Album Review: Ariana Grande – Positions

[Republic; 2020]

What’s fascinating about Ariana Grande is her overt quest for power. “thank u, next” is, at its core, a motto for consumerist rebranding of the human flesh: once we’ve fulfilled someone else’s desire, we’re disposable units, recounted as lessons. “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored!” assesses the singer’s authority over the male object, denigrating the sisterhood inherent to modern day feminism as a lie. Even though you, too, might have a personality, desires or dreams, to Ariana Grande you are simply. not. there.; a shadow of DMs in her new lover’s inbox’s past. “7 rings” clarifies that there’s no whores in the house that Ariana built, instead she’s become a savage who would “rather be tied up with calls and not strings” – so it’s not purely sexual power she seeks. It’s also: money! “Whoever said money can’t solve your problems / must not have had enough money to solve ’em,” go the lyrics.

Who is Ariana Grande? The 27 year old Italian-American actress and singer has dodged that question with surgical precision over the past couple of years, instead creating a glamour-image that led some fans to ask uncomfortable questions of authenticity. By now, the RnB diva we know hardly resembles the young actress starring in the teen sitcom Victorious, where, according to a youtube video uploaded on the 6th of January this year, her character was regularly ‘hate crimed’. Playing the tomato-haired Cat Valentine, Grande perfected an odd personality that combined the cliché of the big-eyed doofus with goofy childlike innocence, functioning as punching bag for the rest of the cast. In a show where grown ups played high-schoolers, her ditziness seemed almost authentic, especially when she impersonated dogs, which happened more than once and is not a thing a normal high schooler would do. But the veiled truth behind the character’s demeanor is darker than expected: Cat often colourfully recounts her brother’s borderline psychotic behaviour, which has, in the past, resulted in him getting stabbed in Japan, falling out of a hotel window, and shot by a clown. This resulted in him getting secretly medicated by his mother, who hides drugs in an ice cream blend called ‘Funky Nut Blast’.

Speaking of candy, Ariana Grande’s most acclaimed album is called Sweetener. Contrary to popular opinion, this assertion of taste does not apply to her, but a romantic interest, about whom she purrs “I like the way you lick the bowl / Somehow your method touches my soul.” It can be assumed this young man is her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller, whom Grande dated for the two year recording span of the album. Miller died three weeks after the release of Sweetener due to an accidental drug overdose. Later on, she reflected on the time saying “I was the glue for such a long time, and I found myself becoming… less and less sticky. The pieces just started to float away.” Maybe Grande mistook glue for honey, seeing as how she asserts on new song “six thirty”: “I’m very delicious.” But just as with the bipolar Cat Valentine, there’s something veiled about Grande’s music. Positions is now her sixth album, and the third in a row to revolve around personal trauma; Sweetener coming after the bombing of her Manchester show, thank u next meditating on Miller’s addiction and disappearance from her life, and now Positions focusing more on Miller’s actual passing. Again, on Positions, she doesn’t explicitly reflect on her pain, but comes closer than ever. In a way, the pastel RnB of this current era can be understood as coping mechanism.

Positions was preceded by the album’s title track lead single, a memorable RnB-bop. The video accompanying the song sees Grande as socially distanced Girl-Boss-President in the White House, switching costumes, but also as lonely cook in a way-too-large kitchen. Lyrically, she addresses the large effort she undertakes to please her boyfriend, literally “jumping through hoops” for him – of course, the “positions” she’s switching are sexual double-entendre.

Grande sings about having sex a lot, or as she refers to it: fucking – which makes sense, as she’s a Cancer, which indicates a healthy libido. “34+35” adds up to 69 and the lyrics are all about… fucking. No matter how cutesy the accompanying instrumentation seems, explicit sex is a constant on Positions, even if it’s only hinted at: “my hair” starts out with a moody guitar intro and then delves into a fairly jazzy 90s RnB arrangement, while Grande reveals her hair to be a cause of insecurity. But honestly, “Usually don’t let people touch it / But tonight, you’ll get a pass” more suggests intimacy as an empowerment over physical trauma.

Personal struggles also pop up in “just like magic”, when Grande is speaking of writing “some love letters to Heaven” and ponders the loss of friends. On the aforementioned “six thirty”, she asserts “maybe that’s just how it’s supposed to be / I’m the release, you the dopamine.” Miller’s absence is all over the record, but only ever in small portions, as in “shut up”, where she admits “All them demons helped me see shit differently.” Meanwhile, the libidinal quest for bling and power we saw on “thank u, next” seems gone.

Positions isn’t inherently haunted. Most of it is fairly stylish, clean RnB. Grande has always had her ear close to current sounds and her gift as a singer is – as usual – impressive. Yet many songs could profit from going a little dirtier or crazier. Just like on thank u, next, the most memorable songs are the most remarkable ones: the backwards-masked background track of “west side” is subtly unsettling, and the duets “off the table” (with The Weeknd) and “safety net” (with Ty Dolla $ign) feature lush trap, reminiscent of vaporwave producer Vaperror.

But many of the tracks here feel a little too close to adult contemporary material, most notably “love language” or “pov”. On the other end of the scale, the trap-adjacent songs aren’t as remarkable as the production of the ‘Chill Study Beat’-inspired “thank u, next”. That still doesn’t mean that they’re unpleasant, just a bit lesser for her.

But then, Grande’s work has occupied an uneasy in-between space for three albums now. There’s the candy aesthetic of the larger Pop-product, while the colours remain melancholic pastels. The songs on Positions are about “fucking”, but they’re rarely sexy. There’s distortion, but no glitches or stains. And that makes sense: the album is a particularly millennial coping mechanism to reframe the demons that come with relationship anxiety and body issues. Like Cat, who hides the harsh reality under a candy-colored clown façade, Grande’s immaculate outer shell both physically and artistically reframes her personal struggles through artifice, communicating relatability to her audience. Yet the lack of grit, grunge or goo keeps Positions distant from the listener, sitting far away, somewhere in the dark. Grande needs them to listen, but there’s still no emotional dialogue between the two parties or greater insight into the core of the issues that have her, eternally, switch her “positions” for others.