It would be hard to argue that Ariana Grande can’t sing. There is a mountain of live audio evidence on just YouTube alone demonstrating her raw vocal talent across multiple genres of music. Take, for the example, the goofy “Wheel of Musical Impressions” segment on “The Tonight Show,” seemingly designed to let Jimmy Fallon show off his knack for mimicking Sting and Bruce Springsteen, and how Grande’s appearance on it elevated the hokey game to ridiculous new heights. She nailed Christina Aguilera’s insane though often excessive rifs and melismas as well as Celine Dion’s distinct nasally tone (she even includes the aggressive chest bumps and classic Dion outbursts like “Shall we go for it?!”). Since she makes her powerful, resonant tone seem so effortless, it’s hard to believe that that much sound can come out a girl who is only five feet tall. But her vocal stats can’t lie — a four octave range that features both whistle tones and a dark, well-supported lower register and allows her to healthily belt all the way up to a B5 (translation: really freaking high). Even though her sound matches the typical energy of a soprano pop diva, she also has a strong enough mixed voice to nail a Broadway staple like “The Wizard & I.” The irrepressible joy on her face when she absolutely crushed the “Wicked” tune at the musical’s fifteenth anniversary concert is magically infectious, and it’s a shame that this doesn’t shine through more often.
The point is, Grande’s problem is not whether she has vocal prowess but rather that the quality of her music rarely matches her potential.
Her two most recent hits, “7 rings” and “thank u, next” emphasize how her catchy pop songs certainly excite her massive fan base yet don’t take full advantage of the powerhouse voice behind the mic. There’s no denying that “thank u, next” was a cultural phenomenon, reinventing what it means to write an empowering break-up song with a sensational, record-breaking music video to go along with it. But at the end of the day, these chart-toppers are quite melodically mundane, consisting of repetitive choruses smack dab in the middle of Grande’s range. Sampling “My Favorite Things” was a risky move that could have been a wonderful homage to the beloved Julie Andrews, but instead it comes across more as lazy, especially with the rather irreverent lyric, “Whoever said money can't solve your problems must not have had enough money to solve 'em.” And while “thank u, next” is bubbly, addicting, and fun, the fact that any drunk college girl can sing it at the top of her lungs at a party isn’t exactly a sign of the song’s complexity or soulfulness.
A quick Google search will confirm the bold claim people are making that Ariana Grande is “the voice of our generation,” a pop queen comparable to Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey. Whether the claims are exaggerated or spot-on, their mere existence signals the respect and reverence this 25-year-old ex-Nickelodeon star has accumulated. However, what Grande lacks is her very own “I Will Always Love You,” a song so emotionally charged that it will awe audiences for decades, one where she uses her God-given talent not just to craft something sweet or sexy but to soar to new heights.
It’s worrisome to think that Grande might be constrained by any sort of “songwriting formula” or that her high ponytailed, childish but seductive persona is keeping her trapped. Perhaps the evolution of Lady Gaga from an eccentric meat-dress lover with a follower of “Little Monsters” to an unstoppable Oscar-winner proves that it is possible to transcend a character and create music that bursts with undeniable passion. It would be wonderful to be able to root for an Ariana Grande song as easily as it is to admire and admittedly envy her voice.
—Staff writer Samantha J. O’Connell can be reached at email@example.com.