Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Ariana Grande eternal sunshine


Are you caught up on the grand narrative of Ariana Grande’s personal life? I wasn’t. When she was engaged to Pete Davidson, I knew all about that. You couldn’t be anywhere near a computer in 2018 and not know all about that. They were attention magnets, meme-bait — the picture with the lollipop, big dick energy, the inevitable breakup, all that stuff. When Ariana Grande turned all that stuff into her delirious hair-flipping confection “thank u, next,” it was both fun and smart. She harnessed the dangerous power of public attention and used it to fuel a light, shimmering jam. But if she was counting on her ability to do the same thing with complicated grown-up situations, then maybe she should’ve thought again.

eternal sunshine, the first new Ariana Grande album in more than three years, assumes your working knowledge of her past few years of romantic entanglement. If you don’t know all that stuff, then it’s like watching a sequel when you haven’t seen the first movie. You can mostly pick up on what’s happening, but you don’t get the full picture. So: Ariana Grande started dating an LA real estate guy named Dalton Gomez early in 2020. They quarantined together, and Grande made a whole album, 2020’s not-that-exciting Positions, about how much she enjoyed sex with him. They stayed together for about two years and got divorced last year. Now, she’s with Ethan Slater, the guy who played Spongebob Squarepants on Broadway. Up until last year, Slater was married to his former high-school sweetheart, and they have a small kid together. So now Grande’s dealing with a situation where even some of her fans are mad at her for being a homewrecker.

Do you care about any of this? It’s fine if you don’t. I can’t bring myself to get too worked up about it. Once upon a time, we didn’t need to know anything about a pop star’s personal life. When Grande first appeared on the scene, people still heard new music that they liked on the radio. Grande worked within the song-factory system and recorded hit singles that were assembled by some of the best writers and producers out there. Back then, that was the job. She had an incredibly rich and fluid voice that immediately recalled ’90s R&B stars like Mariah Carey, and she put tons of personality into her records, but nobody thought those songs were diary entries.

Grande has been famous for a little over a decade now, and the institution of pop stardom has been through big changes in that time. Radio stopped mattering. Streaming became the thing. Now, even the biggest pop stars aren’t necessarily singing to general audiences. They’re speaking directly to their established fanbases. Every new album rollout is supposed to herald a new era, and its supposed to work as a treatise on the present state of the star’s life. These days, it can be exhausting just to be a fan. You can’t just enjoy the songs. The songs have to be part of some larger brand. It’s too much.

Ariana Grande handled that transition better than just about any other pop star. That was the pixie dust of her 2019 album thank u, next, a clear career pinnacle. The world knew about the tragic and embarrassing things that had happened with Grande’s life story, and she weaponized that shared knowledge by using it to power a set of breezy, conversational bangers. On eternal sunshine, she’s dealing with a different set of circumstances, so she’s made an album about divorce and therapy and the moment when you realize that you need to move on without someone. Can you use those songs? Make them part of your life? Listen to them when you’re getting ready in the morning, or working out, or commuting, or out with friends? I don’t know. I’ll be curious to see.

eternal sunshine opens with soft strings and dreamily flanged-out guitars, and then we hear Ariana Grande asking, “How can I tell if I’m in the right relationship? Aren’t you really supposed to know that shit?” It’s a quick sketch of an intro, just a minute and a half, but it’s all about Grande at the crossroads, trying to figure out if she should be with the person she’s with now or the new one who’s caught her eye. She then spends the rest of the album figuring that question out for herself, as if we didn’t already know the answer.

To her credit, Ariana Grande does not try to build suspense. The first proper song on eternal sunshine is called “bye,” and she spends the album’s early tracks hammering all the reasons that a relationship didn’t work out: “Spent so much on therapy/ Blamed my own codependency/ But you didn’t even try.” The guy is now with someone else, and that seems to piss her off: “Hope you feel all right when you’re in her.” (That line has already become a TMZ story.) But Grande’s narrator has moved on, too. She’s taking tentative steps toward something new, but she’s still working on herself: “Usually, I’m fucked up, anxious, too much/ But I’ll love you like you need me to/ Imperfect for you.”

So we’re dealing with another album that’s full of therapy-speak. Ariana Grande is 30 now, so there’s an obligatory interlude about her Saturn return, sampled from a YouTube video from an apparently-famous astrologer. Kacey Musgraves and SZA are singing about their Saturn returns, too, and plenty of Grande’s pop-star peers are making their therapy albums. I guess it makes sense. You sing about what you know, and therapy can be an all-consuming process that comes to dominate your thoughts. But it’s not that much fun. Given that pop music is supposed to be fun, that can be an issue.

Which brings us to the music. Max Martin, eternal baron of megawatt hooks, has his name on virtually every eternal sunshine track. So many Max Martin tracks, including many that he’s made with Ariana Grande, are unstoppable pop bulldozers, songs that smash their way into your brain and refuse to leave. But that’s not the sound that Grande wants on eternal sunshine. Instead, it’s a gentle, feathery, internal record. It’s music to vibe to.

A lot of this music is really good. Lead single “yes and?,” with its frisky early-’90s house beat, is an outlier, but it’s a fun one. Most of the tracks are softer and slinkier, and the hooks still connect. “bye” is all crushed-velvet disco texture. “we can’t be friends (wait for love)” has a warm electro burble that recalls OG Max Martin collaborator Robyn, even if Grande’s vocal approach is very different. Other tracks sound like Max Martin and his collaborators trying to evoke ’90s R&B. That’s basically what Martin was trying to do when he was crafting boy-band smashes in the TRL era, but the newer tracks don’t have the same trashy insistence. Instead, they have a way of floating pleasantly into the background.

Ariana Grande seems to want this album to float pleasantly into the background. Her vocals on eternal sunshine are quietly incredible, but they’re nowhere near as showy as her older records. (I guess Grande can now indulge those big-note impulses in the Wicked movie.) Instead, she uses her voice as a texture, gently gliding over tracks and flipping butterfly-style curlicues of melisma. It’s soothing. It’s flows past so easily. When I gave it the car test this morning, it made the first spring blossoms look even nicer. If you’re going to turn your therapy-heavy romantic-history reflections into something that can become part of regular people’s lives, that’s one way to do it. Ariana Grande made a pop album that sounds really nice. She did her job.

If eternal sunshine feels slight, that’s probably by design. It’s a choice, for instance, to make a whole album with no big-name guests. The only featured appearance on the record goes to Grande’s grandmother, who shows up at the end to dispense wisdom about how love should make you feel. The tracks on this album do not herald themselves as events. She’s not making highlight-of-the-night songs, songs that will fuck your life up you hear them at just the right point of inebriation. That’s not the job anymore.

There’s a song on eternal sunshine called “the boy is mine.” It’s supposedly inspired by Brandy and Monica’s monstrously popular 1998 duet, even if it doesn’t really sample or interpolate that song. Grande is the only voice on “the boy is mine,” and it’s a meditation on the unexpected places that life takes you. There’s some light taunting, maybe, but it fits the whole take-your-man concept into a general self-actualization narrative. The original “Boy Is Mine,” meanwhile, was inspired by a Jerry Springer episode, and it was sung by two teenage stars who actively hated each other. The boy wasn’t real, but that didn’t matter. The frisson was there.

There are so many pretty moments on eternal sunshine. It’s such a pleasant record, such an easy way to spend 35 minutes. I’m hearing it for the first time today, but I could see these songs sticking around. Maybe it’ll be the record I put on when I’m washing dishes a couple of weeks from now. Maybe I’ll use it to unwind after a long day. But the songs on eternal sunshine don’t have that give-and-take, that energetic charge. They’re too internal for that, and that internality is what prevents eternal sunshine from becoming great pop music. Grande’s not really singing to us anymore. She assumes that we know everything she’s got going on, and she’s letting us listen while she sings to herself.

eternal sunshine is out now on Republic.

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