Ramona Gonzalez is a singer, songwriter, producer and multimedia artist based in Los Angeles, CA. She has exhibited sound installations and composed and performed music under different aliases for many years, most notably as indie-pop performer Nite Jewel. Under this moniker, she has released two critically acclaimed albums, created music for film soundtracks and video games, and toured the world extensively. Gonzalez will release her third album, Liquid Cool, in June 2016.
(Photo credit: Jose Wolff)
Ariana Grande unleashed a stream of undeniable singles in 2014 when she released My Everything — songs I sang along to, full voice, while driving in stop-and-go traffic on the 10 Freeway. I didn’t care that other drivers were watching me. There was no shame in my game; I was stronger than I’d been before!
From banger “Break Free” to the bittersweet “One Last Time,” these were anthems about female independence — sung in that incredible voice — full of knowing desire and unhinged power. Grande, along with a host of top producers and guests, gave us multiple songs packed with goosebump-inducing pop perfection. And when My Everything went two-times-platinum, I didn’t think Grande could impress me more.
— Ariana Grande (@ArianaGrande) June 7, 2015
But, in summer 2015, she released a bold manifesto on her Twitter account in which she placed herself firmly on the shoulders of such feminist icons as Gloria Steinem. Specifically, Grande stated that she was tired of the double standards for men and women in the public sector: men are allowed all kinds of sexual promiscuity and braggadocio, while women are expected to be chaste or, rather, the possessions of their respective partners. While not an unfamiliar statement, it was an important one to make. By explicitly defining herself as an independent and successful woman — who also enjoys sex just as much as any man — she was inspiring other girls to believe that they did not have to sell themselves short or be ashamed of their desires. Making hits, having the best voice in the game and educating the public on equality? She seemed like the coolest pop star alive.
There is always the risk, though, when post-Disney stars want to position themselves in a bold light. A message can be stated loudly, but without much substance. Take Miley Cyrus, for example, who took pains to embrace an all-too familiar cocktail of nudity and drug use when she released 2013’s Bangerz — a record that contained “We Can’t Stop,” one of the most trite, bland “party” anthems of late, with lyrics more suited to a bad hangover realization than an ecstatic time.
With her newest release, Dangerous Woman, Grande has produced the PG-rated version of the Miley problem. The album is built on the opportunity to talk openly and emphatically about her sexuality — working as a direct follow-up to her campaign for equality — but fails to deliver any great songs to support that message. And not only that, but the message itself — communicated repeatedly, song-to-song, without nuance — never becomes as progressive or hard-hitting as the sheer act of being an independent woman.
What makes someone a “Dangerous Woman”? A familiar answer, which Grande gives on this album, is owning one’s unbridled sexual desire. In some cases, this method has been successful. For instance, when Madonna released “Like a Virgin” in 1984, the song and visual caused a stir. But this is 2016, after all, and a phrase such as “Touch It” is about as dangerous as “U Can’t Touch This.” Grande’s lite lyricism is an issue throughout: “I’m greedy for love,” “I’m so into you,” “You’re rockin’ with the best,” etc. Nothing feels perverse enough to make a mark. Simply talking about sex does not make you the least bit perilous — if anything, it makes you safely clichéd. What made Grande’s online manifesto so bold was how she expressed her point, yet for all that talk of female independence, she spends the entirety of Dangerous Woman focused on dully describing her relationship with her respective other: the male figure, body and persona.
What previously made Grande “dangerous” were her voice and her songs, but not one song on Dangerous Woman catches the ear. “Side to Side” is like Gwen Stefani sans swag; “Leave Me Lonely,” Amy Winehouse without the pain; “Be Alright” (a fairly awkward title considering Kendrick’s anthem), a bad Disclosure copy that could lull you to sleep in lieu of making you dance.
Grande has an undeniable instrument, a voice that can pull at your heartstrings even when singing the most mundane melody — which makes it all the more disappointing when these songs don’t connect. Aside from the Diplo-esque strut of “Knew Better,” the music feels phoned-in and overwrought, lacking in the visceral and unhinged emotion that made Grande’s previous songs so powerful. Perhaps she focused so much on trying to make a strong assertion that she forgot what made her music growl in the first place.