Ariana Grande is the world’s most confusing pop star

Rebecca Liu
August 17, 2018
Online Only
"Ariana Grande - Oslo Spektrum 2015" by NRK P3 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

There are lot of questions one could ask Ariana Grande. The five-foot-two pop diva has a firm and unassailable commitment to only ever showcasing the left side of her face.  She is rarely – if ever – seen without her trademark tousled ponytail, a  voluminous bouffant of waist-length hair. Over the course of her rise  to fame as a child Broadway star, to Nickelodeon teen bopper, and  finally to full-blown pop 25-year-old icon, she seems to have  race-bended from a pale, wide-eyed floral-tea-dress-adorned ingenue to a  heavily-tanned chanteuse who proselytises about ‘hood love’ in her  upbeat R&B songs. She courts both extreme youth, having most  recently adopted a standard uniform of confectionary pink tutu-like  dresses, and the occasional decorative cat-ear headpiece, alongside  decidedly adult fetish imagery – her Dangerous Woman album,  released in 2016, saw the pop star don black latex bunny ears, singing  about being served such intense dick that you can’t walk straight. She  is the strangest and most mysterious woman in the world.

Ariana has most recently made headlines for her widely-publicised  light-speed romance with Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson, in  which the singer started ‘casually seeing’, then full-on dated, then got  engaged to, and finally moved in with the comedian all within a matter  of weeks. The whirlwind romance has thoughtfully served as a brief but  welcome palliative to the onslaught of horrific political news gripping  our world. The Grande-Davidson coupling (or ‘Grandson’, as they like to  call themselves) contains, much like Ariana herself, a multitude of  mysteries that are both incredibly tedious and deeply fascinating.  What is the real timeline of their relationship? Before  officially dating, both Ariana and Pete broke up with their long-term  significant others, rapper Mac Miller and comedian Cazzie David  respectively, only to get engaged to each other (as noted) after mere  weeks of dating. Why do they keep insisting on wearing hoodies and boots in the sweltering hot New York weather? How is Pete Davidson, a 24 year-old comedian, able to afford a 90k ring? And finally, what grand, cooked-up plan does Larry David have to avenge his daughter, Cazzie?

For fans – or even just followers – of Ariana Grande, her latest  romance is yet another case study in how the Internet, particularly  social media, turns joy into trash, ruins what you love, and makes fools  of us all. What could have been a sweet, if slightly morally dubious,  courtship between two flawed but deeply human public figures, who have  candidly spoken about their struggles with mental health, very real past  traumas and affection for those around them, has turned into a  high-energy shitshow of terrible millennial excess that you somehow  can’t quite ignore.

Since becoming public as a couple in mid-June, a new announcement  arrived in the tabloids. Ariana and Pete get matching tattoos that say  ‘REBORN’ (Pete had to remove the full-face portrait of his ex-girlfriend  on his forearm first). Ariana Grande spills to the world that her  fiancé is equipped with a solid ‘10 inches’. Seth Rogen lightly teases  the couple for their OTT posts on social media – ‘guys seriously’ he  writes on Instagram. Pete Davidson gets defensive in response: ‘when ur getting married to the hottest girl in the world you tell me how you’d act’.  Ariana defends Pete from fans who discover an old comedy routine of  his, that features him joking about the bombing at her Manchester  concert. She further shuts down rumours that her engagement is a PR  stunt, tweeting the now-infamous slogan, ‘Love is lit’. It is the  existential exhaustion of the Royal Wedding all over again, complete  with the high-intensity (and low-stakes) melodrama and mandatory  emotional investment over every little detail; just replace the tiara  with cat-ears, the demure chignons with scalp-defying ponytails, and the  rapacious British tabloids with equally rapacious, disapproving teen  fans –‘ariana better leave pete fuck him she’ll find herself another 10  inch dick #PeteDavidsonIsOverParty’ says one disgruntled tweeter.*

The Grandson drama brings to mind another high profile celebrity  romance of sorts, a coupling between A-list pop star and a seemingly  incongruous actor boyfriend. Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston’s brief but  highly entertaining romance began in June of 2016, when the Sun’s  paparazzo ‘accidently’ caught the couple canoodling (yes, canoodling is  the best word for it) by a rocky Rhode Island beach. Hiddleswift, as  they were called, entertained the world with what looked like highly staged, hilariously over-the-top candids of  the two walking along the beach with Tom’s mum; jet setting around  romantic trips in Rome, small English villages and Sydney, and engaging  in gentle PDA during date nights. Tom even wore a ‘I which he’s later been forced to defend in press junkets. Subtle.

The PR onslaught of these two usually demure celebrities became too  much for the general public – who steadily turned the relationship into a  punchline – and the two broke up three months later. The rumoured  reasons behind the relationship in the first place – that Hiddleston was  allegedly was vying for the role of new James Bond and needed a publicity boost, and Swift was looking for a convenient PR distraction from recent revelations that she had thrown Kanye West under the bus – were never quite solved with their raucous romantic romp, anyway.

And yet public approbation has yet to extinguish the flame of Ariana and Pete’s romance. 1  Ariana Grande, after all, is not Taylor Swift. Whatever chances Ariana  had of being becoming a comparably squeaky-clean, palatably inoffensive  pop star-cum-America’s Sweetheart were promptly and unequivocally dashed  when she entered a doughnut store on a day in July 2015, inexplicably  took a quick lick at a doughnut on display, before proclaiming ‘I hate  America’. The doughnut-lick would cost her a chance to sing at the White  House and widespread condemnation across America. It also, in the end,  granted her her freedom.

Much like the saying that once you’ve hit rock bottom, the only way  to go is up, Ariana Grande’s doughnut-licking adventure saw her commit  the absolute worst possible crime that a celebrity can commit in America  – denounce the country – and from those ashes, rise to escape the  stifling moralising strictures to which former child stars are often  bound. She is, surprisingly, one of the most free pop stars alive. She’s  supported the Black Lives Matter movement, gun control, Planned  Parenthood without incurring the giant public wrath afforded to her  post-child star peers, such as Miley Cyrus, who have chosen similarly  political stances. (Their peers, Selena Gomez, Taylor Swift, and Justin  Bieber have generally preferred silence, or total incoherency.) Her  social media demonstrates a filthy, scatological wit that, under any  other young celebrity’s name, could be a PR nightmare: What’s your  favourite word?’ asked a fan during a Twitter Q&A; ‘Pussy’.

While her peers and their PR teams were busy chasing the  squeaky-clean, inoffensive and personality-lite brand of stardom  valorised by holdover Bush-era Disney executives, Ariana – cast out from  the possibility of ever winning over ‘mainstream America’ – chased her  off-the-wall passions, widely documenting her love for Harry Potter,  macabre Halloween death imagery, Pokemon Go and NASA. Her latest  relationship with Pete Davidson, offers another example of how she’s  grown completely immune to the (ever-shifting) tides of public opinion.  Their constant oversharing, much to everyone else’s exhaustion, comes  across as less coordinated PR stunt à la Hiddleston, and more the  natural and sophomoric expressions of two kids very much in love.

That Ariana Grande is in any sense, ‘free’, may be surprising to  people accustomed to her Lolita-like hypersexualisation; her rapid  physical transformation and inability to be seen in public without a  heavy full-face of makeup and trademark, sky-high ponytail. Shouldn’t a  woman’s readiness to hyper-sexualise oneself in order to appeal to the  male gaze – and reluctance to be seen otherwise – be a sign of disenfranchisement rather than emancipation?  In a review of Dangerous Woman, an album whose lead song featured Ariana in a latex bunny uniform, singing about her readiness for a good fucking, Bustle questioned whether the album was feminist, observing that throughout “Her sense of self seems obscured by her obsessive fixation on her man.” Nevertheless, Bustle conceded that it may, in some vein, be ‘empowering’, citing Sheryl Sandberg’s observation in Lean In that women can consciously ‘choose’ to be homemakers: “if  we really believe in this interpretation of feminist values, then  Grande as a broken, obsessive girlfriend shouldn’t be any less valid  than her as a fulfilled, fully evolved individual who doesn’t rely on  anyone.’

Celebrities are more interesting when examined as value-laden  signifiers of our cultural moment than as genuine people unto  themselves – this is the Faustian pact they make with fame; your public  image comes at the expense of your humanity. Ariana’s feminism – or  rather, what Ariana Grande can teach us about feminism –  performs the same function. The popular cultural panic around her image  reveals more about our public panics around feminism, than the actual  person herself. In this case, it is our culture’s demand for Ariana to  perform a moral consistency between her rhetoric and her image;  to heed the widely-accepted understanding that as a self-proclaimed  Feminist, to recognise that it is decidedly Unfeminist and Morally Bad  for a woman to court the male gaze – never mind looking like a very  young, but very hypersexualised, girl when doing so.

But to what extent is this moderation of one’s self-presentation  – and personal desires – for political consistency fruitful, or even  possible? Writing about the struggle of trans women to negotiate their  attraction toward traditional femininity, Andrea Long Chu notes in n+1  that “When the airline loses your luggage, you are not making a  principled political statement about the tyranny of private property;  you just want your goddamn luggage back”. Chu’s own transition to  womanhood was spurred by a desire for gossip and compliments, lipstick  and mascara… for Daisy Dukes, bikini tops, and all the dresses, and, my  god, for the breasts”. These are elements she concedes that certain  radical feminists would deem ‘trappings of patriarchal femininity’ and  she reflects, “perhaps my consciousness needs raising. I muster a  shrug.”

Desire, sometimes, is just desire. We can try to temper certain  personal inclinations that may cause others harm – and, of course,  should – but any project that demands us to exorcise all ‘Unfeminist’  elements of our psyche in the name of an ascetic political ‘empowerment  amounts to a fruitless self-struggle session that will lead us nowhere  but self-hatred. Anti-imperialist women of colour will still marry white  men; trans women – who are women – will continue to covet signifiers of  femininity; self-declared feminist pop-stars will continue to wear  thigh-high boots, pink frilly dresses, and densely-drawn cat eye  eyeliners.

To accept the limits of policing desire is not to endorse a form of  meaningless moral nihilism, in which one’s political beliefs can be  completely separated from one’s personal self-presentation and lived  values. It is, rather, to leave a space for personal contradiction,  failure, and absurdity that does not heed the black-and-white Manichean  righteousness of self-assured political rhetoric. Sometimes that means  really going for it and getting married to the dorky,  conventionally ‘unattractive’ SNL comedian from Staten Island who you’ve  only been seeing for weeks, in spite of all the press and popular  indignation towards stupid young people engaging in stupid young love.  Contemporary variants of feminism, philosopher Jacqueline Rose has  observed, suffers from its disproportionate demand that women ‘enter the  corridors of power’ through the power of reason. Instead, she  posits, ‘there’s a darkness to the human psyche’; with genuine  emancipation, ‘you won’t have to wipe it out, you won’t have to stamp on  it, you won’t have to re-repress it in the name of some harmonious form  of psychosocial identity’.

We would do well to heed this directive about embracing the darker,  less knowable recesses of the human mind. in After all, Ariana has.  Responding to criticisms about her feminism, and her readiness to  present herself as scantily-clad, ponytailed sexual object adorned in  designer clothing, she tells Billboard; “I’ll be in the produce  aisle, naked at 95, with a sensible ponytail, one strand of hair left  on my head and a Chanel bow. Mark my words. See you there with my 95  dogs.” It’s the humorous and bewildering battle of cry of a young woman  who is both incredibly commodified, and yet also free.



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Rebecca Liu