I love it when something exciting happens on the charts and a new(ish) artist makes an unexpected debut. Without much promotion beyond social media and next to no radio airplay, Ariana Grande’s “The Way” shot to #1 on the iTunes charts within hours this week. It’s also placed within the top 20 on many iTunes charts worldwide. Granted, she has over 5 million Twitter followers, but artists with double that have released singles that have failed to do even half of what “The Way” has already accomplished. But before we get to that, let’s rewind a little bit.
At the end of 2011, Grande released “Put Your Hearts Up.” The juvenile single butchered a sample of 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up” (I don’t know in what world that made any sense) and came complete with incredibly cheesy artwork and an equally terrible video. Everything about this single release has been a stark contrast from that. Even though the video for “The Way” is a low budget affair, it’s not something that looks like it would better suit a 12-year-old. It’s age appropriate and she makes out with Mac Miller at the end, which, at the very least, provides a memorable scene that will get people talking (and speculating). A juicy rumor is always helpful when jumpstarting a career and it’s the kind of thing that will send her young fans into a frenzy.
The song itself is sexy, but subtle enough in a way that it’s not desperate. Teen acts, especially coming from Disney or Nickelodeon, seem to never strike an appropriate balance as recording artists. It’s either too cheesy (see: Selena Gomez “Who Says”) or too overt (see: Miley Cyrus circa “Can’t Be Tamed”). Looking at the most recent crop of Disney stars that have released extremely juvenile material and maintained similarly vanilla images, it’s hard to imagine that Britney Spears released “…Baby One More Time” at sixteen-years-old. In 1998, she seductively cooed and showed her midriff and everyone survived. In fact, that’s why she became one of the biggest pop stars on the planet and why Hilary Duff, Selena Gomez, et al. will never be.
“…Baby One More Time” didn’t sound like a sixteen-year-old was singing it, and “The Way” doesn’t exactly sound like a nineteen-year-old’s record (at least in the post-2001 era, where everything has been significantly toned down for teen acts). Grande’s voice and delivery (the breathy vocals, mixed with some powerhouse moments, and those whistle notes!) is reminiscent of Mariah Carey and that makes people pay attention. If the song came on the radio, I’m sure people would listen a little closer and wonder, “Who is this?” While sounding like another singer can be both a blessing and a curse, I think it’s a good thing for Ariana. Besides, if you have to be compared to another female vocalist, Mariah Carey isn’t too shabby. It’s the kind of comparison her PR people can really milk for some extra attention.
Beyond the lyrics and delivery, “The Way” is also a welcome throwback to the late 90s (or mid-2000s) pop/R&B and doesn’t follow the Dr. Luke-produced electropop trend (it’s on the way out, believe me). It’s a light, refreshing jam that sounds perfect for spring and summer, complete with a Big Pun sample (yes, the same one that Thalia used on her one and only crossover single). Miller also adds a bit of a “cool” factor that will further legitimize Grande as more than a Victorious cast member trying to launch a singing career. Like “…Baby One More Time,” it’s just sexy enough that it will reach an audience beyond 12-year-old girls and hopefully establish Grande as an actual recording artist, and not just a Nickelodeon star.
With Z100 and KIIS already on board, it doesn’t look like her quick ascent to the top of the iTunes chart will be a flash in the pan (a la Tamar Braxton’s “Love and War.”) She needs to continue visiting radio stations across the country and secure some high profile performance spots. She certainly has the chops to pull off a solid performance and hopefully her stage presence is equally impressive. A slutty Rolling Stone cover might also help, but I digress. If not, she will go the way of Leona Lewis, who is doing something, somewhere right now. On a similar note, Jordin Sparks co-wrote this song, so I hope she enjoys the royalty checks.
I also hope Grande has a killer ballad to include on her album. She definitely has the voice to do it. Mariah Carey built her early career on ballads and released “Vision of Love” at 20-years-old. I understand that we’ve been conditioned over the past decade to accept 20-year-olds singing about sleepovers and Barbie dolls, but with ballads also making a comeback on pop radio, Grande could really seal the deal with a modern slow jam.
Ariana’s got people talking, listening, and buying. Here’s to hoping they don’t drop the ball and keep the forward momentum going. I think she’s got what it takes…