Such are the traumas Ariana Grande has experienced since the September filming of this BBC special that it sometimes resembled an unfortunate time capsule. Recorded just days before the death of her former boyfriend Mac Miller, and nearly two months before her split from fiance Pete Davidson, a sometimes uncomfortably public relationship that unfolded across Twitter and Instagram, Ariana Grande at the BBC was therefore an unintentional snapshot of a moment in time in which Grande’s professional and personal lives appeared to be on an upward slope. A year on from the Manchester Arena bombing, which took the lives of 22 of her young fans, it was a welcome, if ultimately short-lived, reprieve.
Today, Grande is slowly surfacing again after a period of self-imposed isolation, while Sweetener, her fourth and sonically richest album, is recovering from what quickly became an abruptly curtailed promotional campaign – most recently reflected in a video for its third single that was comprised of nothing but DIY footage of Grande’s emotional support pig rolling around on a mattress.
Ariana Grande at the BBC, then, reflected the last gasp of Sweetener’s nicest timeline, with Grande in the midst of cementing her name as this generation’s biggest of big pop girls, if unaware of the calamities right around the corner. But even with real-life tragedy lending this special a tinge of sadness, it is difficult not to be won over by Grande’s star power – something that catapults her even further into the pop icon stratosphere than the significant majority of her contemporaries.
Reflected in five of the special’s eight musical performances, Sweetener was granted the bulk of stage time, but it is a testament to the strength of the record that we don’t particularly mourn the absence of some of Grande’s signature tracks, among them the modern classic Into You or the slinky gym-playlist standard Side to Side. An album that merges jittery, occasionally wacky Pharrell Williams R&B with curious Max Martin melancholy, Sweetener marks Grande’s arrival as an artist capable of real intrigue, rather than a just a very talented receptacle for expensively produced bops and ballads.
No Tears Left to Cry, the album’s euphoric first single, and recent hit God Is a Woman were both granted additional power here from the support of an 80-piece orchestra and a substantial all-woman choir (“Can I take them with me?” Grande implored after her first performance), but it’s Goodnight n Go, her modified cover of a 2006 Imogen Heap track, that stole the show – an airy, touching remix that Grande injected with unexpected pathos.
Possessing of a voice not unlike classic Mariah Carey in its syrupy stamina and whistle notes, Grande has also come on leaps and bounds as a performer. It’s something particularly noticeable on Sweetener, which so often explores the intriguing texture in her vocals, Grande experimenting with her lower register on numerous tracks, sing-speaking the verses of the appropriately dreamy REM and morphing her voice into a textured whisper on the lush Breathin, both of which were performed here.
As a result, a fan favourite like Dangerous Woman, given an outing in this special for old time’s sake, already feels vaguely regressive – a relic of a time in which Grande’s music appeared designed to show off the broadness of her vocals, rather than play to her strengths as an emotive performer.
Sandwiched in between each performance are brief sit-downs with a reliably giddy Davina McCall. Never particularly probing, but enjoyably self-deprecating when it comes to the age gap between her and the world’s most beloved 25-year-old pop star (“This sounds like a mummy question,” she says at one point, “but why are you upside down on your album cover?”), McCall was a fine moderator.
But Grande also doesn’t truly need any special assistance in order to be engaging company – naturally expressive on camera, having escaped from the Nickelodeon sitcom factory before jumping into pop stardom, she was sharp and effortlessly charming, riffing repeatedly on the elaborately gargantuan gown she sported for the duration of the special, or suddenly adopting the vocabulary of an eccentric dowager when talking about her pets (“My Coco is a very mysterious lady,” she said at one point, all the while hilariously unaware of how strange it sounds.)
Manchester came and went as a topic, McCall introduced a video segment in which locals share stories of communal unity a year after the atrocity, but Grande was understandably reluctant to share her thoughts. She did, however, talk at length about her anxiety, something that reportedly worsened in the aftermath of Manchester, and the frustrating psychological confusion it has inspired.
The anxiety discussion is, in many respects, key to why this special worked so well. It didn’t include any comedic sketches or intimate moments of fan interaction, as in Adele’s wonderful prank on a group of Adele impersonators in her own BBC special three years ago, but it did cleanly embody quite why Grande has taken off so powerfully in recent years. A sincere and candid pop culture figure with a distinct, often enjoyably offbeat personality, she also has a naturally empathetic presence, something only deepened by the sheer volume of personal traumas she’s weathered in the past year.
Manchester, sadly, will have been many people’s first introduction to Grande as a pop behemoth. This special, with its primetime BBC One timeslot, superhuman live vocals and winning setlist, will go some way to righting that wrong.
Ariana Grande at the BBC airs on Thursday at 8pm on BBC One.