The Accountability Of Ariana Grande: Cultural Appropriation, Stan Twitter, & Authenticity

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Madelaine Petsch, one of the stars of The CW’s insanely popular show, Riverdale, still looks like she was built in an Irish lab for a royal family without any make-up on, sitting in her temporary Vancouver apartment between shoot days for her show. I know this because she posted a vlog to her YouTube channel on her day off. While now it’s not entirely unusual for a famous television actress to also maintain an active online presence — consider Pretty Little Liars star Shay Mitchell or Disney Channel alum Ashley Tisdale — the practice was unprecedented when pop icon Ariana Grande started uploading her videos while filming the first season of Victorious back in 2010.

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She’s deleted most of those pre-career performances, but if you do a deep dive into YouTube you’ll find a smaller, paler (yeah, she’s super white) Ari, sitting on the floor of an empty room sans-pony about to sing the best cover of Alicia Keys you’ve heard all year. “I have been writing and recording a lot of music and I can’t wait for you guys to hear it,” she quickly mentions in a video from nine years ago. Funny enough, she said the same thing on Twitter just three months after releasing her fourth studio album, sweetener. And while some argue that Ariana is a little too active on social media (arguing that it’s not really that good for her image or her mental health), Ariana has maintained an authentic and casual discourse with her fans long before she had finished seven songs, let alone be successful enough to afford “7 rings.”

It’s precisely her deliberate accessibility that makes her so easy to obsess over. Whether we’re watching her parade around her Hotel For Dogs — AKA her NYC apartment — while sipping out of another familiar green straw [insert boring Grande-Starbucks joke here] on Instagram; or following one of her many Twitter binges answering all kinds of personal questions her fans ask her while taking the time to send a few “HAHA”s at their memes, we feel connected. It’s obvious with this kind of transparency that she’s not being media-trained or filtered, which is kind of refreshing. The cloud-emoji pop star is as honest as she is fake-tanned. (No hate, just truth.) She isn’t trying to hide her personality behind a brand — and obviously, she doesn’t need to. Ari’s Twitter reads like one of the thousands of “stan” accounts that she interacts with on a weekly basis. She cracks jokes, freaks out about her own rapidly growing success, and sends off reactionary Tweets in real time — like this display of hurt and anger after her late ex-boyfriend, Mac Miller, lost his posthumous GRAMMY nomination for Best Rap Album to Cardi B. And whether every half-baked thought needs to be published is a question, it’s the unapologetic release of her gut reactions where her almost untouchable charm starts to click.

The 25-year-old embodies what I’ll call “acceptable whiteness.” And if you’re scratching your head thinking “but her last name is Grande!” — it’s technically pronounced Gran-dee and it’s Italian, ergo, white. Cue Lady Gaga’s “I’m just an Italian girl” interview reel.

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Miss Grande can toss around as many “yuh”s and load on as much aforementioned fake-tan as she wants, but even so, she still spent TWO. WHOLE. ASS. HOURS. with Piers Morgan making “some progress” over drinks. This is after he said that Little Mix and Ari both use their nudity to sell records instead of their records and said Muhammad Ali was more racist than Donald Trump. So unless their “bonding” includes sending the TV host off in some ridiculous Elon Musk-invented space device, never to be seen again, Ari is just giving a public pass to an undeserving man who consistently uses his platform for bigotry. Not gonna lie, it feels like a classic, consequence-blind white woman move. Sigh.

Any-fricking-way… although this recent misstep got me rattled, she’s generally been a safe bet for white fans. Basically, she exhibits an adequate understanding of what’s good and what isn’t. You know, she’s not prejudiced. Often, she’s an intersectional feminist! In Ari’s world, God is a woman, and she is black. And in that vein, she touts a sort of cultural “pass” for black and other non-white fans (like myself) — especially because most of her team (including her entourage, collaborative song writers, producers, and music video developers) are POC, as well. Through her presence online, she demonstrates that she understands the language, the nuances, and the humor of the black culture she’s accused of appropriating. People (and artists) were quick to come for “7 Rings” with appropriation complaints. While some criticism is obviously valid, I will say that Ari isn’t just pulling together some quick label-encouraged “swag” to gain relevancy (I’m looking at you, Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry), she’s really reflecting her real life in her music. Surrounded by her best friends who are also her producers, like Victoria Monét, Tayla Parx, and the men of Social House, it makes sense that we’d run into a song like “7 Rings,” with its hip-hop nods and trap sensibilities. The song trails the end of Ari’s latest album, Thank U, Next, whose brutal honesty seems to be what allows us to forgive her shortcomings. It just feels impossible to turn away from a woman who’s quite publicly been through emotional hell, and rather than shut down, she built a body of work that both examines her toxic behavior and celebrates her willingness to move forward through it. The folks who helped her make this album, along with a few other ‘ring’ holders, make up the tight Grande gang that she seems to never stray from.

Really, maybe understanding Ariana as a part of a close group of family and friends with pre-fame origins is the ultimate key to pinpointing her ability to remain relatable and authentic. That apparent crew loyalty feels like proof that fame isn’t warping her sense of self and instead she’s being kept grounded. The company she keeps separates Ari from the typical culture of Hollywood social life. Rather than taking pictures on boats with some unattainable “girl gang” like Taylor Swift (again, no shade, just truth), Ari sticks to the people who knew her through, say, Broadway musical 13, and were willing to spend a night in LA singing thirteen different musical theater classics just for fun. What I’m getting at is that the space between Ariana Gran-dee and thee Ariana Grande is so short, and even NASA would probably agree. When you think back on young-YouTuber-Ariana, it’s the sepia-toned Photobooth video of her singing and rapping along to “96,000” from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton Broadway musical, In the Heights, that stands out. With a loose zip-up hoodie atop her deep red hair — the very-dyed disaster that would usher in that World-Famous Ponytail of the Ari we know today — she belts high notes and performs a lyrical tap dance over the classic Miranda flow without missing a beat. You can’t deny the girl’s got talent. When you look at the “7 Rings” songstress, it’s the same girl. With a “Favorite Things” Sound of Music sample and 12 straight lines of bars, it feels like Ari has just figured out how to monetize her forever personality with the help of her pals, who undeniably have an influence on the transformation of her musical aesthetic. She’s just Ari doing Ari, and it seems to be working.

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