Judging by their worshipful screams, the thousands of tiny, tween and teen girls at Ariana Grande’s concert Saturday at Sunrise’s BB&T Center couldn’t care less about Donutgate or snarky comments about America. And the 22-year-old singer, back on her Honeymoon tour after the bizarre July 4 incident where she was filmed at an L.A. donut shop, licking vulnerable pastries and dissing the U.S.A., didn’t offer any apologetic slash patriotic remarks like she did at Thursday’s show in Tampa.
Instead, the Boca Raton-raised Grande’s South Florida show was all about hometown sentiment and her ongoing bid to be America’s next pop diva/sweetheart. “The first time I sang here I was eight years old, I sang the national anthem at a Panthers game,” the elfin Grande told the cheering crowd, giving shout outs to her mother, her grandmother, and her school friends. “I love you guys so much. I’m so proud to be a native Floridian.” We heard a recording of a conversation with her grandfather, ending with “I love you too grandpa.” (Take that TMZ!) At one point her half brother Frankie J. Grande, a Youtube personality with a pink Mohawk, bounced onstage to work the screaming audience.
So can Grande be the pop princess to Queen Bey? The Latina darling to Taylor Swift’s blonde American sweetheart? She follows other child media prodigies – Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato – who’ve faltered trying to reach grown-up musical stardom. Saturday’s crowd was heavy on girls and their parents, but there was also a smattering of young couples (gay and hetero). The arena twinkled with bobbing glow-in-the-dark cat ear headbands, Grande’s trademark accessory.
She can definitely sing, with a rich, powerful voice that encompasses old school soul and Broadway belt. And from the time she pranced onstage with Bang Bang, Grande was the glittering, shimmying, neon-perky center of a big, fast-paced production. Her look is part vixenish little girl, part retro sex kitten, and she wore a series of tiny leg-baring costumes with bitty mambo-tail skirts and towering heels. Even in those she looked small, a bit like a girl playing dress-up in her mama’s heels.
She was surrounded by a battalion of dancers, and backed by three keyboard players, guitarist, drummer, and two violinists and a cellist. She and her dancers frequently rose and sank on stage platforms. For Pink Champagne, one of her first hits, she floated in on a cloud; for Right There, she arrived in an enormous chandelier; and perched on a gleaming white grand piano to sing the ballad My Everything. At one point she used Mi.Mu gloves – an innovative music tech tool invented by musician Imogen Heap that lets users make musical sounds with gestures – for a kind of EDM hand dance.
Grande’s voice was often buried in the overwhelming sound mix that’s become standard on big pop concerts, which made her singing secondary to strutting and giant videos of guest rappers. But there were times when she and her voice got to shine. She was riveting in Tattooed Heart, her voice soaring from velvety lows to full tilt wails. Bright and intense as Grande is, she still doesn’t have the power to fully command this kind of massive production. But she might get there.
Her opening act was Prince Royce, who is making his bid to move from the sweet bachata pop that’s made him a Latin music star to the mainstream. (Worth noting that Grande and Royce represent the growing Latino presence in American pop culture, a new normal for young audiences.) But Royce is not quite there. For the hip hop/pop rock Stuck on a Feeling and Lie to Me, he and his four obligatorially twerking dancers wore tough black gear. His voice was heavily processed, and the songs hovered uncomfortably between hip hop and screaming rock guitar. Royce’s persona, like his singing, has been sweet and sensual, and his swaggering proclamations of “you got me hot already… there’s too many beautiful sexy sexy ladies out here” came off cheesy and not entirely convincing. (Though he got plenty of squeals.)
Royce came off much better on the ballad Extraordinary, bare-chested in torn white jeans, singing about a girl who more than makes up for not having money, his voice lifting to fill the swelling melody. He was sweet and easy on his big bachata hits Darte Un Beso, and his cover of Stand By Me; hopefully he can find the way forward from there.