Ariana Grande’s Coachella headline set is a breathtaking moment of light in a dark world

AriChella, as fans dubbed it, saw plenty of surprises and guests

Almost exactly a year ago, Ariana Grande made an unexpected appearance at Coachella to give the first performance of her then-brand new single ‘No Tears Left To Cry’ during Kygo’s set. At the time, Grande was coming through a tough year, her Manchester Arena concert having become the site of a terrorist attack nearly 12 months earlier. In the year since that surprise performance, the pop star has had yet more shit to deal with and finds herself back in the desert tonight (April 14) with a whole lot more to process.

Nobody would complain if Grande didn’t tour her latest two albums, August’s ‘Sweetener’ and February’s ‘Thank U, Next’. It would be understandable – one, for what happened on her previous world tour and, two, for her latest batch of songs being too emotional, too painful. Instead, she’s spent the last month if not quite turning tragedy into triumph then at least proving it won’t define her or stop her achieving all she can.

An abridged, guest-filled version of her ‘Sweetener’/‘Thank U, Next’ tour, her Coachella headline set tonight is virtually flawless. There are surprises and throwbacks, fireworks and costume changes, and some very slick, very aesthetically pleasing production. Hoisted behind Grande on stage is a giant circle that variously becomes the moon, the sun, a glimmering holographic illusion, and a magnifying mirror showing a close up of the star’s face, as if she’s looking into it to fix her make-up.

She kicks everything off with a scene pulled from her MTV VMAs performance – a last supper-esque setting that sees her crawling across a giant table while hitting almighty high notes on ‘God Is A Woman’. A couple of songs later, she leaves the table and struts along a runway through the crowd for ‘Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored’. It turns out to be a neat distraction technique, pulling the audience’s eyes away from the main stage just long enough for NSYNC (minus Justin Timberlake) to sneak on in the shadows, ready to pick up the bridge from ‘Make It Ill’ that Grande paraphrased in her smash hit.

“Coachella, I’ve been rehearsing my whole motherfucking life for this moment,” she hollers giddily afterwards, before the boyband rip into their own ‘Tearin’ Up My Heart’. It’s a light and fun interlude that Grande is clearly loving, especially when Joey Fatone picks her up and carries her back to the stage. It feels entirely fitting that, once NSYNC have left the stage, the next song should be ‘R.E.M.’ with its “This is such a dream to me” lyric.

Before the singer’s set begins, there’s another rumour about a special guest flying around. That proves to be true, too, when Nicki Minaj appears for ‘Side To Side’ and ‘Bang Bang’. On the former, she boasts of being the “queen of rap” but this cameo suggests otherwise – Minaj is scrappy and out of sync with the vocal backing track, while she looks hardly thrilled to be there. On the latter, she seems to struggle to remember the words to her verse. When, towards the end of the set, Grande pulls out another Minaj collaboration in ‘The Light Is Coming’, it’s a relief that the rapper does not reappear.

The internet might have guessed the first two guests to appear, but Grande has another surprise up her sleeve deeper into her allotted time. After throwing it back to 2013 and 2014 with ‘Right There’ and ‘Break Your Heart Right Back’ respectively, ‘90s rappers Diddy and Mase emerge to cover The Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’. It’s unclear quite why it’s happening but it’s another opportunity to see Grande with a broad, beaming grin on her face.

With Coachella arriving two months after the release of ‘Thank U, Next’, you might expect the star’s performance to be heavy on tracks from that record. But instead, she sticks just to the singles, plus ‘Bad Idea’, ‘Needy’, the galaxy-shooting highlight ‘NASA’, and ‘In My Head’, which plays as the singer leaves the stage for a breather. Grande has previously said some of the songs on her latest album are too raw for her to sing live right now and there have been reports of her crying during the tracks on other stops on her tour. Instead of overwhelming her emotions on such a huge night, she opts instead to delve deeper into her back catalogue, pulling out the likes of the tropically-tinged garage of ‘Be Alright’ or the EDM lasers of ‘Break Free’.

As the latter shudders to an end, Grande drops to the floor, dramatically but elegantly lying prone on the floor. Suddenly, she hurries up and announces quickly: “We have to hurry so I just wanna say I love y’all.” The clock is ticking down to the end of her set and she still has two more songs to get through before she waves goodbye. First, there’s the song that got its debut on this very festival site last year, ‘No Tears Left To Cry’’s beat skittering across the desert as Grande lets her diva vocals tingle the crowd’s spines. “This has been unbelievable,” she says breathlessly afterward, before darting offstage for the briefest of moments.

During the short time she’s out of sight, the crowd make it clear they’re not leaving without getting what they want – ‘Thank U, Next’. The song’s title erupts across the field before that chant morphs into a simple “Ari! Ari! Ari!” Their enthusiasm is rewarded seconds later when Grande returns for one final celebratory act – giving the people what they want. “Coachella, I love you so much, thank you,” she cries sweetly as lilac confetti tumbles from the sky. The feeling was already mutual long before Grande took to the stage but, after such a commanding and pacy performance, its foundations are more solid than ever.

‘Raindrops (An Angel Cried)’
‘God Is A Woman’
‘Bad Idea’
‘Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored’
‘Tearing Up My Heart’
‘R.E.M.’
‘Be Alright’
‘Sweetener’
‘Side To Side’
‘Bang Bang’
‘7 Rings’
‘Love Me Harder’
‘Breathin’
‘Needy’
‘Right There’
‘Break Your Heart Right Back’
‘Mo Money Mo Problems’
‘NASA’
‘Goodnight N Go’
‘In My Head’
‘The Light Is Coming’
‘Into You’
‘Dangerous Woman’
‘Break Free’
‘No Tears Left To Cry’
‘Thank U, Next’