era Yet

The pop star is gloriously unpredictable — and it feels like she’s playing in a historic league

Ariana Grande

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Ariana Grande has built such a mighty pop legacy over the past decade as one of the most consistently kicky hitmakers around — but also as one of the weirdest minds in the game. “Yes, And?” is her Number One comeback, a disco rage-queen anthem that raises expectations for her long-awaited return, Eternal Sunshine. It’s a brilliantly nasty manifesto to kick off the new Ariana era. She’s just hit her thirties, wrapping up her Saturn return, and she’s making music after a four-year layoff. But she’s got some nonholistic shit to talk about to anyone gossiping about her between albums. “Don’t comment on my body, do not reply,” Ari sneers. “Your business is yours and mine is mine/Why do you care so much whose dick I ride?”

Madonna, one of Grande’s idols, is the guiding spirit of “Yes, And?,” which rides a “Vogue”-style house beat. It’s a clever salute to the queen, who invented this power move of reminding people how controversial you are by complaining how controversial you are. But it’s also a spiritually perfect shout-out at a pivotal time for Grande. She’s 30, around the age when Madonna made her big move into the future with Like a Prayer, the album that catapulted her into one of the most dizzyingly brilliant thirties any pop artist ever had. So for Grande to invoke “Vogue,” right from Madonna’s change-of-decade moment, feels like a bold statement about her ambitions — she wants to play in that historic league. Thirtysomething Madonna had it both ways: sophisticated mega-pop depth and disco bombast. Why shouldn’t Ariana?

For an extra boost of idol juice, Ariana just dropped a remix with guest vocals from Mariah Carey, whom she called “the one and only, queen of my heart and lifelong inspiration.” In a post announcing the remix, Ariana raved, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for this dream come true and for sprinkling your brilliance and magic on my little song.” Mariah replied, “Darling angel, I am so effing excited to be joining you on the yes, and? remix!! This is such a magical moment!!” Ariana also added “I love you eternally,” a possible link between her album title and “You’re Mine (Eternal),” the single from Carey’s 2014 Me. I Am Mariah….The Elusive Chanteuse.

The stakes are high for Eternal Sunshine. Grande set the tone by posting a credo for the new year. “I’ve never felt more at the mercy of and in acceptance of what life was screaming to teach me,” she wrote. Life has been screaming so much wisdom at Ariana, and she’s finally ready to share. After four years, she’s got a lot to prove.

Grande has alway been gloriously unpredictable. When she first made her bones as a real-deal star, it was 10 years ago with her 2014 breakout hit, “Problem,” and her album My Everything. But she came on like a trash-talking kid playing grown-up. Everything about her seemed hyperbolically over-the-top: her Bardot ponytail, her mini-Mariah pipes, her mascara-dripping eye rolls, her perpetually bored scowl of teen contempt. Ten years down the line, she’s proved she’ll try anything for kicks. She does glossy ballads, Euro-sleaze dance bangers, hip-hop sex rants, trap Sound of Music — but it all sounds like her. She broke up with Pete Davidson, rushed out a quickie called “Thank U, Next,” and shocked everyone with one of the decade’s most indelible classics.

Eternal Sunshine is her first new music since her 2020 banger, Positions, the ultimate pandemic-era perv-disco concept album about quarantine madness: a couple locked in the house together so long there’s nothing to do but destroy the furniture in a nature-is-healing sex frenzy. Future historians will pair Positions with Folklore as the yin and yang of lockdown culture, two experimental pop classics lost in cabin fever. Positions holds up insanely well; it sounds better every year. But it’s been a long stretch since the “34+35” days. “You such a dream come true, true/Make a bitch wanna hit snooze, ooh” — those were different times.

Her snooze era was a surprisingly long break for any pop star these days, but especially for Grande, after her bang-bang-bang prolific run of Sweetener, Thank U, Next, and Positions. The faster she worked, the more off-the-dome and eccentric she went, the higher she peaked; her best-loved moments came when she talked her shit and hit send before anyone had time to talk her out of it. But in her years away, her only new music was occasional cameos on other people’s remixes, while filming the upcoming Wicked movies, starring as Glinda. She also made headlines with her marriage, divorce, and on-set romance with co-star Ethan Slater, which gets her rage going on “Yes, And?”

In case anyone forgot those scandals — let’s face it, we’ve all had so many others to keep track of — it’s a clever move to kick off her Eternal Sunshine era with a lead single giving a “previously on Ariana” recap. She’s always had her own flair for surfing her way through the tabloid headlines — that’s how we got “Thank U, Next,” where she turned what could have been the pettiest celebrity shade into a genuinely moving pop life-coach lesson, her most unexpectedly wise homily. But this woman always knows how to embrace controversy, going all the way back to the most iconic crisis of her career, her legendary doughnut-licking scandal of 2015, when she outraged a nation by getting rowdy in a late-night bakery, tasting the goodies and saying, “I hate America.” (Damn it, we need a revival of pop-star pastry dramas.) It was the power move of a true havoc queen.

Eternal Sunshine takes its title from the 2004 Michel Gondry drama about a heartbroken couple who can only move on by getting each other’s lives medically erased from their brains. It suggests Ariana has got some bittersweet memories to purge. She teams up with longtime collaborators Max Martin and Ilya Salmanzadeh, a symbolic full-circle moment, since they were on hand for her coronation with “Problem” and My Everything a decade ago. Entering their thirties is often a moment when pop queens get introspective and decide to make their boldest marks on history — Carole King on Tapestry, Janet Jackson on The Velvet Rope, Taylor Swift on Lover, Joni Mitchell on Hejira, and, of course, Madonna going full-blast into Damn Right I’m Expressing Myself Thanks for Asking mode. So it’s a huge moment for Ariana. Over her amazing past decade, she’s explored pretty much everywhere. But Eternal Sunshine is where she shows the world where she’s ready to go next.

From Rolling Stone US