For Better or For Worse, Ariana Grande is Done Apologizing

A few months ago, everyone and their mother was on Ariana Grande’s side. Her wildly successful breakup anthem, “thank u, next,” had taken on a life of its own, with some referring to it as “revolutionary”; Billboard had named her Woman of the Year, inspired, no doubt, by her other wildly successful single “God is a woman”; and she was free from a relationship with a man who once referred to sex workers as “terrible people”. Poised to release her latest LP, thank u, next, a mere six months after her record-smashing fourth album Sweetener, Grande had the world in the palm of her hand.

        And then: things changed. Her single “7 rings” was called out for cultural appropriation; critics of her music video for “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” accused her of “queerbaiting,” that is, feigning a same-sex relationship just to get buzz; and that very same palm now bore a twice-botched kanji tattoo reading “Japanese BBQ finger.” Suddenly, a pop star who had once joked on SNL about wanting a real-life, juicy scandal was embroiled in a slew of them.

        What makes Grande’s most recent and controversial choices all the more baffling is that she really should have known better. She’s highly active on Twitter and Instagram, with 44,000 tweets and counting. Most of these are replies to her fans, who she’s constantly in conversation with, whether in the form of heart emojis, Q&A sessions, or back-and-forth quoting of her lyrics. Up against such pop stars as the icy Taylor Swift, who follows exactly no one on Instagram, Grande’s connection to her fanbase is refreshing. Her close relationship with her “Arianators,” as they call themselves, became even more apparent after the 2017 terrorist attack at her concert in Manchester, when she organized an uplifting benefit concert for the city with a smorgasbord of famous names, met with the parents of the young girls who died, and even included a tribute song on Sweetener called “get well soon,” timed to last 5 minutes and 22 seconds – 5/22, the date of the attack.

In short, Grande’s love and affection for her fans doesn’t read as a marketing tool. She seems genuinely attuned to their feelings and considerate of their desires. So why would someone so thoughtful make such insensitive choices? Why has she gone suddenly deaf to their criticism?

Realistically, she hasn’t. Instead, she’s found a new way to own up to her mistakes: by claiming they aren’t mistakes at all. After she drew ire for supposedly ripping off 2 Chainz’ hot-pink trap house in the music video for “7 rings,” she enlisted the rapper for a remix without addressing the accusations. The implicit message: look, he’s cool with it. Can you get off my back? That message was made explicit when Grande posted a series of quickly-deleted tweets in response to people criticizing her flubbed tattoo, asking her fans, “u kno how many people make this mistake and DON’T care just cause they like how it looks?... i care sooooo much. what would u like me to do or say?”

Her defense is a deflection. Because she quote-unquote “cares” enough to try and fix the mistake (though not, apparently, enough to double-check her kanji either time), using another culture as her aesthetic should be a non-issue. By bringing up her “crippling anxiety,” Grande positioned herself as the victim at the hands of harsh Twitter trolls who, in her words, “don’t know how to be forgiving or gentle when someone has made an innocent mistake.” Her tweets ignore the fact that the larger issue at hand is that she got the tattoo in the first place, not that she made an “innocent mistake” in messing up the writing.

For a pop star that’s so plugged in, it’s hard to believe that Grande is unaware of the reaction that trying on other cultures in 2019 might elicit. The simplest explanation for her behavior, then, is that she does not view it as problematic. She feels entitled enough to adopt other people’s identities without apologizing when she gets called out for it. On the heels of her highly-criticized music video for “7 rings,” in which she tried out twerking, historically African-American slang, and sultry shots of her with chopsticks, she released the music video for “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” which saw her dancing with, and almost kissing, a girl before cutting to black just to remind us that being gay is still ultimately too taboo for the mainstream. There is no suggestion anywhere that Grande attempts to rectify or change her actions. On the contrary, she repeats them and recruits people to help her stand by them.

This defiant attitude is lipstick-stamped all over her latest album, thank u, next. Though in the album’s second song, “needy,” Grande appears contrite, singing, “Sorry if I’m up and down a lot / Sorry that I think I’m not enough / And sorry if I say sorry way too much,” that last line serves as a mental note - You say sorry too much - that she seems to take to heart over the next ten tracks. The rest of the album finds her admitting to much worse sins than being needy, but the uglier the crime, the more prepared she seems to stand by it. On “bloodline,” she shuts down a boy who’s apparently not worthy of being in her family tree without remorse (“You gon’ have to let this sh-t go”) over triumphant trumpets; during “bad idea” she repeats the track’s title (“I got a bad idea / How ‘bout we take a little bit of time away?”) while bratty back-up singers chant “uh-huh”’s and, notably, “Ari-chan”’s; “7 rings,” an ode to Grande’s wealth, is so gleefully, unapologetically self-involved that it’s almost charming; and “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” suggests a potential partner do just that, because, as Grande puts it, “I know it ain’t right, / But I don’t care.”

All in all, the album paints a vivid portrait, one with bold, sometimes contradictory colors. Grande has the confidence to tell a boy “I like to f---k with you / Just to make up with you” (“make up”), and, in the next breath, chastise him, saying, “Gucci tennis shoes / Runnin’ from your issues” (“in my head”). Likewise, immediately following “needy” is its sweetly savage polar opposite, “NASA,” which finds Grande gently but firmly informing her partner, “I’d rather be alone tonight / You can say ‘I love you’ through the phone tonight.” Ironically, her conflicting portrayals of herself fit together nicely, presenting a cohesive image of a woman who can be happy, sad, horny, frigid, insecure, confident, and, above all, human. It’s a bold, empowering move from a brave artist.

Yet Grande’s vulnerability on the album, a paradoxical demonstration of how self-assured she is, also hint at her unwillingness to change her behavior. Having found the power to make her own choices, she seems disinclined to alter them. Midway through the album, Grande slows down for one of its best tracks, “fake smile,” in which she decides, over a moody, earworm-y hook, that she’s done with pretending for anyone else’s benefit, singing, “And I won’t say I’m feeling fine / After what I’ve been through I can’t lie / F--k a fake smile.” Though her experiences seem to have taught her the valuable art of refusing to conform to anyone else’s expectations, they haven’t, contrary to the song’s message, erased her desire to act like something she isn’t. If she truly wants to inhabit that ideal, she’ll have to stop wearing other people’s identities like clothes. After all, as she sings on the album’s titular track “thank u, next,” she’s started a long-lasting relationship with someone named Ari. Maybe she should focus on that.