With a tour launching soon, Ariana Grande occupies a precarious perch
It’s called the Sweetener World Tour, its name taken from the album Ariana Grande released last August. But by the time silvery-voiced singer-actress’s tour reaches Boston March 20, she’ll be promoting another album — “thank u, next,” named after the bittersweet confection she rush-
released in November.
That single became Grande’s first solo chart-topper, which seems kind of absurd when you think about the stature she’s achieved since the release of her 2013 debut “Yours Truly.” She’s probably the biggest solo female pop star to be minted in the 2010s, both in terms of high-caliber singles and Q rating. In part this is because the pendulum of pop stardom, particularly in the streaming era, has swung forcefully toward male artists; in part it’s because it’s simply become harder to mint big names who also have staying power. (Take Australian bombshell Iggy Azalea, who had the biggest single of the summer of 2014 with the boastful “Fancy”; she left her label in November after attempts to replicate its success fizzled.)
Grande’s headlining status at this April’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. — the multi-day desert bacchanal that opened the floodgates for festivals like our own Boston Calling to dominate the summer music landscape — also shows that the process of creating new pop supernovas has become a bigger hurdle. On the one level, Grande’s ascent to headliner status shows how Coachella has morphed into something much more big-tent-minded since its creation two decades ago, when it was a staunchly alt-rock fest led by Beck and harder-edge acts like Tool and Rage Against the Machine. But she and the two acts she’s headlining with — Aussie psych-rockers Tame Impala (who are also headlining Boston Calling) and hip-hop auteur Childish Gambino — all had their initial splashes at the end of the ’00s, with two, Grande and Childish Gambino (the brainchild of actor Donald Glover), becoming familiar to audiences through TV.
If anything, Grande is a sign of how much the music business has changed since her 2009 TV debut on Nickelodeon’s “Victorious.” Sales were dropping to historically low levels and festivals were just gaining steam, but the roster of big-name female pop stars was fairly robust, with Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Miley Cyrus dominating the charts, and singles like Gaga’s “Just Dance” and Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” racking up multiple millions of sales. Last year’s hugest single, the watery “God’s Plan” by successful yet angst-ridden Canadian mogul Drake, barely broke the million-sold mark — but it was a monster on streaming services and YouTube, both of which have become a dominant chart force since being incorporated into Billboard’s calculations in recent years.
Grande has navigated the streaming-music world more nimbly than most. One of the early favorites on “Sweetener” was the anxiety-mediating “breathin’. ” It popped into the Hot 100 when the album was released, and its eventual release as a radio single led to it peaking just outside the Top 10. “thank u, next” felt sudden, but its drop was, in hindsight, perfectly calibrated. A bubbly, loping song expressing gratitude toward Grande’s ex-boyfriends, it was released a few weeks after she split with “Saturday Night Live” star Pete Davidson — and only days after she publicly fumed about a gag he made regarding quickly escalating relationships in a spot for “SNL.” The surprise release — which took place right before “Saturday Night Live” aired — had the dual advantages of celebrity gossip and shock on its side. It debuted atop the Hot 100, and eventually returned to the summit thanks to a video drenched in references from turn-of-the-century flicks like “Mean Girls’ and “13 Going On 30.”
Whether Grande’s forthcoming full-length will continue her domination is unclear. “7 Rings,” the consumption-celebrating follow-up to “thank u” released earlier this month, has engendered controversy for multiple reasons — rapper Princess Nokia claiming the track ripped off her 2017 single “Mine,” other observers side-eyeing what they saw as the song and its hot-pink video co-opting other aspects of hip-hop culture. But in the value-neutral attention economy of the streaming world, people trying to figure out what all the fuss is about adds to Grande’s bottom line. “7 Rings” is, according to the industry bible Billboard, a pretty solid contender to debut at the Hot 100’s summit — it, too, has dominated streaming charts, and its launch-day video release means it’s performed well on audio-forward services like Apple Music and Spotify while also racking up views on YouTube.
Grande’s status as one of pop’s biggest stars isn’t hanging in the balance — but what she does next will likely cause a lot of album-rollout plans to get complete makeovers.
At TD Garden, March 20, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $39.95 and up. 617-624-1000, www.tdgarden.com