Right now, Ariana Grande is on a roll. In the last nine months she’s released not one but two of the best pop albums in recent memory and, last month, conquered the Coachella main stage with a headline set that felt like a positive force of joy. Weeks later, she’s back in California to keep her ‘Sweetener’ world tour moving, kicking off three dates in LA at the Staples Center.
Ahead of the show tonight (May 6), it’s unclear what Grande’s mood will be like when she gets on stage. Last month, she told fans in a series of now-deleted tweets she felt “empty” and compared reliving old emotions and experiences when performing to “hell”. At earlier dates on the tour, she’d reportedly been reduced to tears during some songs, while there are certain tracks from her latest record ‘Thank U, Next’ that she’s admitted she finds too difficult to play live.
It’d be understandable if the singer did appear emotional and fragile given the events of the last couple of years in her life. But, as the introductory strains of ‘Raindrops (An Angel Cried)’ give way to the opening licks of ‘God Is A Woman’ and a recreation of the Last Supper featuring Grande and her dancers rises up from a trapdoor in the stage, she immediately looks ready to put on a show. Underneath a spaceship-like arc of lights, she slinks across the table and dances along a curved runway that’s surrounded by fans, never not nailing any of her signature belted-out high notes.
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As well as being able to knock diva melodies out of the park, part of Grande’s appeal is how she feels like she could be someone you know. Beneath the iconic high ponytail, eye-watering record sales, and being a household name, she feels like an everyday woman trying to make it through life. Her stage reflects that in its simplicity – while there are moments of arty grandeur, the show largely runs on the feeling that she and her dancers are a gang of friends celebrating life. For ‘7 Rings’, they all don matching bright pink denim jackets with the lyrics “I want it/I got it” spray painted on the back, shooting fake money from handheld confetti guns into the crowd. On ‘NASA’, an inflatable sphere lowers from the ceiling and transforms into the moon, hanging over the pop star and her crew as they sit on the edge of the stage, chanting and dancing. At one point, Grande giggles her way through a line, amused by something that’s happening around her.
The ‘Sweetener’ world tour might be mostly similar to the singer’s Coachella set but, with the luxury of more time and control, it does a better job at charting the evolution of one of pop’s brightest stars. Early on in the night, that means going right back to Grande’s childhood as a VT on the big screens shows the star as a little girl, delivering a fake news broadcast that tackles the most important question of all – was there room for Jack on the door at the end of Titanic? It’s a dorky and down-to-earth inclusion in a big, slick pop show, and one that shows Grande’s always had a knack for this performance lark.
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Though the setlist is largely pulled from her last three albums, she shares some throwbacks to her early days. Sandwiched between ‘Make Up’ and ‘NASA’ comes a medley of tracks from her first two records, ‘Yours Truly’ and ‘My Everything’, that both serve as sweet reminders of why she became such a big deal in the first place and show how much more inventive she’s become over the years. In one case, she makes that incredibly clear, splicing together the burbling softness of 2014’s ‘Love Me Harder’ with ‘Sweetener’’s mix of clubby pop and open vulnerability. Elsewhere, the likes of ‘Fake Smile’ and a version of ‘In My Head’ played over another video interlude show off Grande’s lean into a semi-rap flow.
By the time last year’s smash hit ‘Thank U, Next’ arrives, signalling the end of the show, Grande looks like she’s having a blast, skipping around the runway with her dancers both with and without her First Wives Club white blazer shrugged over her shoulders. Where she goes from here is still unknown but, as tonight shows, she’s got a habit of exceeding herself.
‘Raindrops (An Angel Cried)’
‘God Is A Woman’
‘Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored’
‘Side To Side’
‘Love Me Harder’/‘Breathin’
‘Right There’/‘You’ll Never Know’/‘Break Your Heart Right Back’
‘Goodnight N Go’
‘The Light Is Coming’
‘No Tears Left To Cry’
‘Thank U, Next’