Concert review: Ariana Grande at Nationwide Arena

Erica Thompson

Empowered. Strong. Sexual. Not asking for it. Female.

Those were just some of the words and phrases flashing across the screen when Ariana Grande brought the Dangerous Woman Tour to Nationwide Arena on Thursday, March 9 — the day after International Women’s Day. She wanted to show that she could present multiple images, master multiple genres and execute multiple performance styles while putting on a solid show.

Since the beginning of her music career in 2013, Grande has taken cues from other kid-TV-stars-turned pop-divas and embodied a curious combination of innocence — with signature animal-ear headbands and ponytail — and sexuality. That duality was present at the concert, which drew everyone from bunny-eared 9-year-olds to gangs of 20-something women, but it wasn’t uncomfortable (think Britney spears on the cover of Rolling Stone in her underwear holding a Teletubby).

Instead, Grande opened the show wearing a classic, Audrey Hepburn-inspired black dress and bejeweled collar. There wasn’t a drastic transformation from there; while she did wear a mini skirt and bra top at one point, she spent much of the concert in baggy pants and a crop top, which reinforced the teenage-like side of her image.

The 23-year-old expressed maturity through her song selection, performing her most recent album, Dangerous Woman, in its entirety. It’s the first of Grande’s three projects to include a parental advisory warning. Explicit language is found on songs like “Bad Decisions,” in which Grande poses the question, “Ain’t you ever seen a princess be a bad bitch?” Grande is talking to a “bad boy” here (“I ain’t fuckin’ with them good boys,” she sings elsewhere on the track), which demonstrates a trend common among women in pop music: their so-called rebellious period is often defined by their interactions with the opposite sex.

You can decide what, if anything, that means for modern-day feminism, but such complicated issues did not affect the appeal of the show. It was visually exciting thanks to artsy, black-and-white short videos on the screen, platforms that lifted Grande and her troupe of male dancers above the stage, colorful stage lighting, glowing drum sticks, confetti and pink balloons.

Of course the best feature was Grande’s voice, which alternately soared above and drizzled over the music in soulful riffs, with some standout moments occurring on “One Last Time,” “Touch It,” “Bang Bang” and “Problem,” which is a an Olympic feat to sing live. And her voice was right at home on the multiple genres she traversed, from the R&B-injected “Dangerous Woman” and reggae-flavored “Side to Side” (during which she brought out the exercise equipment from the video) to the EDM-based “Break Free” and “One Last Time.” Regarding musical experimentation, Grande appears to have succeeded where predecessors like Christina Aguilera floundered (see her electro-pop experiment Bionic).

But where artists like Aguilera still have the advantage over Grande is the ability to convey raw emotion and experience through their singing. For example, Grande’s live performance of the soulful, moody, slow-burning “Leave Me Lonely” in all white brought to mind Aguilera’s chill-inducing cover of James Brown’s “It's a Man's Man's Man's World” at the 2007 Grammy Awards. While Grande is as adept at singing, there is a lack of emotional depth to her performances.

And it’s not fair to call Grande the “new” Christina Aguilera or Mariah Carey or whomever. During the concert, Grande demonstrated she can effectively take bits and pieces of veterans’ performances while carving out her own lane. She stood still on stage and played the role of ballad queen but also showed off confident, competent dance moves. In other words, she didn’t break her neck with complex, old-Britney-Spears-style choreography, or cheat with lethargic, new-Britney-Spears-style hair- or arm-ography; she found her own swagger-filled groove somewhere in the middle. And by bringing out a live band halfway through her set, she asserted herself as one of a handful of mainstream pop stars who are serious about musicianship.

No matter how you define her, Ariana Grande, firmly grounded in her womanhood, has a message for you: “I used to let some people tell me how to live and what to be, but if I can’t be me then what’s the point?” she sang from the stage. “No, I don’t care about it anymore.”