By Adam Downer | 9 September 2014
I miss when it was possible to pretend faceless corporate bigwigs at Nickelodeon were the ones dictating Ariana Grande’s music career and not, you know, her own people. Those were better times. Judging by the mild sexualization of the “Ariana Grande” brand, her musical disassociation from the retro pop-vocal sound that helped Yours Truly (2013) hold up surprisingly well, and the endless media blitz that has kept her name and perpetually-hearing-the-voices-of-angels face plastered on your Facebook feed, the plan for My Everything was to mold Ariana Grande into a full-blown contemporary pop-star. To that end, mission accomplished, because now it’s cool to make fun of her. We are at the point in the Ariana cycle where Pitchfork gives its seal of approval to the obviously shittier album and snarky pubs get their rocks off ribbing her outfits and poor enunciation, which, as far as pop-backlash is concerned, is pretty tame. It’d take a Scrooge-y heart indeed to foster active hatred for Ariana when her entire thing is pre-sexual looks, genuine (looking, at least) attitude, and bequeathed-from-God pipes. It should be the easiest thing in the world for a PR team to sell. So why is My Everything hot garbage?
For starters, My Everything is less an Ariana Grande album than it is an “Ariana Grande Album,” a brand-supplement that needed to simply exist before it needed to be any good. In other words: it’s a rush job. It’s a classic, micromanaged-to-death, “star-making” sophomore album drowning in a tub of lip gloss. Aside from the singles you’ve already had drilled into your head, My Everything slings lazy compositions that establish their total anonymity in five seconds alongside egregious fuck-ups and guest spots that are somehow even worse than the notoriously spotty ones on Yours Truly. To give you an idea of how bad the spots on My Everything are, Iggy Azalea’s rap on “Problem” isn’t even in the bottom two. The absolute worst award goes to A$AP Ferg on the album’s most baffling track, a slinky sex jam a la 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop” or Clipse’s “When The Last Time” called “Hands On Me” that’s wildly out of character for Ariana. Sequenced towards the end of the album after a series of milquetoast ballads and dime-a-dozen mid-tempo pop songs, “Hands On Me” finds the singer clamoring for sexual attention while Ferg skeezes his way through a pervy chorus. The most atrocious misfire in My Everything’s campaign to mature Ariana, “Hands On Me” illustrates the extent to which her team had no idea how to go about achieving this goal, bowing towards tired, misogynistic tropes and shaving away any semblance of her genuine personality. The result is a supposed star-turn of a record that offers us no clear idea of who Ariana Grande really are.
Speaking of which, there’s a story out in Time that says that on the grammatical graveyard that is “Break Free” (which, go figure, is probably the best song on the album), Ariana fought co-producer Max Martin about the nonsense she was spewing (including the lyric “I only wanna die alive!”), but was overruled. Billboard put it thusly:
“After some back and forth, Grande learned an ironclad rule in the pop music world: You don’t win a fight against Max Martin. Now she’s grown to enjoy the humor in the song. ‘I need to shake it off and let it go and be a little less rigid and old,’ Grande told Time. ‘I’m like, 90. I need to not be that old.’”
This fun little story about a pop starlet learning to compromise her integrity and fall in with the old guard—it’s just pop music, after all—is a microcosm of why My Everything suffers. It’s an album’s worth of Ariana saying yes to everything and maddeningly obscuring her own eccentricities. Not that Yours Truly was exactly brimming with them, but at least it had “Piano,” which made some sort of character-defining statement about Ariana’s place in pop-music (“I’m gonna make fun pop music. Fuck you,” basically). Here, however, she’s handed generic, tepid ballad after generic, mid-tempo ballad that hits the same biteless, focus-group tested “breakup” checkpoints over and over, and Ariana can’t sell them because they aren’t any good. Worst offenders are “Best Mistake,” the requisite Big Sean disaster, and “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart,” which sounds like what Katy Perry’s “Roar” would sound like in half-time, but these are symptomatic of the much larger issue.
My Everything is so concerned with making a palatable pop singer, it has watered down its subject to the point of tastelessness. It is pop music Bud Light. There are a few nice moments: “Break Your Heart Right Back” is an alright tune with a decent bounce and catchy chorus, “One More Time” gets better when you have to listen to it more than once for a review, and “Problem” is still a jam despite Ziggy Igg’s best efforts to destroy it. Still, the overwhelming takeaway of My Everything is disappointment. What should be one of the most exciting pop albums of the year passes as inconsequentially as it would on the speakers of your local CVS. All of which goes to say that despite its mediocrity, it serves its purpose as a vessel for the tunes that will help Ariana Grande reach the top of pop, “Problem” and “Bang Bang.” But whoever’s pulling the strings needs to figure out how to make her music worth a damn before she gets there.