What’s the Deal with…Ariana Grande?
|August 20, 2013||Posted by Jess under Celebrities, Music, Tweendom, What's the Deal with...?|
Up next in this series on tween stars that no one asked for: Ariana Grande!
If you don’t watch a lot of Nickelodeon – or, um, YouTube vlogs by Nickelodeon stars – Ariana Grande probably seems like she came out of nowhere. Who is this sugary-voiced imp in the video for MIKA’s “Popular Song” and with her own single, “The Way,” climbing the charts? What do you mean, her upcoming New York concert sold out in 15 minutes and the $35 seats are now being scalped for nearly $200 a pop? What’s the deal?
Ariana Grande is a Florida-born triple threat who made her Broadway debut at fifteen in the musical 13, coincidentally alongside her future BFF and Nickelodeon costar Elizabeth Gillies. Two years later, she landed the role of Cat on the Dan Schneider-created Nick kidcom Victorious.
Now, Schneider is a Nickelodeon institution who got his start ages ago as a writer on the late, great, All That. As I’ve mentioned before, he’s big into apprenticeship: he’ll take a star from a project that’s ending and spin them off into their own show. All That led to the Schneider-created Kenan and Kel, The Amanda Show, and Zoey 101, starring Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell, Amanda Bynes, and Jamie Lynn Spears respectively; supporting Amanda Show cast members Drake Bell and Josh Peck got their own show, Drake and Josh, and their supporting cast member Miranda Cosgrove eventually got her own show, iCarly. Meanwhile, Victoria Justice, who got her start on Zoey 101, was given a tremendous promotional push by Nickelodeon as the star of the new show Victorious.1
Schneider shows, increasingly, are about assembling a handful of incredibly talented, charming teenagers, and having them do horrible things to strangers while screaming. Maybe it’s just me getting older, but his work really does seem to be devolving into a parody of itself. Even as an adult, I loved Drake and Josh, despite the occasional cruelty of the characters; tapped out of iCarly after a couple of seasons of nastiness; and have never been able to sit through a whole episode of Victorious because the characters are unrepentant sociopaths. It’s a shame, because, again, Schneider is great at picking talent, and Victorious had it in spades. Star Victoria Justice may not be the world’s greatest comedic actress, but she knows how to belt a kiss-off song like nobody’s business. Elizabeth Gillies might be the show’s standout talent, with her deadpan delivery and rich, authoritative voice; in 10 years she’s going to be the greatest Sondheim grande dame who ever lived. Leon Thomas, another Broadway alum, should have his own show, like, yesterday, Daniella Monet has great comedic timing, and I don’t know if Avan Jogia can sing or dance but he founded the organization Straight But Not Narrow, which encourages young straight people to be GLBT allies, and that’s awesome.
And then there’s Ariana. Like I said, I can’t sit through a whole episode of Victorious. It doesn’t help that Ariana’s required to do this faint, high-pitched voice for her character, which renders every single line of her dialogue unbearably annoying. So my first real exposure to her was randomly trawling YouTube for teen stars singing. (That’s normal, right?)
Okay, so she can sing. I mean, she can sing, which was actually a bit more of a surprise back in 2011. (Disney, with Nick close on their heels, has transitioned over the past few years from “making cute teen actresses sing” to “actually hiring singers,” but I always expect kidcom stars to have squeaky little Hilary Duff voices and no training.) But what I found most charming about her in those YouTube jaunts was her uncanny skill at impressions:
Y’all. That Judy Garland is ridiculous. So: extremely talented singer who does hilarious impressions and loves showtunes and a retro aesthetic? I was officially a fan.
Ariana started doing more notable live performances here and there between Victorious seasons, mostly a charming mashup of “Express Yourself” and “Born This Way.” (Or, you know what? Here’s her singing a cabaret-style cover of “The Only Girl in the World” with a bunch of male backup dancers while dressed like a sexy cupcake. That could pretty much be the whole post right there. What’s the Deal with Ariana Grande? Cabaret-style sexy cupcake covers, is what.)
She released her first single in 2011, “Put Your Hearts Up,” which is pretty much the twee-est song and video that ever twee-ed:
Both song and video failed to make much of a splash (compare the 7 million hits to the nearly 80 million for “The Way”). Ariana’s antipathy towards them both didn’t help; she did almost no promotion for the song and has essentially excised it from her discography, removing it from her Vevo page and ignoring its existence completely. The album it was supposed to be the vanguard for has taken two years to materialize, with most of the original songs (all 50s and 60s doo-wop inspired, for which I think we can probably blame the Biebs) dropped in favor of a less-retro-but-still-retro 90s flavor.
In the meantime, it was back to YouTube for cover videos (this one to Bieber’s “Die in Your Arms” is not much of a video, but the cover is stupendous and really shows how agile her voice is). Back to Nickelodeon – though the imminent cancellation of Victorious was announced in the summer of 2012, Ariana’s character Cat was spun off alongside the fabulous Jennette McCurdy’s character Sam from iCarly in a new buddy sitcom, Sam and Cat, which has a first season order of no less than forty episodes. (Which is clearly the strategy of a network that has absolutely no idea what it’s doing or how to shore up its sinking ratings, but whatever.)
And, you know, Ariana’s doggedly making the rounds, as a tween star must; she’s costarring in the upcoming Nickelodeon TV movie Swindle alongside a gaggle of other Nick stars, she’s doing YouTube spots with costar Jennette, she’s smiling at the Kids’ Choice Awards.
But “The Way,” the first single off Ariana’s upcoming debut album, entered the Billboard charts at 10 back in March, and has the third bestselling first week of any 2013 single, just behind Justin Timberlake and One Direction. “Baby I” also charted in the Top 40. Her featured vocals on MIKA’s “Popular Song” brought her to a new audience; the disaffected, “goth-in-cheek” video made her appealing to a proper teen audience rather than a tween one. Just today, she released a duet with Nathan Sykes of The Wanted for the soundtrack of the highly anticipated City of Bones movie.2 And, as mentioned, her New York show for her current tour sold out in 15 minutes, and scalped ticket prices are outrageously high. You know, the tour where she’s ditched Cat’s trademark red hair and gone back to her natural brown?
Basically, Ariana’s poised for a really good run at a music career, and is doing everything she can to distance herself from Nickelodeon and her kid fanbase without being a total jerk about it.3 I will frankly be shocked if Sam and Cat (which is unwatchable anyway) makes it to a second season, especially since Jennette seems as close to gnawing her own leg off to escape the bear trap as Ariana.4
I mean, let’s be real: Ariana Grande is Mariah Carey, circa “Whoa, who is this person singing this ‘Vision of Love’ song?” and minus the big crimped hair and Tommy Mottola. The extraordinary voice that shifts easily from sugar-sweet trills to a full and ludicrously high belt, the whistle register, the hearts and flowers and poofy cupcake dresses, the unabashedly girly image. She’s cited Mariah as a major influence and “the greatest vocalist of all time” and is deliberately aping 90s R&B and pop on her album.5 Pretty much every critic who’s reviewed Ariana’s music has made the comparison, because again: it’s obvious.
The problem for Ariana is that there already is a Mariah Carey. And though the original’s far from her heydey, she’s still working and, you know, “Dreamlover” and “Fantasy” are still around for the listening. So the question for Ariana is: Can she bring something to the table that proves that she’s not the second Mariah Carey, but the first Ariana Grande?
I don’t know. But given what we’ve heard of Ariana so far, I’m willing to give her a chance.
- Schneider is far from the only creator who does this, of course, and Nick stars also cross-pollinate: Scott Fellows tapped Carlos Pena for Big Time Rush because he’d worked with him before, and reused a handful of adult actors from his previous Nick show, Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide, as well as Zoey 101’s Erin Sanders. And Disney, as we know, has a whole elaborate star-making process. But Schneider is probably the best-known creator among his audience and his process is the most transparent. ↩
- Side note: I consider The Wanted to be very much a lesser boyband next to One Direction and my beloved Big Time Rush so I’m not very familiar with them, but good golly, why is that child singing like that? Someone make him stop. ↩
- It’s also worth noting that she has signed with Universal Music Group and not Sony, the Nickelodeon-affiliated label. ↩
- Jennette’s own music career seems to be a non-starter for the moment, which is a shame, because she’s hella talented. ↩
- She keeps saying it’s the music she grew up on. Girl, you were seven in 2000. ↩