Van Gogh cut off his ear. Ernest Hemingway’s life was surrounded by suicide that haunted him until he committed suicide himself. Whitney Houston struggled with drug addiction and her sexuality for years before she drowned in a hotel bathtub. Does this mean great art really does come from great suffering? If it does, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the latest star to achieve greatness through martyrdom is a five-foot tall, 25-year-old woman usually distinguished by her high, swinging ponytail, cat ears and high-pitched giggle.
Even if it is not on your queue, Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” album is more likely than not blasting through the AirPods of the person next to you. As of Tuesday, Feb. 12, Grande had taken over the United States Top 50 on Spotify with nine of the country’s top 10 songs straight from her new album. All 12 songs on the album could be found in the top 20. While the charts have settled down this weekend, Grande is still riding the high tides of her most successful album to date— as Rolling Stone quipped, “God is this woman.”
But the line between good and great is blurry and often highly subjective. Good can be applied to a great variety of things, like last night’s take-out or that one Panic! At the Disco song, but the distinguishable trait of being good is that it is fleeting. Greatness is often reserved for things that cling onto the recesses of our memory, too remarkable to forget and yet too indistinguishable to determine what exactly sets it apart. The secret to greatness, as the truly exceptional performers have realized, has very little to do with actual talent and almost everything to do with perception. Great art may come from great suffering, but, more likely, it comes from open and honest vulnerability. And Grande was not the first modern pop queen to figure that out.
Since 2008, Taylor Swift has continued to turn heads and astonish fans with her theatrics and ever-evolving musical style. We may have almost forgotten about Swift if she’d stuck to her country-pop vibe. But then she released her album, “1989.” She could have retreated after the Kim Kardashian fiasco following the release of Kanye’s song “Famous.” Instead, in one of the most iconic marketing moves in the industry, she released the “Look What You Made Me Do” music video, transforming the “You Belong With Me” singer into a drama queen sitting on a throne as a snake serves her tea, complete with her famous line: “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now.” We may, over time, have forgotten about all of this— except on New Year’s Day 2019, she released her Netflix special documenting her Reputation Stadium Tour. And it reminded us all over again why and how Swift has remained relevant for over a decade.
Although the two singers’ careers may have felt different originally—Grande’s fame seemingly more sudden while Swift has been on and off the radar for years— they share the woes of a very public life that has forced them, for better or for worse, to grow up with the world watching. Just as today’s young adults have, possibly regretfully, grown up in the era of Justin Bieber and One Direction— who are, may I add, no longer relevant— so we also have grown, struggled and succeeded alongside Swift and Grande. We remember curly-haired, doe-eyed Taylor looking up at the camera and singing about the teardrops on her guitar because of a high-school jock who didn’t know she existed, in what can only be described as the backdrop of a poorly funded early-2000s music video. We remember her crooning “Love Story” at the top of a fake balcony and running excessively slowly across a lawn to meet her Romeo. And we still see her familiar theatrics today in her Reputation Stadium Tour. Grande? Let’s not forget that before the cat ears and fake ponytail, she played the annoying character Cat from “Victorious”— and she has no qualms about making digs at her early career on social media.
“Grande, a woman of her moment, understands that the work of a contemporary pop star is complex and multitudinous, and that singing is but a wee fraction of the gig,” New Yorker journalist Amanda Petrusich writes. “She maintains a chatty, confessional presence on social media, and, unlike many of her peers, knows that humor and transparency are valuable currency, and that neither can be very credibly fudged.”
These artists’ growth into who they are and what they stand for today can only be described as iconic. Of course we remember Nashville Taylor, America’s sweetheart Taylor, the Taylor that can be spotted in “Hannah Montana: The Movie”. But how much more fun is it to see today’s Taylor, the one sitting on a throne of snakes and accepting her status as a ‘fake b***h’? Character development much? This is why I can shamelessly say I got through more than half of that Netflix special. Because I grew up with her. “Red” was the first CD album I owned. I know her, though I don’t know her at all. Taylor is a character in a book, as familiar as Cinderella or Ariel, yet she’s always been the princess that never needed a prince to be successful— the best kind of role model. As The New Yorker so eloquently put,
“[Swift] is terrifyingly expert at addressing millions of strangers as if each were a cherished and familiar confidant. It’s easy to be cynical about this way of communicating, which favors a kind of dopey, manipulative warmth […] It is more likely that this is simply what happens when powerful women are expected to be both sweet and savvy, nurturers and entrepreneurs—eventually the line between the two fades, and friendliness and salesmanship become inextricable.”
The same reasoning explains why Grande and her album are so addicting to so many. Her work is a culmination of everything she and— through the osmosis of social media— her fans have endured in the last year. “Thank u, next” is a channel for her grief after the 2017 Manchester bombings, Mac Miller’s passing and her seemingly inevitable breakup with Pete Davidson. We have been with her through it all, heartbreak after heartbreak. And now, hearing her pain after Miller’s death and her struggle to keep her relationship with Davidson, we feel it too. She expresses this through the heart-tugging melody of “ghostin”, so unlike Grande’s other songs in the album: “I know you hear me when I cry/ I try to hold it in the night/ While you’re sleepin’ next to me/ But it’s your arms that I need this time.” And at the same time, we feel her indignation at people who blame her for Miller’s death in “fake smile”— “I read the things they write about me/ Hear what they’re sayin’ on the TV, it’s crazy/ It’s gettin’ hard for them to shock me/ But every now and then, it’s shocking, don’t blame me.”
In her Stadium Tour, Swift envelops herself in her reputation with snake-like dance moves, her famous sultry side gaze and songs like “I Did Something Bad”: “If a man talks sh*t, then I owe him nothing” to which I’m sure women everywhere yelled a collective “yeah!” But in the same song, we feel— albeit very briefly— her vulnerability when she says, “They never see it comin, what I do next/ This is how the world works/ You gotta leave before you get left.” And, in her monologue to the screaming Dallas audience, many of them in tears, she says, “I think the things that can scare us the most in life are the things that we think will threaten the prospect of us finding something real. For example, having a bad reputation in our mind could get in the way of finding real friendship, real love, real acceptance, people you really fit in with. Because you think to yourself, ‘What if they heard something about me that isn’t true?’ […] And then they never even want to meet me.” And perhaps it is a ‘faux-intimacy’ as The New Yorker called it, but right then I felt the same emotion— was it empathy or sympathy?— as when Grande accepted her Billboard’s Women of the Year Award.
Swift, and now Grande, are fearless feminine leaders of our generation— charging at the forefront of the modern women’s movement and re-defining what it means to experience all the emotions, heartbreak, success, love and loss as powerful and strong public figures. And they aren’t the only ones; Cardi B’s rags to riches story, from a Manhattan stripper to the first woman to win best rap album at the Grammys, Miley Cyrus’ journey from “Hannah Montana” to “Wrecking Ball” to “Malibu” amid her on-again off-again relationship with Liam Hemsworth, Rihanna going from creating music to creating a multi-million dollar beauty company— women are shattering stereotypes and taking ownership of their lives everywhere.
Ultimately, Swift and Grande are prime examples of what it means to take your career in your own hands— especially in an industry that gives so little room for this kind of control and in an era when everyone thinks they know them better than they know themselves. To turn pain into something productive; to win awards and accolades and be at the height of your career even while your personal life is at its lowest, well, that takes something. And if people disagree, I’m sure either star will brush it off with a simple “thank u, next.”