Saturday, October 19, 2013

Ariana Grande: Yours Truly

The latest graduate of the Ms. Jackson 
Academy of Independent Congeniality

Ariana Grande
     What would a generation or two of American female pop stars be without children’s TV shows?  Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and now Ariana Grande started on Disney or Nickelodeon shows
aimed at youngsters or tweens.  (For the males, add Justin Timberlake, yet another Mouseketeer alumnus, class of 1993).  I read an article about Ariana Grande a couple of months ago around the time that her album Yours Truly hit number 1.  Now, I know that doesn’t mean quite what it did thirty years ago, what with all the different magazines, scanners, measurements of genres, and iTune downloads, but it lodged in my memory.

     I rented a car a couple of weeks ago and had a tough time locating radio stations so I bought some CDs on sale (the others will be reviewed shortly).  It feels important to keep up with what’s going on in Pop, even if it feels as if a newer generation is less    approachable.  My Mom and I decided to drive around for a while and listen to it.  She thought it started off sort of weirdly, but then liked it as it went along.  Neil couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about when he heard it.

     Surprisingly, it broke no new ground whatsoever and I thought it could have been released fifteen or twenty-five years ago.  It sounds current, but also as part of a tradition.  Others have compared her to Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, but I don’t hear that at all.  She has a small, sweet voice capable of singing different genres such as Pop, R&B-lite, sort of Hip-Hop, and (suburban) Urban Contemporary.  Her aural image is the equivalent of a lighthouse signal in fog.  She’s most reminiscent of Janet Jackson around Control (1986) or Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989), though without the strong beat of the best songs from those albums.

Oh Baby!
     On a side note or two, would Jackson’s career have taken off without Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s extraordinary production or the video image that Paula Abdul created for her in the choreography?   Her famous name certainly helped, though she was trying to distance herself from her father, and I’d argue that Abdul had a better voice in Forever Your Girl (1988).  Since Houston is dead, I won’t speak ill of her, though her voice was the best in Pop for her generation.  Carey’s pOperatic vocal style has been the imprimatur for Aguilera, Clarkson, et al., but has another performer of her generation entered middle age with less grace?  Two of her assets – and I don’t mean her children – distract to a point where her costumes seem like vast architectural projects.

     For those checking out a few tracks, the best are those that feature collaborators (Big Sean on “Right There,” Mac Miller on “The Way,” and Nathan Sykes on “Almost Is Never Enough”).  The eye-opener is “Popular” with Mika.  It’s a key song from Wicked and it works metaphysically for the many Millennials (female and some male) that were raised on that show’s theme of friendship beyond boundaries and the conflict of popularity versus personal integrity and attractive shallowness versus philosophical exile. Grande’s reworking of what has become a cultural milestone took guts.  I don’t remember Jackson examining any songs from The Wiz or A Chorus Line on her initial albums.

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