Ariana Grande’s debut album starts with a whoosh of strings, twirling like the spell that magicked Cinderella into her ballgown. The next track, “Baby I,” begins with the LucasArts THX intro, just before brass hits lock into place like spotlights. They’re less hooks than overtures, the first few notes before the curtain rises on the starlet’s stage.
Unfortunately for everyone, ourselves included, the anniversary of Yours Truly — released 10 years ago today — has been overshadowed by sordid extramusical stuff that, having now acknowledged, we no longer need to mention! Let’s instead go back, as the song goes, to the way it was. Before becoming a pop princess-in-waiting, Ariana Grande was known as exuberant performer Cat Valentine from the Nickelodeon sitcoms Victorious and its spinoff Sam & Cat. By all accounts, Grande was one of the network’s rising stars, with quick comic timing and the wacky theater-kid charm she honed as a tween Broadway star. (That charm extended into her interviews, full of wildcard anecdotes like the 666 megabytes of demon pics she captured above a portal to hell.) Victorious was set at a performing-arts school, immersing Grande in industry fiction designed to become reality. And kid TV had a decades-long track record of launching musical careers, from the Mickey Mouse Club alumni at the turn of the century to Disney stars like Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato.
That was the pitch, the happy path. But as we now know, the work environment at Nickelodeon in the 2000s was backbiting and nightmarish at best. Nightmarish work environments don’t tend to be well-organized star-making machines. They shove their alumni into battles against each other (the Nickelodeon reporting revealed how the network cultivated friction between its stars by selectively parceling out lead roles) as well as against the already spotty odds. The Nick victor – because by backbiting logic there can be only one – could well have been iCarly star Miranda Cosgrove or Victoria Justice, for whom Victorious was named. Their singles, “Kissin’ U” and “Gold,” both had major hitmakers (Dr. Luke and Tove Lo respectively) sculpting each corner of every note for maximum pop appeal. Neither of them led to a 10-year album retrospective. Nothing is pre-ordained.
Yours Truly was not, technically, Ariana Grande’s first release. That was 2011’s “Put Your Hearts Up,” a derivative melange of 50% 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up,” 45% Beyonce’s “Halo,” and, strangely, 5% Hot Butter’s “Popcorn.” Grande took less than one album cycle to call the whole experience “straight out of hell“; many fans have retconned the single as not actually Ariana’s debut, but Cat’s. Let’s be completely, un-room-readingly honest with ourselves: The song wasn’t that bad. But it certainly was that cynical. Bafflingly called “alternative” by songwriter Matt Squire, whose Discogs page is a potent, very specifically 2011 time trip (All Time Low! Big Time Rush! Boy bands without “time” in the name!), “Put Your Hearts Up” was pure deliverable, the answer to a sales pitch that really deserves to be excerpted in full: “She’s a huge star who has 3 million followers on Twitter. The identity that she is known for won’t work for what we do here. Can we find musically, a solution, where we can bridge the gap?”
But cynical industry bullshit doesn’t keep itself contained to songs people don’t like. Much of Yours Truly came out of the same sessions as “Put Your Hearts Up.” It was Grande “for kids” – specifically, to distance her from the raunchier sounds of peers like Miley Cyrus, then at her twerking peak of notoriety. Instead of good-girl-gone-bad, she’d be good-girl-gone-frilly, like a 10-years-earlier TikTok coquette. In a line almost everyone quoted, “Tattooed Heart” gets explicit and coos at her love her deepest desire… to be “going steady like it’s 1955.”
Taken literally, this steered Grande’s team toward vintage-repro versions of doo-wop and Motown cuts: if not 1955, then close enough. But taken as a vibe, this suggested the fluting, flirty sounds of ’90s R&B: sung by starlets like Mariah Carey and written by balladeers like Babyface, whom Grande’s team brought in as a lead songwriter. This sound, several decades later, was both nostalgic for Grande’s millennial audience and (rightly or not) perceived as more chaste. Grande was an ideal vessel for this aesthetic: she shared that nostalgia and had the flexible, fluttery voice to embody it. But a lot of the Yours Truly material, including lead single “The Way,” wasn’t originally meant for Grande, but for American Idol winner Jordin Sparks. According to the other lead Yours Truly songwriter, Harmony Samuels, Sparks was “the blueprint behind who Ari is now…. [The] vision was for Jordin to be that person.” (While we’re talking blueprints, credit should also go to Yours Truly contributor Victoria Monét, who recently broke out with Ari-esque Jaguar II.)
Sparks’ label, RCA, didn’t think that would catch on – which is telling. It’s hard to imagine now, after Sweetener and thank u, next refined the sound into a mega-selling art, but in 2013, making a Mariah-worshipping album was simply not the move. What was the move, though? The industry had no idea. After years of EDM-pop, everyone was partied out. Billboard had just added YouTube views to its Hot 100 chart-calculating formula, a move whose supposed anarchic effect on the charts was a little overhyped – which is not to say there wasn’t anarchy. Seemingly every week, the charts were crashed by relative randos, from altrock-leaning tracks like Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” and fun.’s “We Are Young,” to novelty extravaganzas like Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” even little-known Canadian Idol contestants. Doo-wop pop hadn’t yet become Meghan Trainor thinkpiece bait. People were still saying “PBR&B.” Anything could happen – why not this?
Regardless, Ariana did things the tried-and-true way for a young pop star in 2013 managed by Scooter Braun: opening for Justin Bieber, singing a cappella Adele on YouTube. Meanwhile, Grande was picking up a new following — not just Nickelodeon fans, but music critics who realized that this thing might actually be pretty good, if only for sounding nothing like Dr. Luke or David Guetta. The New York Times compared the record to American Idol and Glee. Pitchfork hadn’t fully committed to covering pop music yet, let alone pop music by Nickelodeon kids, but gave Yours Truly a nod regardless – albeit while dropping the equivocation bomb “why should you care about any of this?” in paragraph one. They likened it to old Hollywood and Grease.
To Grande’s slight annoyance, everyone picked up on the Mariah influence — how could they not? The nods were clear. On “Baby I,” she spirals high into an impressive mini-version of the acrobatic “Emotions” melisma. “Right There” has a hook a few notes shy of “Always Be My Baby.” Even the samples are key: Brenda Russell via Big Pun’s “Still Not a Player,” Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love,” and a bit from smooth-jazzer Jeff Lorber’s “Rain Dance” that Lil’ Kim and SWV both did before. (But not Mariah – in a case of mentor following protege, she’d flip the sample five years later on “A No No.”)
For all Yours Truly’s clarity of vision, there’s still the pop-debut tradition of fumbling around with potential new sounds. As is often the case, most of the weaker tracks are the ones with the highly early-2010s guests. “Almost Is Never Enough,” a ballad with the Wanted(!)’s Nathan Sykes, commits to the ’90s R&B bit with a facsimile of its filler, while the Mika(!!) collab “Popular Song” interpolates Wicked, but hey, maybe it helped Ari get cast as Glinda in the film adaptation. Rappers Big Sean and Mac Miller have the unenviable task of introducing the exact most acceptable amount of sexual tension and not a frisson more, which mostly means stuff like Sean boasting about the missionary position on “Right There.” “Better Left Unsaid” doesn’t have a credited guest but a spiritual one: the floor-crashing demon of party rock grabbing the mic a minute in with an EDM breakdown. The track, one of the cuts intended for Jordin Sparks, was originally called “Tipsy”; you can tell.
On “Piano,” Grande directly addresses this. The song smashes together the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” and RENT’s “Take Me Or Leave Me” into a song about how Ariana Grande really, really wanted to make dance-pop instead. Fittingly, once she was actually making dance-pop with Max Martin and Zedd, “Piano” disappeared from her setlist for several years, only re-emerging on the Sweetener tour. The timing fit: By then Grande had blended them both into one chart-ruling sound. If she doubted she’d pull it off, you’d never know; as she sang, in a bit of boasting that she’d soon prove right: “It’s not hard.”