Ariana Grande Explores the Existential Highs and Lows of Being a Millennial in positions

Ariana Grande’s Nickelodeon days are long over. Her sixth studio album positions proves that she is a grown woman who has come into her own, in case any Victorious fans were still nostalgic for the old red-haired, baby-voiced Cat Valentine days. Both thematically and sonically more mature, positions is a soundtrack for millennials who are getting settled into their adulthood. Surely many of us will be able to relate to the experiences and emotions she covers throughout the album’s songs. But what’s most interesting here is not Ari’s capacity to relate, but to shed light on the deeper existential undercurrents within the millennial experience.

Grande’s rise to pop stardom has been bolstered by her successful music sales and captivating persona. All of her albums since her 2013 debut Yours Truly have gone platinum, and she’s sold out four international tours, not to mention having the second most followed Instagram account (after Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo).

Her successes have been peppered with hardships and tragedies: in 2017, her concert in Manchester, England was bombed by terrorists; then the next year she lost her ex-boyfriend, the rapper Mac Miller, to an overdose and went through a fast-paced and highly publicized engagement and breakup with comedian Pete Davidson (which she poked fun at in her number one hit “7 rings”).

These dramatic events seemed to parallel a darker, more adult turn in her music and persona. Her songs became more sexual and featured explicit lyrics, and her videos, dress, and dance moves became noticeably more provocative.

Parents of tweens will probably not find positions much more suitable for their kids than her last few albums. But despite its explicit nature, the album does take a step toward greater maturity. Ari demonstrates that she has grown in self-consciousness and has developed the ability to think more reflectively about who she is as a woman.

Sonically, positions hearkens back to her debut album, employing soulful sounds reminiscent of 90s R&B with a pop sensibility, adding tinges of trap, doo wop, and house. The production richly layers live instrumentation and breathy vocal arrangements, evoking a sense of floating amidst the clouds.

Grande “shuts up” her naysayers in the album’s opener, bragging about her “diamonds” and her successful career. The production of the song “34+35” sounded so “Disney and orchestral and full and pure,” to Grande that when composing the lyrics, she asked herself, “What is the dirtiest possible most opposing lyrics we could write to this?” Full of innuendos and graphic imagery, the song will likely leave younger fans wondering what she’s talking about. In “just like magic,” she hints at her belief in how New Age ideas like the Law of Attraction, karma, and Manifestation Techniques help her maintain her mental stability and moral groundedness.

Her playfulness and brazen demeanor are tempered by moments of vulnerability and self-doubt. In “off the table,” a duet with R&B singer The Weeknd, she wonders if she can be healed of wounds from past relationships and stop seeking to fill the void with promiscuity. “I just want to know is love completely off the table?” she wonders to herself. She further expresses her desire for a committed, lasting love that embraces her brokenness in “six thirty.” “I know I be on some BS, know I be driving your crazy…I just wonder baby if you’re gonna stay.” Grande knows that to surpass the momentary pleasure in the sexual act and reach genuine love requires the willingness to risk losing her control of things. In “safety net” she sings, “I came to peace with my path, now you got me off track. I’ve never been this scared before, feelings I just can’t ignore. Don’t know if I should fight or fly.” She hints at how the recent trauma she’s dealt with makes her doubt whether she can maintain a lasting relationship in “obvious”: “[You] make me wanna believe in love. I love the thought of us in the evening, crave the feeling. The way you feel, somethin’ ’bout it’s healing. I’m praying we don’t f this up.”

The album’s most profound moment comes at the end in “pov.” “It’s like you got superpowers…You got more than 20/20…the way you see through me you know me better than I do. Can’t seem to keep nothing from you. How you touch my soul from the outside, permeate my ego and my pride.” Ari cries out for a seemingly supernatural lover who can teach her how to love herself. “I wanna love me the way that you love me, for all of my pretty and all of my ugly too. I’d love to see me from your point of view.”

Ari oscillates between being a self-sufficient, independent careerist who likes to live in the heat of the moment, and a vulnerable, self-doubting human, longing for unconditional love and lasting meaning. This tension reflects the lived reality of many other millennials and speaks to the values and worldview handed to us as we’ve come of age.

Many of us have been taught, whether implicitly or explicitly, that we’ll find happiness only through being true to ourselves and forging our own destiny. Values like authority and tradition tend to be downplayed in the name of self-expression. Reliance on external realities like God and religion or family and tradition is becoming more and more obsolete. Real happiness starts with being authentic to oneself, establishing oneself in their field of work and striving to leave an impact on the world, and making the most of the moment (as the rapper Drake reminds us, “you only live once”).

This message of fulfillment has been fed to us since our early youth through Disney movies about princes and princesses flouting social expectations in order to “follow their heart” and seek real love. Those who sacrifice what they want for the sake of obeying norms imposed by others will be stuck living lives of repression and disappointment. It shouldn’t be surprising that Pew Forum reports that 34% of millennials consider religion not very or totally unimportant to their lives (as compared with 23% of Gen Xers and 18% of Boomers).

While millennials’ life goals and standards of morality vastly differ from those of their parents and grandparents, philosopher Charles Taylor warns us not to dismiss these changes as signs of moral decay. Instead, he indicates that as Western societies further secularize, their moral basis has shifted from the value of faith in a transcendent reality to the value of authenticity—a shift he posits ought to be taken seriously on its own terms.

This turn toward the self(ie) often gives rise, as Ariana suggests in several of her songs, to the question of whether there’s anything of which we can truly be certain. Our recognition of our own moral and emotional fragility, bouts with “imposter syndrome,” and need for lasting love and meaning can leave us feeling vulnerable and insecure. Is it possible to be loved for who we are—flaws and all—and not for what we accomplish, look like, or what our social media profile displays? Is anything, or anyone, capable of healing our wounds, redeeming our fragility? In a “liquid” world where technology changes at a rapid pace, political polarization intensifies, and senseless violence seems uncontrollable, we can easily find ourselves plagued with our existential poverty. We may dabble with different spiritualities and philosophies, but many of us feel that we lack a worldview that can adequately imbue our existence with a totalizing meaning.

As much as Ariana Grande may brag about her success and revel in her sexual inhibition, she recognizes that none of this can totally fill the void…the Augustinian restlessness at the bottom of her being. She longs to see herself through the gaze of someone who “loves all of her pretty, and all of her ugly too,” and who has the capacity to penetrate her “ego and pride.” Though she may not have encountered someone who fits this description perfectly, the album’s closing note reminds us that no matter how much we achieve or obtain, we all long for this type of penetrating gaze that can reach all the way to the depths of our heart.

Aside from the masterful production quality, this is perhaps the album’s greatest feature.

Ari demonstrates that no matter how much values and social norms may change, the one thing that remains constant is the infinite desire contained in every human heart. Millennials may lack the language to make sense of it. The more traditional frameworks that accounted for this desire for the Infinite weren’t always presented to us in ways that made it relevant to our actual lived experience, thus our tendency to eschew those traditional frameworks and experiment with new ones. But as Ariana Grande proves in positions, those who can learn to be transparent with themselves and honest with their experiences are never far from the answers.

Stephen G. Adubato teaches religion and philosophy to high school students in New Jersey and writes at Cracks in Postmodernity for the Patheos Catholic Channel.