Ariana Grande was responsible for the best pop song of 2016 (“Into You”). She also had the best pop song of 2014 (“Problem”), and some would argue that her My Everything was that year’s best pop album, too. Last year’s Dangerous Woman was dope as well — maybe not a masterpiece event album on par with Lemonade, but a brutally efficient hit-making machine front-loaded with monster jams. She can sing with the fiery power of an American Idol winner. She can carry herself like a model when the context demands it. She’s funny enough to hold her own in late-night TV comedy bits. She’s one of the best pop stars we’ve got, so she should have one of the best tours, too.
You go to enough big-budget pop superstar arena tours, you come to expect a certain level of pizzazz. More so than any other kind of musicians, pop stars are entertainers. Their shows are supposed to be spectacles; it justifies the exorbitant ticket prices and adds to the mystique that has become an important component of modern pop stardom, even among pop stars whose whole deal is that they’re Down To Earth and Just Like You and So Totally Connected With Their Fans. Over the years, I’ve seen Beyoncé dazzle Jay Z off the stage; I’ve witnessed a theatrical Lady Gaga triumph circa Born This Way; I’ve watched Taylor Swift’s pageantry progress from cute to commanding as she evolved from Speak Now to Red to 1989. Arena rap shows from Drake and Kanye West have delivered similar thrills, usually setting the performer against ridiculously elaborate backdrops and eventually sending them flying around the room. When you see one of the biggest stars in the world, it tends to be an ordeal.
The Dangerous Woman Tour, which I caught in Columbus last week, played like the junior varsity version of an ordeal. Major pop stage productions tend to be entertaining enough to trick you into liking artists you might otherwise despise. In this case, I left wondering if my appreciation for Grande was misplaced. Upon revisiting Dangerous Woman, it’s clear she’s on the right track. This show, though, was not a sterling advertisement. There was no “Wow!” factor. The best I can say is it was mostly competent, punctuated by a few disconcertingly rare flashes of excitement.
Part of the problem is that Grande doesn’t yet have enough bangers in her catalog to carry an entire headlining performance. Her great songs are phenomenally great, but even with the set contained to a relatively short 90 minutes, there was a lot of filler padding out her best material. It’s hard to whip thousands of people into a fervor with deep cuts that aren’t on par with your hits. Even the singles from Grande’s teen-targeted debut Yours Truly would have been a welcome addition, but that album went entirely unrepresented. It didn’t help that some of the more average tracks also suffered from less engaging choreography and stagecraft, as if they blew their budget on the hits and were left scrambling with no plan for everything else. Nor did Grande help herself by performing an alternate version of “Problem” that robbed the song of its vibrant hip-hop flavor.
At certain climactic moments Grande had the chance to show off her vocal prowess, and she absolutely nailed those opportunities. (She’s also exceptional at wearing jackets that appear to be in a perpetual state of falling off yet defy gravity by remaining on one arm.) Too often, her vocals were swallowed up by a muddy sound mix that also obscured whatever nuance her band might have provided. The stage and catwalk were spartan, but during interludes they were occasionally covered with fog effects that turned the surface into a billowing cloud. The minimalism put a lot of pressure on Grande and her dancers, whose routines looked simplistic and sometimes not particularly in sync. The images on her massive video display, state-of-the-art in a way the rest of the show was not, often stole attention from what was happening in the room.
Ultimately, any set that includes “Be Alright,” “Bang Bang,” “Break Free,” “One Last Time,” “Love Me Harder,” “Side To Side” (complete with the bicycle setup from the music video) and especially a triumphant show-closing “Into You” is not a total loss. Furthermore, where Grande’s gig really shined was in the encore. She emerged in a wonderfully ridiculous shiny black ball gown that made her look like a Disney villain and performed “Dangerous Woman” while pyrotechnics broke out all over the stage. At one point her guitarist emerged to play the kind of guitar solo rarely seen since Eddie Van Halen’s heyday — and why not? Bring on the ostentation! If you’re going to drag 15,000 people to an arena, you might as well put on a show.
We all knew this was coming, and now it’s official: Ed Sheeran’s ÷ has become the year’s biggest-debuting album by far. Per Billboard, it enters the Billboard 200 at #1 this week with 451,000 equivalent units and 322,000 in pure album sales, the best totals since J. Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only did 492,000/363,000 last March. It’s Sheeran’s second #1 following 2014’s x, which sold 209,000 in its first week (this was before Billboard began factoring streaming into its chart rankings). Sheeran’s sales figures are so dominant that ÷ is already the year’s bestselling album after just one week.
Metallica’s Hardwired… To Self-Destruct hops back up to #2 with 81,000 units/79,000 sales thanks to a bundling deal with ticket sales for their upcoming tour. Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic is at #3, followed by Future’s recent chart-toppers FUTURE (#4) and HNDRXX (#5). After Migos’ Culture at #6, the Weeknd’s Starboy at #7, and the Moana soundtrack at #8 comes the week’s next debut, 19-year-old El Paso R&B singer Khalid’s American Teen, starting at #9 with 37,000 units/12,000 sales, powered by his rising single “Location,” up to a new #38 peak on the Hot 100 this week. The Trolls soundtrack closes out the top 10.
Back to the Hot 100, which is also ruled by Sheeran this week. “Shape Of You” is #1 for a seventh nonconsecutive week. Migos and Lil Uzi Vert’s former #1 “Bad And Boujee” remains at #2, while Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” hits a new #3 peak, becoming the highest-charting song off of 24K Magic so far. That bumps Zayn and Taylor Swift’s “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker)” down to #4.
Billboard points out a number of statistical feats in the top 10 this week, including Rihanna scoring her 22nd top-5 hit as “Love On The Brain” climbs to #5. Only the Beatles (29), Madonna (28), Mariah Carey (26), and Janet Jackson (24) have more. Also reaching a new high is Kodak Black’s “Tunnel Vision” at #6. The Chainsmokers’ “Paris” stays at #7, while Big Sean’s “Bounce Back” is back up to #8. Clean Bandit’s “Rockabye” featuring Sean Paul and Anne-Marie soars 15 spots to #9, surpassing the #10-peaking “Rather Be” to become the group’s highest-charting hit. And by remaining at #10 this week, the Chainsmokers and Halsey’s “Closer” ties LeAnn Rimes’ record 32 weeks in the top 10 with “How Do I Live.”
Lorde – “Liability”
I thought this song was merely OK when it dropped, but with a week to warm up to it, warm up to it I did. Just as “Green Light” takes mainstream pop tropes and makes them distinctly Lorde-ian, this transforms the weepy piano ballad into something entirely her own.
Pitbull & J Balvin – “Hey Ma” (Feat. Camila Cabello)
This Cuban-Colombian connection from The Fate Of The Furious is one of those hits I personally would probably not queue up myself but would definitely dance to if somebody else put it on. The hook is contagious, and Pitbull’s rapping is less annoying than it tends to be.
Imagine Dragons – “Believer”
This sounds like it will become Imagine Dragons’ biggest song since “Radioactive,” perhaps since pop song doctors Mattman & Robin and Justin Tranter co-wrote it with the band. The video has Dolph Lundgren in it, so that’s something.
Ricky Reed – “Joan Of Arc”
Reed, also known as Wallpaper, is the producer behind an armload of this decade’s pop hits: Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty,” Meghan Trainor’s “No,” Fifth Harmony’s “BO$$,” and half of the last Twenty One Pilots album. He attempted a performance career under the Wallpaper name before his songwriting gig took off, and now that he’s established a lot more clout, the solo pursuit is back on. Alas, the new track isn’t on par with his work for other artists.
Tinashe – “Flame” / Weezer – “Feels Like Summer”
Here are two artists that exist near the top-40 pop sphere trying to plunge headfirst into it. Tinashe’s song I wouldn’t mind hearing on the radio all summer, but I fear Weezer’s is the one that might catch on. I can’t bring myself to listen to the whole thing, yet I can’t stop hearing it in my head.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- The Chainsmokers announced their Memories… Do Not Open tracklist, with features from Florida Georgia Line, Jhene Aiko, Emily Warren, and Louane. [Facebook]
- Matt Healy has big ambitions for the new 1975 LP: “If you look at third albums, OK Computer or The Queen Is Dead, that’s what we need to do.” [NME]
- Here’s Diplo on the recent lack of Jack Ü material: “The thing with Jack Ü is complicated, because of Atlantic. Skrillex is signed to that label and it’s difficult to do anything with that. I hate major labels, so I don’t really want to do anything with major labels.” [In The Mix]
- Ed Sheeran has reportedly invested in the skate-inspired clothing label Hoax. [The Sun]
- Kesha’s former attorney Mark Geragos must submit to a deposition in Dr. Luke’s lawsuit again the pop star. Dr. Luke alleges Kesha had orchestrated a smear campaign against him. [THR]
- Here’s a “Bad And Boujee” history lesson about the Civil War. [AJC]
- Noah Cyrus and Labrinth played “Make Me (Cry)” on Ellen. [YouTube]
- Katy Perry teased another new song, “Deja Vu,” on her Instagram Story. [Twitter]
- Pitbull will receive the first-ever Global Ambassador Award at the 2017 Songwriters Hall Of Fame. [Vibe]
- Shawn Mendes will star in Ivan Reitman’s musical Summer Of Love. [THR]
- James Blunt wrote a tribute song for Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds’ public memorial to be held at Forest Lawn later this month. [TMZ]
- Adele told Brisbane fans she has a secret Twitter since her management banned her from tweeting on her own. [The Sun]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
— Elmo (@elmo) March 10, 2017
HOLD ON, WE’RE STILL GOING HOME
robber: make one move and i'll shoot
— e (@beyonseh) March 13, 2017