A deep conversation about Ariana Grande’s Sweetener
Listen to episode 7 of FADER Explains.
Ariana Grande's fourth album Sweetener is one of the most anticipated albums of the summer. In her FADER cover story, we unpacked how she got to got to this artistic place and what her fans can expect to hear from the album.
On FADER Explains, our podcast tracking the race for the Song of the Summer, we're joined by Las Culturistas co-host Bowen Yang to talk about all of Sweetener's summer singles (and one very exceptional track that hasn't come out just yet). We break down what they like about "no tears left to cry," "the light is coming," "God is a woman," and "get well soon." Plus, there's some behind the scenes stories from our cover story in the episode, too.
Myles: I think let’s start with the first the song that kind of kicked off this era, “no tears left to cry.” What do we think of it?
Olivia: I love it.
Bowen: It came on at the underwear party at Fire Island and people lost their minds. They lost their goddamn minds. I've thought about it. For me, it was a grower, because it was like, oh, this is ... Okay, this is different. Then the video came out the same day as the single. It's like this whole M.C. Escher thing. We'll talk about Dave Meyers later, but I thought that it was ... Yeah, it was a very clearly demarcated, new literal era for her, and it's just a song about optimism, which is beautiful.
Myles: It's gorgeous. Yeah, I agree. The first time we heard it, her record, we all played us a couple songs from the album and that was the first one they played, and on the first one I was like...that's a choice.
Olivia: And it is a choice. She fully came out of the gate and said, "New Ari is here. You have to pay attention to this." This is this weird crazy thing that we're doing. Have at it.
Myles: Get into it.
Olivia: Yeah. Take it or leave it. Everyone was kind of iffy, and then we all took it.
Bowen: And then we all took it
Bowen: Over time I think it all clicked for everybody at the same time we were just like, "Oh, yeah, this makes sense."
Olivia: I do also that hearing it in a group setting, like hearing it on a dance floor, is very different from listening to it alone and thinking, "I don't know about this." Then you're surrounded by people who are all feeling it. It's suddenly magical and you feel this pulsing energy.
Bowen: That's exactly what happened on Fire Island. What a beautiful setting.
Myles: Yeah. I had a similar thing happen to me in Provincetown with the same song, where it was just, like, literally everyone was went full whistle tone as a unit. It was really beautiful. I was shocked. I was like, "Oh, everyone's into it? I like this."
Olivia: It does have to build, like right now I'm in a state of mind , and, one, that is a perfect opening lyric to a song. And then she says, "I want to be in, like, all the time." The like is so crucial to me. It's so just ... It's just perfect. She could have left it out, and it makes it beautiful. I love her choices.
Bowen: I love her. It's a choice and I remember reading some review of it when it first came out. I think it was in, like, Time, or something where just the person who wrote it was like, "It's about Manchester, but it's also not about Manchester.” It's the way she's able to sort of put that in a liminal space of existential whatever is incredible. I don't know. I think it's brilliant. I think it's a brilliant lead single.
Myles: Same, yeah. We've talked a lot about Ari in this way, too, like, she took this insane one-of-one situation and turned it psychotically positive almost. You're just like, that is tenacious as hell.
Olivia: I don't know if there is a pop singer who could do the same thing and I would believe it. There's something about Ariana and her energy where I feel, or I think, "Oh, she means this." She has taken this, she has worked through this, she has gone to a therapist about this and has come out with this beautiful, positive energy.
Bowen: Sure. I'm trying to think. I'm trying to compare this to some sentimental equivalent. The only thing I can think of is when “Born This Way” the single came out and it was like, oh, it's this positive message that's not about, necessarily about, fucking or partying or whatever. Even at the time it came out there was this layer of 90s cheese to it, 90s R&B cheese to it. Now, with “no tears left to cry,” it's like, oh, no. This is so intricately crafted. I don't know. It's the perfect thing. The way that you wrote about her in her profile, Myles, was that this is the only option for her is to find some grounding and an affirmative thing.
Myles: On the same note, her second song about that kind of positive energy radiating kind of moment, we have “the light is coming.”
Bowen: Yes, the Pharrell jumped out.
Myles: The Pharrell extremely jumped out.
Olivia: The Pharrell super jumped out.
Myles: The Pharrell jumped out in front.
Bowen: Yes, yes, yes. What do we think?
Olivia: I think of all of them this is my least favorite, but I still love it. I still like doing the little claps in it. It's another fun track. I don't know. I think I'm more lukewarm on this than I am on any of the other ones, but it's still a bit of a bop.
Bowen: Yeah, totally. I just like the ... I don't know. Everyone can clock that the structure is all over the fucking place. But that is also intentional. That is also a choice. She's making choices.
Myles: Honestly that is what I love about this new music in general. It's brave in the way that it's afraid to be boring. I feel like in her mind she was like, "The worst thing I can do is come out in the middle."
Bowen: Well, I think in her past stuff she would make choices, but everything was very easily traced back to the influence, to the source of, like, oh, she's giving you Mariah, she's giving you Christina in this, she's giving you this and something else, she's giving you doo-wop in Yours Truly. I think everything that's come out so far in this cycle is sort of her own sort of stamp. That is almost impossible to do anymore.
Olivia: I definitely feel like she's trying to carve out a space that is Ariana Grande so that eventually in ten years people will trace those things back, where it's like, oh, no, you can hear the Ari influence. It'll become canonized in its own way. If you listen to “Honeymoon Avenue,” or whatever, she sounds amazing on it, but a lot of other people could've sang that song. I can't see someone else singing “the light is coming” and selling it.
Bowen: Right, right, right.
Myles: There's a certain attitude to that song. Interestingly, the same thing, she had a lot of trouble filling the rap feature on that song. Over seven different artists tried out for that spot. Which I thought was very strange.
Olivia: Didn't she just call Nicki?
Myles: Yeah, she texted Nicki. She was like, "Here's the song. I'm texting it to you. I don't know what to do." Nicki was like, "I could do it for you." Which is great.
Bowen: What a dream.
Myles: Yeah. I think a lot of people said in our office I remember when the song came out, they were like, "I wish the Nicki verse was in the middle or at the end of the song." It's very abrupt that it starts with Nicki Minaj over a beat that sounds more possible in her world than Ari's.
Bowen: Totally. I will say "Honeymoon Avenue" is a bop still.
Olivia: Oh, yes. I love that song. I want it on the record that I do love that song.
Bowen: I totally understand, but I just have to remind everybody that it still holds up and that the breakdown at the end is inspiring.
Myles: Absolutely. I honestly think that is one her top five songs ever.
Bowen: I feel this way about “Moonlight.”
Olivia: I love “Moonlight.”
Bowen: It's so often overlooked, but then I looked at the track list. I thought “get well soon,” or the snippet that I heard of it, was going to be like ... It sounded very track one Ari.
Bowen: But it's the last track.
Myles: I will that say that what she said about “get well soon,” my first thought when I hear it, I was like, "Oh, this is ‘Honeymoon Avenue’ 2.0." This really is her taking that concept of her in a million places. Speaking in a million voices. It is honestly one of the best songs I've ever heard by her.
Bowen: Oh my god. Don't. Don't. The hype is crazy.
Myles: I don't want to hype it up too much, but honestly it's super long, it's super great. I can't get enough of the song.
Bowen: Thank you.
Myles: It's incredible.
Bowen: Oh my god. Yes. I'm so horny. I'm so horny for this album.
Olivia: I am too. I feel like I've been waiting for it for so long, and I just ... Every time we get a visual or a single I inch a little closer.
Olivia: I'm just like, oh my god. When do I get the whole thing?
Bowen: This is my only preferred form of edge play.
Myles: What do we think? Speaking of visually, you mentioned Dave Meyers before.
Bowen: Oh, “god is a woman?”
Olivia: “god is a woman.”
Myles: Let's talk about the video of “god is a woman” because I mean the song ... I feel like we are in agreement that we love Ariana.
Olivia: The song is great.
Myles: The song is beautiful, but the video I feel like is very striking and crazy. It's a moment.
Olivia: Are we dancing around the fact that she fingers the world?
Bowen: She fingers the world? Oh yeah, she fingers the world, but I think she makes a hurricane.
Myles: She fingers-
Olivia: She fingers the hurricane.
Bowen: She fingers the hurricane, hopefully to stop it. I hope that hurricane is just-
Olivia: It's destroyed.
Myles: Finger blasted away.
Bowen: It's finger blasted away. That was the word I was looking for. I love the video so much. People were like, "I don't get it," but it's Dave Meyers maximalism. It's early aughts, late-90s Dave Meyers, Missy Elliot nonsense.
Myles: Give us the most references we can possibly take in one go. If they're not even references, if they're just stuff, that's okay, too.
Bowen: If it's just stuff ... I don't know. I'm sure Dave Meyers is brilliant, but half the images he puts out, I'm like, "I don't get it," but this is so cool.
Myles: Yeah, it's fun.
Olivia: And it's fun to see them all together. I had to watch the video two or three times in a row to be like, "This is what's happening. Those are gophers or whatever. She's doing Venus de Milo here or whatever." There's so much vaginal imagery. I love that she's going all in on all of this. I watched the Into You video last night, and it's just a standard...like, "Oh, she's kissing this boy, and then he's her security guard and they can't be together." This is just none of that. This is her being an artiste.
Bowen: Yes, yes. I love the video. I love it.
Myles: I think it's amazing. I'm glad Madonna had a part in it subtly. They've had a beautiful friendship moment throughout. Ariana performed at Madonna's charity benefit concert. They're pals.
Bowen: They're pals.
Myles: She cashed in that favor, and it was worth it.
Bowen: Amazing. You know what? It's not trivial when Madonna throws her support behind a rising pop star.
Myles: No. Yeah, it's really rare. She really doesn't ... there is that Britney commentary on Madonna of sucking the life force out of her weirdly, but Ariana did it in a way that was very ... it was behind the scenes. It was subtle. It was great.
Bowen: It wasn't super ... there wasn't a PR machine behind it. It was just like, "Oh, I'm sure they're just buds," and it's great.
Myles: Which is a beautiful thing.