Review | Instead of steeping in heartbreak, Ariana Grande hits delete

Review | Instead of steeping in heartbreak, Ariana Grande hits delete

In Michel Gondry’s durable 2004 sci-fi romcom “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Jim Carrey plays Joel Barish, a shaggy, heartsick man who undergoes a medical procedure that promises to evict every memory of an ex-girlfriend from the interior of his skull. “Is there any risk of brain damage?” Joel asks the doctor before the big deletion, rightfully anxious about maintaining his tether to reality. “Well, technically speaking,” the doctor replies, “the procedure is brain damage.”

Listening to pop music in 2024 can feel the same way. In the streaming age, we remain overwhelmed by choice, frequently making the easiest forms of engagement feel something like surrender. Maybe this is why superfans now unflinchingly refer to their favorite singers as “mother” while simultaneously imagining them as their hero, or their queen, or even some kind of god. Here’s the complicated part we’re all supposed to forget: Pop superstars are just people, worthy of grace, but also rich people, worthy of scrutiny. In an increasingly unequal world, capitalism’s bunk promise of infinite growth flows through today’s pop like a polluted river, and as we continue to cheer our hyper-wealthiest megastars to even higher tax brackets, brain damage starts to feel like the point.

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Now here comes Ariana Grande with a charming new album that wants to squeeze your brain with a stealth you might not even feel. She titled it “Eternal Sunshine,” which, in nodding to Gondry’s film, frames the whole thing as a sort of either-or puzzle. Yes, Grande’s recent romantic turbulence has been thoroughly mulched into clickable heaps of digital gossip, but unlike with her signature, names-naming 2019 breakup anthem, “Thank U, Next,” she’s chosen to keep the lyrics vague in these new songs, using the consummate plushness of her voice to obscure the details of a bruised-up heart. Has our hero undergone the memory wipe she’s talking about on the title track? Or is she conducting the procedure on us?

Strap yourself in and we’ll start with the stuff Grande wants us to remember. When you hear her falsetto hydroplane across the beat of “The Boy Is Mine,” you’ll remember Brandy and Monica singing those same words back in 1998. When you hear Grande cooing along to the disco gallop of “We Can’t Be Friends (Wait for Your Love),” you’ll recall dancing on your own to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” in 2010. When you hear the friendly, pop-house thump of “Yes, And?,” you’ll flash back to the indelible frisson of Madonna’s “Vogue” circa 1990 (and when you see Grande’s music video, you’ll remember its inspiration, Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted,” from one year earlier). If you check the credits, you’ll keep seeing Max Martin, which means you’ll remember the slew of millennial megahits that Swedish songwriting colossus helped pen for Britney Spears, NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and others.

Those all qualify as low-hanging influences, but Grande sings through them in ways that make time go blurry, the softest edges of her voice giving everything on “Eternal Sunshine” either a pillowy softness or a bathtub warmth. This music is supremely inviting, with melodies that follow the general contours of R&B, but without any agony, no messy human catharsis to clean up afterward. Instead, Grande’s tidy vocal staccato is the musical mechanism most worth paying attention to — a beautifully breathy phrasing tactic that evokes the tapping of brakes. It’s like Grande is repeatedly asking us to stop and situate ourselves in the right now, or even better, to savor it. During the expert hook of “The Boy Is Mine,” listen to how she inserts tiny dashes of silence between these words: “Watch me take my time.” It’s like she’s creating time.

And if being here now is how Grande wants to forget the past, “Eternal Sunshine” makes good on its conceit. She’s firmed up the line between person and persona while smudging the line between the music and the listener. There’s no headache to be felt, unless you want to bang your head on this album’s latent paradox: When music feels this easy to get into, it’s just as easy to get out of. Every beat feels frictionless, every melody feels smooth, every reference feels deeply familiar, and when it’s all over, you might not remember any of it at all.

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