When it comes to pop stardom, hits only get you so far if you don’t have an easily recognizable look. At the first date of Ariana Grande’s Sweetener World Tour in Albany on March 18th, it was clear that she has this part of the job covered. Never before has there been a higher concentration of high ponytails in one room. Nor was there any shortage of thigh-high suede boots, sparkly cat ear headbands or oversized sweaters. This was an Ariana Grande concert, after all. How else was one supposed to dress?
Fewer and fewer young stars today have the kind of distinctive aesthetic that can be reproduced en masse by fans, but Grande has dedicated years to perfecting how she has presented herself. In 2019, it seems the world has finally caught up to her. Or, as her frequent collaborator and friend Nicki Minaj predicted on “Side to Side” three years ago: “Ariana run pop.”
Grande has never been more omnipresent than she is right now. Hours before the Albany show kicked off, her song “7 Rings” shot back up to Number One on the Hot 100. “I bet you when I turn the radio on, they’ll be playing her music,” my Uber driver said when I told her where I was heading. Sure enough, Grande’s empower-trap-pop hit was rolling out of the speakers within seconds.
This is a star who’s fresh off two of her best albums yet, and they were released within five months of each other. The latter of the two, Thank U, Next, has been her most career-shifting: Grande spent much of her early career finding her voice and sound by bending to pop trends, but now it’s time for those trends to bend to her.
As much as this tour is a victory lap, it’s also proof of life. Her last world tour was shadowed by tragedy when her show in Manchester, England, was targeted by a suicide bomber, and in September, her ex-boyfriend and longtime friend Mac Miller died from an overdose. If Grande wanted to sit this touring cycle out, her fans probably would’ve understood. But she chose not to, and that speaks volumes to the strength she’s built this show around.
Before Grande took the stage, two opening acts set the tone: pop duo Social House and Fifth Harmony’s Normani. Normani was an especially wise choice. This is her first solo tour, coming at the start of what promises to be a major career outside the group. Though she’s still a bit green when it comes to performing on her own, she moved confidently, showing off her multi-threat abilities. She’s a pop star who clearly envisions herself on a Beyoncé-esque trajectory — the strategically placed wind machine says it all — and she tries to pack a lot into her 30 minutes on stage. (A Rihanna medley! Fifth Harmony classics! An early 2000s dance-off!) Normani will find her groove sooner or later, but she’s already accomplished the hard part of being an opening act on a big pop tour: making the audience hungry for 90 more minutes of her show.
Soon the stage was set for Grande’s headlining performance. The design featured two large, moon-like orbs. One jutted from the ceiling while the other was dead center on the stage’s backdrop; an angular runway wrapped around half of the pit. The staging was streamlined and simple, never too distracting and perfectly conveying the tour’s cosmic visual tone, also reflected in her outfit colors and lighting.
Her set began the way the Sweetener album did: The a cappella “Raindrops (An Angel Cried)” rang through the arena to the piercing screams of her thousands of fans. Grande sang the short Four Seasons cover from off-stage, then made her entrance from a platform that rose up through an opening on the main stage as the opening notes of “God Is A Woman” chimed in. She re-created her Last Supper-referencing choreography from the MTV Video Music Awards, this time in devilish red latex and bathed in matching lights. It was here that she pulled out her great vocal weapon: an effortless, lengthy whistle tone that left the room quivering as soon as it ended.
The red lights became more opaque as she launched into two of the more sordid songs from Thank U, Next: the guitar-driven “Bad Idea” and *NSYNC-sampling “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.” With those, she gave playful, narrative-heavy choreography and played into a more villainous, dangerous side of herself.
The first outfit and tonal set change of the night came soon after, but not before a video interlude of a young Grande recreating a scene from 2003’s Bruce Almighty for, presumably, her mom’s camcorder. It’s a moment bearing little show relevance, other than being an adorable reminder of how much charisma Grande has always had. When she returned, the set and her outfit were much more soft femme: Grande wore a ruffly pink set as the orbs transformed into pastels for the Sweetener highlight “R.E.M.”
Next came another pop culture reference: the scene in First Wives Club where Goldie Hawn’s character screams “I do have feelings! I’m an actress! I have all of them!” screened before a stacked chunk of stellar cuts from Grande’s discography, including the house-pop Dangerous Woman standout “Be Alright” (including a pretty iconic death drop at one point), the celebratory “Successful” and, of course, her current chart-topper “7 Rings,” where she was accompanied by a pink car on the stage.
A more introspective section followed, led by “Breathin,” her finest vocal performance of the night as she nimbly belted out the song’s soothing, honest message of self-care in the face of trauma and anxiety. Grande had her best moment of theatrical acting-out during “Fake Smile” a couple of songs later, as she pretended to be at a function she needed to see herself out of. Other skit-like moments (like a befuddling jewelry-hawking scene during “Bloodline”) fell short, but a little goes a long way.
Grande finally referenced her first two albums during the second half of the show, performing Yours Truly tracks “Right There” and “You’ll Never Know” back-to-back with My Everything deep cut “Break Your Heart Right Back,” to less fanfare than her newer material received. When she followed this medley with “NASA,” the audience was right back in the palm of her “BBQ Grill Finger” hand.
The entire night shifted when she hit “Goodnight N Go,” another Sweetener highlight that happens to interpolate one of her favorite artists, Imogen Heap. The composed, poised theater kid came apart during this song; her voice became shaky as she began to seemingly sob during the bridge. The lights dimmed, allowing her privacy as she sang from the B Stage in the middle of the pit, surrounded by fans helping her sing along. She left for an outfit change after this as “In My Head” played in full; it was difficult to tell if she was meant to sing that song on stage, or if it was always meant to act as an interlude. Either way, it was clear that Grande had let her guard down onstage, especially as she returned to perform songs like “One Last Time,” which her fans have claimed as their recovery anthem following the Manchester bombing.
The end of the main set was a sucker punch of big dance-pop moments: “Into You,” “Dangeorus Woman,” “Break Free” and “No Tears Left to Cry” would make any dance floor explode on their own, let alone when they’re performed back-to-back by the artist herself. The most she talked with the audience during this show happened before “No Tears,” when she sincerely thanked everyone for coming to the show, but informed them that if she talked any longer she was going to start crying.
When Grande rose to the stage for her encore, she was confronted with an audio issue: Her microphone wasn’t working at all. Thankfully, there can’t be many people left who do not know the lyrics to “Thank U, Next,” so the audience once again offered a helping hand. She had a new microphone in hand by the time the second verse came in, and she shrugged off the snafu as she skipped around the runway, once again referencing First Wives Club’s final scene choreography as the show wrapped up. Though probably incredibly frustrating for Grande, technical difficulties during a song celebrating romance’s many broken microphones felt poignant. We’ve seen the ups and downs of her mid-twenties played out so publicly and honestly, and if we’ve learned one thing from her, it’s that all we can do is acknowledge them, recover as best we can and say “Thank u, next show.”
Sweetener World Tour Set List
“Raindrops (An Angel Cried)”
“God Is A Woman”
“Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored”
“Side to Side”
“Love Me Harder”
“You’ll Never Know”
“Break Your Heart Right Back”
“Goodnight n Go”
“In My Head”
“One Last Time”
“The Light Is Coming”
“No Tears Left to Cry”
“Thank U, Next”