Full disclosure, I haven’t been an Ariana Grande “stan” since her days on Victorious. I would sometimes blast her bops, had “Into You” on repeat for several months and overall enjoyed her music, but I wasn’t a hardcore, diehard fan. I had started following Grande closer after the terrorist attack at her Manchester concert and greatly admired her strength and resilience in the months following. What really caught my attention was the “One Love Manchester” benefit concert, and I admired how she made lemonade out of the sourest of lemons. It was clear that she cared about her fans, and I appreciate artists that love their fans.
When sweetener came out, it marked (in my opinion) the beginning of the high point of her career. She has always been a great artist, but with tracks like “breathin” and “successful,” she cemented herself as the Queen of Pop like Nicki Minaj predicted so many years ago. Then came thank u, next which brought Grande both to the top of charts worldwide and the top of my “favorite artists” list. I knew I needed to be in attendance at her sweetener/thank u, next World Tour, and was lucky enough to be asked by a good friend of mine to join her in Washington, D.C. with tickets she received as a Christmas gift.
With the concert taking place on my 22nd birthday, I knew that the day would be special no matter how the concert was. What I didn’t expect, however, was what an emotional roller coaster I would be taken on in the course of her two-hour setlist. Openers Social House and Fifth Harmony member Normani set the tone nicely for the evening of pure pop we would be taken on, but nothing could prepare the sold-out audience at the Capital One Arena for the musical journey we would endure, with Grande as the conductor.
Somehow, Grande manages to blend the pain she has endured (throughout the trauma of the Manchester bombings and the sudden death of ex-boyfriend Mac Miller; not to mention a whirlwind romance, engagement and breakup with SNL star Pete Davidson) with the highlights of her career. This makes for a neck-breaking switch from singing about dealing with PTSD titled “breathin,” to nodding at her sogs being first, second and third on the Billboard Top 100; shattering records set by the Beatles, “successful.” She would go from prancing across the stage, gyrating and flipping her iconic ponytail to girl-power anthems such as, “break up with your boyfriend, I’m bored” and “7 rings,” to perching on the end of the stage softly singing about her innermost feelings “goodnight n go,”and “needy”. Any other artist would have handled these switches heavily, making for unpleasant tempo changes, but Grande handled it all in stride—knowing that these two albums bare her soul to the world, and knowing that she can do whatever the hell she pleases with the songs.
The highlight of the show had to have been when a giant moon dropped from the ceiling, providing a literal backdrop to my personal favorite off of thank u, next: “nasa.” I was curious about how this song would be performed, as it is equal parts clubby and emotional. Grande handled the performance of this impeccably, knowing when to slow it down and literally lay down on the ground with her backup singers and when to get up and shimmy to the beat of the chorus. It was the essence of this era: knowing when to take yourself seriously, and when to say “f*ck it,” get up and dance your heart out.
The set would not have been complete without the titular track off of thank u, next; which was performed as the encore after a brief video compilation of Grande’s tweets, various headlines and photos of her family and friends. The song, though fun to dance to, does get emotional in the beginning—Grande quite literally calls her exes out by name, and then thanks them for the lessons they’ve taught her. Though the introduction where the various men are named and baptized in Grande’s tears, she quickly shook it off and danced her way through the remainder of the song, making everyone in the audience feel “so f*cking grateful for my ex.” The song ended in a group hug between Grande and her backup singers, proving the main point of the monster hit—you just need your friends and yourself, not a man, to make you happy.
Grande, at five feet exactly, felt eight feet tall in the huge space of the Capital One Arena. Even at the height of her career, she still paused for a moment before launching into another hit. “I can’t believe this is my life,” she said matter-of-factly into the microphone. “But thank you, thank you, thank you.”
For that I say—thank u, next album.
All photos were taken by the author.