Ariana Grande hides in plain sight at the Xcel

Ariana Grande wouldn't let us take her picture (after all we've done for her!) so here's a file photo.

Ariana Grande wouldn't let us take her picture (after all we've done for her!) so here's a file photo. Associated Press

You really had to look for her.

Usually when a pop star appears on stage, it’s her special moment. But when Ariana Grande ascended through the floor of the Xcel Energy Center last night, she was huddled in a sculptural tangle of bodies.

We’d already heard Grande’s sonorously nasal soprano soar through the arena as “Raindrops (An Angel Cried),” her brief riff off a Frankie Valli oldie, emerged a cappella from an unseen source. And we knew where to look for her amid the Last Supper pose she and her crew of dancers recreated from the “God Is a Woman” video. There she was, the five-foot star with the two-foot ponytail, in the puffed-out winglike purple sleeves of an anime Renaissance courtier or a glamorous imaginary insect.

Whatever Ariana Grande has become over the course of two personally difficult but artistically fruitful years, it’s not a diva. For the next 100 minutes, Grande mostly traveled the stage in a pack with her dancers, as though seeking safety in numbers. And she’s stuck with that dim lighting design that’s drawn criticism since it premiered at Coachella, a combination of soft pastels that felt like a protective atmosphere for her, with no spotlights to accentuate her star presence.

There’s maybe no celebrity on earth more deserving of the right to make the concert stage a safe space. Like many young pop stars, she’d sorted through personas like party dresses for the first several years of her career, trying them on, tossing them aside. Then a 2017 suicide bombing killed 22 fans during her concert in Manchester, thrusting greatness upon Grande, and she rose to meet the circumstances.

The Grande who emerged on subsequent albums, Sweetener in 2018 and Thank U, Next this year, was a startling three-dimensional contrast to the all-too-adaptable polymorph she’d been. Here was an emotionally grounded but self-assertive sensualist, seeking sexual satisfaction rather than displaying pop-domme exhibitionism. As she endured paparazzi scrutiny during her short relationship with Pete Davidson and following the death of her ex Mac Miller, the music felt increasingly instructive as a way to endure pain and seek pleasure in an unsafe world.

But Grande’s Xcel show offered a good opportunity to ask just why “young woman responds to wide-scale trauma with the strongest music of her career” is a story we all cherish so much. On one level, that narrative reinforces the grotesque belief that wisdom only comes through suffering (which is not coincidentally peddled regularly by powerful people with the material wherewithal to avoid most suffering). Yet also, to expect superhuman resilience of a 26-year-old who happens to sing very good songs very well is another indication of our cultural over-reliance on the heroic. My main takeaway from Grande's concert was how difficult it is for her to project that soft-but-firm confident playfulness in a room full of humans who draw inspiration from her show of strength.

The show was sliced up into five acts, each set off by video interludes and costume changes. The first continued from the baroque boast of “God Is a Woman” to the straight-up pop saunter of “Bad Idea” (which closed with Grande making a move on one of her female dancers), leading into the frisky “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.”

Part two opened with “R.E.M.,” the song Grande had broken down during a few nights earlier (not tonight, rubberneckers), featured a fizzy twofer of the perky-tart “Sweetener” and the light-footedly swaggering “Successful,” and climaxed with the well-laid “Side to Side,” which gets off on postcoital mobility impairment.

Grande largely avoided vocal acrobatics until the third portion of her set, and that restraint drew dividends when she let loose at the close of “Breathin’,” which carried an extra oomph it wouldn’t have if she’d been showboating the whole night. During “NASA,” she announced, “here comes a new set piece” as a giant moon descended above the audience. That satellite was in keeping with the vaguely interstellar minimalism of the set design, which was all Kubrickian white curves and ovals.

Speaking of space, the music on both Sweetener and Thank U, Next has a lot of it, and those tracks didn’t always translate to a hockey arena; the mix was boomy and lacked crispness, suggesting the difference between having a fluffy pillow beneath your head and having it smother you from above. And Grande’s vowel-besotted vocal style, which melds into a soft-focus luxuriance with the music on her recordings, expanded into a not always lovely or expressive indistinctness live.

Each of these songs was professionally, memorably, entertainingly delivered. Thing is, the intimacy Grande achieves so easily on her recordings can’t simply be duplicated by replicating those sounds live. Emotional connection requires some kind of structured presentation— framing, pacing, and above all, communication. Grande didn’t have much to say (though she did express gratitude for being in St. Paul so frequently you’d think the city was going to get its own verse in “Thank U, Next”), and without a dynamic star presence at the center, the performance felt both overfull and shapeless.

Curiously, two of the most directly effective performances came during the fourth segment, in the form of older, less emotionally complex songs in styles Grande had abandoned for her later, fuller persona. The cinematic bluster of “Dangerous Woman” was an opportunity to launch a vocal moonshot, a taste of the mini-Mariah divadom Ariana had might have chosen to pursue. And “Break Free” was one of those anonymous, gargantuan EDM pop hits that Grande could have repeatedly fallen back on for career safety if she’d wanted, as Selena Gomez often has.

But Grande reminded us of the path she’d selected instead with the remarkable “No Tears Left to Cry,” the first new song she released after Manchester. It starts as the ginormous ballad you might expect from a diva making a statement, but then the beat comes in and the vocal becomes more human-scaled. The life lesson is obvious—when you can’t cry any more, a commitment to rhythm will carry you through the tough times.

And yet, while “No Tears Left to Cry” worked fine as a standalone performance, again, it lacked the drama it might have had in a better structured show. Similarly, when the night ended, as it had to, with “Thank U, Next,” that farewell to boyfriends past felt more like an inevitability than a triumphant climax.

But how could it be any other way? For two years now, Ariana Grande has fashioned multi-faceted pop from life experiences that the age of 24-7 celebrity transparency has made it impossible for her to hide. No wonder she appears over-exposed live, now that she’s made it hard not to ask more of her than she can reasonably be expected to deliver.

Raindrops (An Angel Cried)
God Is a Woman
Bad Idea
Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I'm Bored
Be Alright
Side to Side
7 Rings
Love Me Harder/Breathin
Fake Smile
Make Up
Right There/You'll Never Know/Break Your Heart Right Back
Get Well Soon
The Light Is Coming
Into You
Dangerous Woman
Break Free
No Tears Left to Cry
Thank U, Next