ariana grande

Concert Review: Ariana Grande tells fans what they want, delivers in OKC
for The Oklahoman

ALBANY, NEW YORK – MARCH 18: Ariana Grande performs onstage during the Sweetener World Tour – Opening Night at Times Union Center on March 18, 2019 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Ariana Grande, provided by Chesapeake Energy Arena)

Ariana Grande’s Thursday night OKC “Sweetener World Tour” stop opened like her 2018 album “Sweetener,” with a stunning display of the 25-year-old singer’s a cappella vocal prowess by way of “raindrops (an angel cried),” an abbreviated cover of the Four Seasons’ heartbreaker “An Angel Cried.” 

Grande’s expansive voice filled the arena as she rose from below the stage floor in a “Last Supper”-esque dining table vignette, so entangled in her crew of dancers you could hardly see her, though she was all you could hear—a pattern that repeated itself throughout the night. 

Her aesthetic is so thoroughly crafted and so completely realized that, on stage, she’s become part of it rather than it being part of her. The stark pastel palette of her last two records, her thigh-high boots, faux ponytail and her close-knit cronies are so ingrained with Ariana Grande the brand that the seamlessness of it all makes her pint-sized frame as invisible as she is larger than life. 

None of this is a criticism. Grande is singular among her pop contemporaries on sheer vocal talent alone, but her prolificacy—February’s “thank u, next” full-length was released only six months after “Sweetener”—strikes another chord altogether. Thursday’s 90-minute set felt lightning-quick, every addition a crowd favorite or hit single, and it managed to contain mostly songs released within the last calendar year. 

She spoke very little through the five-act concert, barring the occasional standard, “Oklahoma City, how you feelin’?” and another of her Grande-brand signature moves: She says, “I love you.” A lot. Not just at her shows, but on Twitter to nobody in particular, on Twitter to individual fans, and always, always lowercase. 

That love is a two-way street between Grande and her most devoted Arianators, an estimated 18,000 of whom filled the ‘Peake (including a few perplexed significant others, doting parents and tired children). They’re a group with whom she appears to have made an implicit agreement to share not just her songs, but within them her happiness (the jaunty “successful,” sung solo and center stage), anxieties (“breathin’,” the night’s most spot-on and impressive vocal performance) and grief (“fake smile,” sung completely stern-faced, middle fingers up during the chorus), and in return she receives a rather fierce, almost militant dedication.

Despite that love connection, Grande kept a distant, even keel—”F— a fake smile” indeed—and stayed firmly within her character playbook, subtly shape-shifting between minx, as on “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” and  broken-hearted, as on “everytime.” 

Grande, who got her start on Broadway before graduating to acting on Nickelodeon, is a brilliant technical performer. Thursday’s show was likewise brilliant in concept and material and exceedingly technical in execution. It felt like a departure for a pop star usually so gifted at displaying her humanity, particularly in the face of tragedy, of which she has suffered plenty, including the 2017 suicide bombing after her concert in Manchester and the 2018 overdose death of her friend and former partner Mac Miller. 

The knowledge of that fragility and grief, and that’s it’s tackled so literally in many of her lyrics, only served to emphasize that the entire OKC performance felt more rehearsed and Instagram-ready than it did emotive, down to the T-Mobile-sponsored pre-concert signage encouraging cell phone usage. 

“Click, click, click and post,” go the lyrics to her single “imagine.” “Drip-drip-dripped in gold.”

Really, that’s not a criticism either. Instead, it is, to quote Grande herself in “make up,” “It’s a mood, it’s a vibe, it’s a look.”

Grande is managing the weight of her persona with a clear-headed artistry, participating in her own machine without descending into blandness, repetition or self-parody. Her “Sweetener” tour is actually remarkable in its control and precision. She essentially told her fans what they wanted, then delivered it to the letter.

To quote that other famous lowercase poet, E.E. Cummings (stylized as e.e. cummings, like all these song titles): “see i will comfort you / because you smell so sweetly / put up your little arms / and i’ll give them all to you to hold.”

During the making of “thank u, next,” the album, Grande famously took six of her girlfriends to Tiffany & Co. and, riding a champagne high, bought seven matching rings. The trip inspired the deliciously vapid “7 rings,” during which Grande preened with her girl crew, singing, “Happiness is the same price as red-bottoms,” a nod to shoe designer Christian Louboutin’s trademark. 

That Cummings poem continues, “every finger shall have its ring / and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy.”

Grande encored with the title track from “thank u, next,” a peppy breakup anthem synopsizing a handful of relationships and distilling the lessons into a tidy package. It is, like the entire concert and like Grande’s career arc as of late, bursting with the sum of its parts and perfectly calculated fun—an uncomplicated tribute from Ari to her own mood, vibe, look, happiness. Lowercase in its emphasis but impactful nonetheless, drip-drip-dripped in gold.

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