Music

How Ariana Grande Rewrote The Rules Of Pop Music

Ariana Grande didn't want to release music like a popstar. So she didn't, and then she changed the game.

ariana grande positions photo

“My dream has always been to be — obviously not a rapper, but, like, to put out music in the way that a rapper does,” Ariana Grande declared to Rolling Stone at the end of last year.

Thank u, next, her fifth album, had been released just six months after her previous record Sweetener, tearing up an unwritten rule dictating the speed at which popstars should release music.

“If I want to tour two albums at once, I’m going to tour two albums at once. If I want to drop a third album while I’m on tour [in 2019], I’ll do that too,” she continued.

She didn’t quite get round to releasing the third, but she did tour both Sweetener and thank u, next on the same run. By the time that tour finished, Sweetener’s predecessor was the biggest album of her career. The title track was her first ever US number one and the second single ‘7 Rings’ became her second. Both songs now have over a billion streams on Spotify. This year, Grande became Spotify’s most streamed female artist of all time.

Positions, her sixth album, arrives within two years of thank u, next. As far as breaks between albums go, it’s not an unusual one for a pop artist — but it’s not like she disappeared in the meantime. She’s curated the Charlie’s Angels soundtrack, collected two more number one records with Justin Bieber on ‘Stuck With U’ and on Lady Gaga’s ‘Rain On Me’, and sporadically dropped standalone tracks. Her presence has been consistently felt.

The pop climate that Grande releases Positions into is a remarkably different one, and it’s one that Grande has created. Finally, popstars are releasing singles and albums in quick succession, employing the same tactic that made the rap genre the true winner of the streaming era so far.

What Does It Mean To Release Like A Rapper?

Like Grande first alluded to, the new pop release strategy is modelled off hip-hop and for good reason. In 2018, rap overtook rock as the most popular musical genre in the US. According to Nielsen, the win was, “powered by a 72 percent increase in on-demand audio streaming.”

Releasing records in quick succession isn’t a streaming-driven strategy for rap. Tupac, Nas and DMX were releasing two albums a year back in the late ‘90s. The mixtape era of the early ‘00s saw artists like Lil Wayne release several mixtapes a year for free online.

Streaming has brought these projects even further into the public eye, taking rappers up the top of the charts repeatedly. In 2017, Future clocked two consecutive US number ones in two weeks with his projects Future and HNDRXX. Around the same time, Gucci Mane had released four albums over the space of two years while Drake gave us Views and More Life less than a year apart. The accessibility and speed of the streaming model was built to satisfy listeners with the appetite of rap fans.

The accessibility and speed of the streaming model was built to satisfy listeners with the appetite of rap fans.

The hip-hop release model began to creep into pop on a small scale in 2017 when Charli XCX became frustrated with the slow rollout of pop records. She released two mixtapes Pop 2 and Number 1 Angel in the same year telling The Verge at the time, “I was feeling very creative and wanted to release my music rapidly and when I wanted.”

What she released were essentially albums but they were labelled as mixtapes to help shift her label’s thinking. Ed Howard, the Vice-President of Atlantic Records noticed Charli’s frustrations and had a conversation about redesigning the way her music was released.

“We were talking about borrowing from other genres in a much more free way, particularly urban music and how mixtapes are such an important part of that culture,” he told Music Week. “With the advent of streaming, everything was moving anyway.”

Sometimes Life Doesn’t Happen In Neat Pop Eras

While XCX is undoubtedly influential in the pop sphere, her cult fan base allows her more freedom than Grande — who is expected to compete in the upper echelons of the charts with every release. Grande didn’t go down the mixtape route but she entered uncharted territory by releasing thank u, next so soon after Sweetener. At the time, there was no proof that pop audiences had the same appetite for quick-fire releases as rap fans did. Grande was unwavering in her decision.

“She doesn’t feel like her life moves in year-and-a-half chapters, it moves faster than that,” her manager Scooter Braun told Music Week around the release of the album. “We decided not to move in year-and-a-half cycles, but move when culture dictates. Streaming gave us the ability to do it properly.”

Things changed vastly for Grande in between albums. Her ex-partner Mac Miller passed away and she ended her engagement to fiancé Pete Davidson. Working on normal pop timelines, she would’ve just finished promoting Sweetener — an album that contains a song named after Davidson.

When you think of it, few people, popstar or not, live their life in year-and-a-half cycles. Things change rapidly, particularly in the digital era, but pop has defiantly kept with its traditional release strategies even though streaming became the most popular form of music consumption back in 2015, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

Generally, pop releases are documented in eras. The era includes pre-release singles, the album, merch, music videos and an, often lengthy, tour. You then disappear for a year or so and then return in a new era.

In the decade preceding thank u, next, it’s almost impossible to find an example of a major pop artist releasing two albums within the year. For the most part, that’s been been a bullet-proof strategy. Taylor Swift had mastered the pop era, releasing records on average two years apart and touring extensively with a watertight aesthetic. The same goes for Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Rihanna and many more.

Taylor Swift Sydney

Taylor Swift on stage in Sydney. Photo credit: Mikki Gomez

Thank u, next, however, demonstrated how to truly embrace the streaming boom by loosening the constricts of the era. And it caught on quickly. Pop artists began to release music as an experimentation rather than part of a fleshed-out vision or aesthetic.

Perry, the popstar who once released singles off Teenage Dream for two years, spent 2019 sporadically testing out singles, only some of which ended up on her 2020 album Smile. Cyrus surprise-dropped an EP She Is Coming, immediately responded to her split with Liam Hemsworth with a quick-fire single ‘Slide Away’, and is now dropping a new album Plastic Hearts.

Sam Smith, Shawn Mendes, Troye Sivan and Halsey, to name a few, have thrown caution to the wind, releasing standalone tracks that weren’t attached to a broader project. Grande has joined them, playing in her own playground, by releasing standalone tracks like ‘Boyfriend’ with Social House and ‘Monopoly’ with Victoria Monét.

2020’s Need For Speed

The speed that pop music comes at us has accelerated even more in 2020. Without the ability to tour, pop artists have upped the frequency and consistency of new music. Swift — one of the most structured popstars on the planet — surprise-released folklore just 11-months after the release of Lover. “My gut is telling me that if you make something you love, you should just put it out into the world,” Swift wrote at the time.

Like thank u, next, folklore is proving to be more popular than its predecessor, spending seven weeks in the top spot on the Billboard 200.

Bieber, also managed by Braun, took five years to give us Changes following on from Purpose. The album only dropped in February but he’s already moved on and announced a new era, giving us the singles ‘Holy’ and ‘Lonely’. Lovato, another member of Braun’s management clan, is also on a roll with real-time releases, so much so that she surprised even Braun with the drop of her song ‘Still Have Me’.

Dua Lipa, one of the first true megastars to break in the streaming era, is also feeding her fans quickly. Future Nostalgia was only released in March and while she’s still operating within the era she’s given us her remix album Club Future Nostalgia, collaborations with J. Balvin and Brockhampton and is now teasing more new music including a deluxe edition of the LP. From a streaming perspective, it’s working too. She’s the fifth most-streamed artist in the world on Spotify right now.

By now, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that XCX released how i’m feeling now just seven months after 2019’s Charli. It’s interesting to note, however, that it was labelled an album rather than a mixtape, signalling a change in her label’s thinking.

Positions the album will be dropped into a pop world operating under new rules — rules that Grande wrote herself.

It remains to be seen whether Grande will swiftly follow up Positions. This project, however, already looks to be taking lessons from thank u, next in the casual nature of the rollout. Unlike Sweetener, there have been no grandiose teaser visuals or marketing assets. She simply wrote on Twitter, “I can’t wait to give u my album this month.” She followed that up with a lo-fi video typing the word ‘pleasures’ onto a keyboard.

The title track has arrived just a week before the album —a quick rollout considering Sweetener’s lead-single arrived five months ahead of the album. Yet again, it’s working for her. ‘Positions’ debuted at number one on the global Spotify chart giving her the most number ones on that chart of any female artist in history.

Positions the album will be dropped into a pop world operating under new rules — rules that Grande wrote herself.


Sam Murphy is a music writer and Co-Editor of The Interns. Follow him on Twitter

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