IN FEBRUARY OF THIS YEAR, Ariana Grande had the number-one, number-two, and number-three songs in America. So extreme a choke hold of the Billboard charts had only one antecedent: the Beatles achieved it in 1964, when “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Twist and Shout,” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret” blanketed the airwaves. (Grande responded to the news of her pop preeminence in trademark terse, unpunctuated Twitterese: “wait what”.) But the singer, whose fame does not so much polarize as it sorts—into those who adore her, ape her high ponytail, and have made her the second-most-followed person on Instagram, behind the Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, and those for whom she barely registers (yet)—was in quiet knots. Thank U, Next, the album she wrote and recorded in a two-week fever dream the previous October, contained the most wrenchingly personal songs in her canon, and she was about to embark on a tour of at least 40 cities, where night after night she had to sing her way through a succession of private horrors.
“I was researching healing and PTSD and talking to therapists, and everyone was like, ‘You need a routine, a schedule,’ ” Grande says, yanking off a pair of black, ultra-high platform ankle boots so that she can crisscross her legs on the sofa and sit close. The boots, by the way, are Sergio Rossi, though we have to dig into the insole to determine this; Grande knows about music, she says, and not about clothes. “Of course because I’m an extremist, I’m like, OK, I’ll go on tour! But it’s hard to sing songs that are about wounds that are so fresh. It’s fun, it’s pop music, and I’m not trying to make it sound like anything that it’s not, but these songs to me really do represent some heavy sh*t.”
We are sitting in the home studio of Tommy Brown, Grande’s close friend and a producer on Thank U, Next, at the end of a noiseless cul-de-sac in Northridge, in the San Fernando Valley. (The earthquake that occurred here in 1994, six months after Grande’s birth, was among the strongest ever recorded in an American city.) A layer of cloud casts a dull light over the low-lying suburban houses and their front yards dotted with iceberg roses and pepper trees. Grande’s fans, known as Arianators, rivaling the Beyhive and the Little Monsters as the most dedicated and attuned in music, know that she loves the dour weather, hates the beach of her cosseted Floridian youth. “I’m like, please bring me the cold and the clammy and the clouds,” she says. “You want what you didn’t grow up getting.”
Although she has a home of her own in Beverly Hills, the kind of vast, marble-paved manse that young stars buy before they’re ready for them, Tommy’s is where she likes spending time when she’s in Los Angeles. Grande is wearing black leggings and an oversize sweatshirt emblazoned with the words SOCIAL HOUSE, the name of a pop duo from Pittsburgh who are friends and now one of her opening acts. A large white pearl, her birthstone, glimmers on her finger. (She is a Cancer: a little crab happiest in her shell.) It occurs to me that we’re talking about the weather for precisely the reason that people talk about the weather, in order to dance around the “heavy sh*t.” It’s a dance that spins out quickly. Grande begins to cry nine minutes into our conversation, at the mention of Coachella, which she headlined this year for the first time. Following a bumbling interchange of apologies—“I’m so sorry I’m crying,” “I’m so sorry I made you cry”—she explains that the festival offered near-constant reminders of the rapper Mac Miller (born Malcolm McCormick), her dear friend, collaborator, and ex-boyfriend, who died of an accidental overdose in September 2018. I imagined we would visit this and other delicate topics somewhere deep in our discussion, but grief creates a conversational black hole, drawing all particles to it. “I never thought I’d even go to Coachella,” she explains. “I was always a person who never went to festivals and never went out and had fun like that. But the first time I went was to see Malcolm perform, and it was such an incredible experience. I went the second year as well, and I associate...heavily...it was just kind of a mindf*ck, processing how much has happened in such a brief period.”
For a woman who recently turned 26 and is enjoying the most successful chapter of her career, it has also been a spectacularly, and publicly, brutal couple of years. Fifteen months before Miller’s death, in May 2017, Grande had just finished the encore of a sold-out show on her Dangerous Woman tour in Manchester, England, when a suicide bomber detonated in the foyer, leaving 23 people dead, including an eight-year-old concertgoer. Shell-shocked and reeling, Grande and her mother, who was in the audience that night, flew home to Florida. (The tweet she mustered the next day was for a time the most-liked in the medium’s history: “broken. from the bottom of my heart, i am so so sorry. i don’t have words.”) But she quickly determined that before she was going to sing anywhere again, she needed to sing in Manchester. She returned two weeks later to visit survivors in hospitals and families in mourning. And she staged a benefit concert that raised $25 million. Guest stars included Coldplay, Katy Perry, and Justin Bieber, and Grande cruised the stage belting out her dirtiest songs at the request of one victim’s mother after it was suggested that the bomber, who had links to the Islamic State, had acted in protest of her racy pop persona.
But it was Grande’s culminating rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” intoned through her sobs, that is the night’s eternal image. If you didn’t know Ari, as her friends call her, if you sorted into that other group and assumed that Grande was a lab-engineered Frankensinger, a sexy cyborg extruding melismas in baby doll dresses and kitten ears, here may have been the first piece of evidence to the contrary. “Ariana’s an open book,” says her friend Miley Cyrus, who flew over for the concert. “She has always shared her experiences with this beautiful blend of reality and the fantasy that pop culture requires. But holding her in my arms that night and feeling her shake from the loss of lives, literally feeling her heart pounding against mine—when you can let down the personas and cry with the rest of the world, it’s unifying. It’s a reminder that music can be our greatest healer.”
She released no original music until the following spring, when “No Tears Left to Cry,” the first single off her fourth studio album, Sweetener, offered up a dance-floor hymn to optimism in the face of catastrophe. (The album’s closing track, “Get Well Soon,” addresses Manchester’s survivors directly. Including a period of silence at the song’s end, it clocks in at 5:22, the date of the bombing.) But in November 2018, after Miller’s death and the dissolution of her brief engagement to the Saturday Night Live comic Pete Davidson, Grande had to acknowledge that she was far from cried out, and she did so in a now-famous tweet: “remember when i was like hey i have no tears left to cry and the universe was like HAAAAAAAAA b*tch u thought.”
These words, classic darkly humorous and self-deprecating Grande, are about as far as she has been willing to go toward addressing the events of the last two years. “I’ve been open in my art and open in my DMs and my conversations with my fans directly, and I want to be there for them, so I share things that I think they’ll find comfort in knowing that I go through as well,” she explains. “But also there are a lot of things that I swallow on a daily basis that I don’t want to share with them, because they’re mine. But they know that. They can literally see it in my eyes. They know when I’m disconnected, when I’m happy, when I’m tired. It’s this weird thing we have. We’re like f*cking E.T. and Elliott.” Grande admits to approaching our conversation with a mix of dread and guilt about her dread. “I’m a person who’s been through a lot and doesn’t know what to say about any of it to myself, let alone the world. I see myself onstage as this perfectly polished, great-at-my-job entertainer, and then in situations like this I’m just this little basket-case puddle of figuring it out.” She laughs through her sniffles. “I have to be the luckiest girl in the world, and the unluckiest, for sure. I’m walking this fine line between healing myself and not letting the things that I’ve gone through be picked at before I’m ready, and also celebrating the beautiful things that have happened in my life and not feeling scared that they’ll be taken away from me because trauma tells me that they will be, you know what I mean?”
GRANDE GREW UP IN Boca Raton, Florida, in a gated community of expensive and lushly planted Mediterranean-style homes. Her mother, Joan Grande, Brooklyn-born and Barnard-educated, owns a business selling marine communications equipment; her father, Edward Butera, is a graphic designer. The couple divorced when Grande was eight. Ariana grew up in character, in a household that relished characters. The theme of her third birthday party was Jaws. She loved to run around the house in a Jason mask, and at Halloween, Joan liked to buy animal organs and leave them floating in dishes. “My family is eccentric and weird and loud and Italian,” Grande says. “There was always this fascination with the macabre. My mom is goth. Her whole wardrobe is modeled after Cersei Lannister’s. I’m not kidding. I’m like, ‘Mom, why are you wearing epaulets? It’s Thanksgiving.’ ”
Grande declared herself early. Joan recalls a car ride when Ariana was around three and a half; NSYNC was playing, and over and over the little girl perfectly matched JC Chasez’s high notes. There was a karaoke machine at home, and everyone—Ariana, her older half-brother, Frankie, and her mother—was always singing. “The soundtrack was Whitney, Madonna, Mariah, Celine, Barbra,” she recalls. “All the divas. Gay, divas, divas, gay, belting divas.” Joan also played a lot of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and the family watched old musicals, especially the Judy Garland–Mickey Rooney pictures. “She was so intrigued by how pristine and precise these women were,” Joan recalls. “She studied them carefully.” When the family loved a show, they could be obsessive; Joan estimates that they saw Jersey Boys on Broadway close to 60 times.
Grande has a preternatural gift for impersonating other singers and actresses—a talent that has made her a surprise darling of the nighttime-television circuit. (After watching her host Saturday Night Live three years ago, Steven Spielberg texted Lorne Michaels to sing her praises.) Grande credits her healthy vocal technique to having learned to mimic Celine Dion, in particular, whose seamless blending through her registers and careful vocal placement have given her greater durability than many of her peers. “I learned how to make it sound like I was belting and being loud without actually belting and being loud,” Grande explains. “The voice is expensive, and if you’re spending it properly, you’ll be able to keep spending it.” When I tell her that I’m surprised by her interest in Judy Garland—not an obvious source of inspiration for a pop artist born nearly 25 years after her death—she cradles her arms in a manner that immediately brings the legend to mind. “I would stand in front of the TV and mimic her body movements. I was always fascinated. She carried herself in a way that was so protected and soft and Judy.”
After years of local children’s theater, Grande landed a role in the Broadway musical 13. (She was 14 at the time.) Weeks after the musical closed, she was cast as the goofy sidekick Cat Valentine on the Nickelodeon show Victorious, which made her a star with the tween set. “I never really saw myself as an actress,” she says, “but when I started talking about wanting to make R&B music at 14, they were like, ‘What the f*ck would you sing about? This is never going to work. You should audition for some TV shows and build yourself a platform and get yourself out there, because you’re funny and cute and you should do that until you’re old enough to make the music you want to make.’ So I did that. I booked that TV show, and then I was like, OK, now can I make music?” While Victorious marched on, in her free time Grande liked to upload YouTube videos of herself singing covers of Adele, Whitney Houston, and Mariah Carey. It was a virtuoso rendition of Carey’s “Emotions,” which Grande posted in August 2012, when she was 19, that made her a hot property. Since then she has worked at a frantic pace, turning out five albums in six years, all of them certified platinum, and touring the world three times.
If one aspect of Grande’s career has been immune to critique, it’s her singing. Patti LaBelle came to know her several years ago, when Grande asked the R&B icon to perform at her birthday party. They have become friends. “She’s surpassed her peers,” LaBelle says. “And she does everything herself, which is not always the way with the young baby girls. She doesn’t need any machines. She’s a baby who’s able to sing like an older black woman.” LaBelle, whose four-year-old granddaughter, Gia, wears an Ariana ponytail, recalls the time when both singers performed for the Obamas at the Women of Soul concert at the White House. Grande was extremely nervous. “I said, ‘Girl, you’re a beast. Go up there and sing like that white-black woman you are.’ Ariana can sing me under the table—and listen, I can sing.”
Grande’s personal style has left her more vulnerable. Some critics have chafed at her uniform of bubblegum lampshade dresses and thigh-high boots, with their uneasy mix of sybarite and schoolgirl—as if she were the contrivance of a horny industry Humbert. She is not. “She’s like an R-rated version of a Disney character, super-vivid,” says Pharrell Williams, who produced much of Sweetener and clocked long hours in the studio with Grande pre- and post-Manchester. “But she’s full of self-awareness. That meta-cognition is part of her personality.” To those troubled by her image, Grande has a silencing reply: She just likes it. “I like having my funny character that I play,” she explains, “that feels like this exaggerated version of myself. It protects me. But also I love disrupting it for the sake of my fans and making clear that I’m a person—because that’s something I enjoy fighting for. I can’t help disrupt it. I’m incredibly impulsive and passionate and emotional and just reckless. The music is very personal and very real, but yes, if you can be me for Halloween, if drag queens can dress up as me, then I’m a character. Go to your local drag bar, and you’ll see it. That’s, like, the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s better than winning a Grammy.” (Incidentally, Grande won her first Grammy this year, when Sweetener was awarded Best Pop Vocal Album.)
While the character has been remarkably consistent across her career, Grande feels it’s only in the last year that she has been able to make the music she has always wanted to make. “There was a two-album period where I was doing half the songs for me and half the songs to solidify my spot in pop music,” she acknowledges. “A lot of my singles have been hilariously lacking in substance. You’re talking to someone who put ‘Side to Side’ out as a single. I love that song, but it’s just a fun song about sex.” I ask her if it ever feels uncomfortable to gaze out at an audience of thousands of nine-year-old girls while singing a song about having so much coitus that it’s hard to walk straight. “They’re for sure gonna have it. I promise. I promise that your kid’s gonna have sex. So if she asks you what the song’s about, talk about it.” One clever aspect of Thank U, Next is the way it coaxes out your most cynical notions about Grande, then forces you to reevaluate them. Consider the three singles that ruled February: “Break Up with Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” “7 Rings,” and the title track. A song ostensibly about female rivalry is in fact about self-love; a paean to materialism celebrates sisterhood; and what sounds like it will be a haughty diss track turns out to be a reflection on the importance of gratitude and reappraisal.
It’s tempting to think of Manchester as the inflection point in Grande’s career, though she shrinks from any narrative about the bombing that might place her at its center. “It’s not my trauma,” she says as tears fill her eyes. “It’s those families’. It’s their losses, and so it’s hard to just let it all out without thinking about them reading this and reopening the memory for them.” She pauses to collect herself. “I’m proud that we were able to raise a lot of money with the intention of giving people a feeling of love or unity, but at the end of the day, it didn’t bring anyone back. Everyone was like, Wow, look at this amazing thing, and I was like, What the f*ck are you guys talking about? We did the best we could, but on a totally real level we did nothing. I’m sorry. I have a lot to say that could probably help people that I do want to share, but I have a lot that I still need to process myself and will probably never be ready to talk about. For a long time I didn’t want to talk to anyone about anything, because I didn’t want to think about anything. I kind of just wanted to bury myself in work and not focus on the real stuff, because I couldn’t believe it was real. I loved going back into the studio with Pharrell because he just has this magical outlook on everything. He truly believes that the light is coming. And I’m like, Bruh, is it, though?”
SINCE MANCHESTER, GRANDE HAS emerged as an outspoken advocate of gun control, singing at last year’s March for Our Lives, organized by the survivors of the Parkland massacre. She flew from Hong Kong to Charlottesville on the last day of her Dangerous Woman tour to perform in A Concert for Charlottesville, a response to the Unite the Right rally. She is passionately pro-LGBTQ and passionately anti–Donald Trump at a time when many of her peers have chosen to remain silent about politics lest they alienate a segment of their fan base. “I would rather sell fewer records and be outspoken about what I think is some f*ckery than sell more records and be . . . Switzerland. Am I allowed to say that? I love Switzerland. The fake wokes are waiting to attack!”
The studio remains Grande’s safe haven. When Miller died, her friends— Tommy, the singer Victoria Monet, her childhood best friend, Aaron Gross, and others—gathered around her in New York, where she had been living. Somebody pointed out that Jungle City Studios was right around the corner from her apartment. “My friends know how much solace music brings me, so I think it was an all-around, let’s-get-her-there type situation,” she recalls. “But if I’m completely honest, I don’t remember those months of my life because I was (a) so drunk and (b) so sad. I don’t really remember how it started or how it finished, or how all of a sudden there were 10 songs on the board. I think that this is the first album and also the first year of my life where I’m realizing that I can no longer put off spending time with myself, just as me. I’ve been boo’d up my entire adult life. I’ve always had someone to say goodnight to. So Thank U, Next was this moment of self-realization. It was this scary moment of ‘Wow, you have to face all this stuff now. No more distractions. You have to heal all this sh*t.’ ”
TOMMY BROWN BELIEVES THAT Thank U, Next is Grande’s inner life set to a trap beat. “We were in that studio to throw paint around,” he recalls. “We weren’t thinking about an album. We were drinking a lot of champagne and, I think, doing a lot of therapy with each other. That album is so real because Ari makes her music in the real time of what’s happening in her life.” When I ask Grande whether it is fair to call Thank U, Next a response to Miller’s death, the tears return, along with the reciprocal apologies. Her characteristic heavy eyeliner, flared upward at the edges in the Maria Callas style, never runs. “It’s just hard to hear it so plainly put,” she says. She has rarely commented on her relationship with Miller and has taken umbrage when the media has sought to define her according to her romantic relationships. But in May 2018, she made an exception in the form of a widely admired clapback after a fan of Miller’s took to Twitter following the rapper’s arrest for drunk driving, suggesting that being spurned by Grande was the cause. Her reply was swift and lacerating: “shaming and blaming a woman for a man’s inability to keep his sh*t together is a very major problem. let’s please stop doing that.”
“People don’t see any of the real stuff that happens, so they are loud about what they think happened,” she says now. “They didn’t see the years of work and fighting and trying, or the love and exhaustion. That tweet came from a place of complete defeat, and you have no idea how many times I warned him that that would happen and fought that fight, for how many years of our friendship, of our relationship. You have no idea so you’re not allowed to pull that card, because you don’t f*cking know. That’s where that came from.” Grande spent years consumed by worry about Miller. Friends with her during the Dangerous Woman tour recall a woman up at all hours, desperately tracking his whereabouts to ensure he wasn’t on a bender. “It’s pretty all-consuming,” she says of her grief over Miller. “By no means was what we had perfect, but, like, f*ck. He was the best person ever, and he didn’t deserve the demons he had. I was the glue for such a long time, and I found myself becoming . . . less and less sticky. The pieces just started to float away.”
Grande has since backed off from using social media to unload her feelings, instead mainly posting benignly glamorous images of ponytails and photos of her dogs (she has seven, as well as a miniature potbelly pig called Piggy Smalls). This is an about-face for a woman who has become actual friends with her fans through Twitter, who has been known to direct-message them bars of music before she has shared them with the folks at her label. “Everyone thinks I’m crazy for doing it, but I care about what they have to say more than I care about what anyone at my label has to say, no offense,” she explains. “This is a me-and-them thing. I’m not taking one of those corny breaks from social media where you’re like, ‘The internet hurts me, I’m leaving, goodbye.’ But I’ve definitely established a new boundary. I don’t want to get myself into some sh*t.” Joan says that she and her daughter have talked a lot about the maintenance of boundaries lately. Ariana has always been an empath. “She has a way of taking on everyone’s pain,” Joan says. “She functions really beautifully, but when she has to laser herself to those heartbreaking moments, I don’t think she can find anything but tears. Sure, I worry about her, but I always tell her, how you’re feeling right now is perfect.”
One of the more puzzling chapters of Grande’s public life was her short-lived engagement to Davidson last year, a kamikaze move made in the haze of her breakup with Miller. Her friends had convinced her to decamp to New York, to escape L.A. and her patterns there. “My friends were like, ‘Come! We’re gonna have a fun summer.’ And then I met Pete, and it was an amazing distraction. It was frivolous and fun and insane and highly unrealistic, and I loved him, and I didn’t know him. I’m like an infant when it comes to real life and this old soul, been-around-the-block-a-million-times artist. I still don’t trust myself with the life stuff.”
Art is made richer through experience, of course, and Grande has never made better art—or sold more records—than when she decided to make music out of the bitter history of the last two years. But it’s nice to get away from oneself now and then: She is currently writing and producing the soundtrack to the upcoming film reboot of Charlie’s Angels, will costar in Ryan Murphy’s Netflix adaptation of the Broadway musical The Prom—and there’s a big acting job she’s hoping to land, though she doesn’t want to jinx it.
“I have this idea of what I’d like to be,” she says. “I can see this stronger, amazing, fearless version of myself that one day I hope to evolve into. Sometimes I try to be that for my fans before I actually am that myself. I think I’ve been avoiding putting in the work. You know how that gets: You push your therapist away at some point, but then you have to get back to it.” She musters a laugh. “Do you know a good therapist?”