To step inside the American Airlines Center on Tuesday night was to enter a hall of mirrors. Onstage, white-hot pop superstar Ariana Grande cooed, belted, sashayed, dipped, twirled and reclined her way through a briskly paced 90-minute set.
Offstage, from the arena floor to the rafters, a sold-out room full of “Arianators” reflected their heroine’s every move, often verging on drowning out her amplified vocals with a startling force. As it was in the spotlight, so it was in the dark: Grande, more than many pop stars of her caliber, fashions an eerie sense of symbiosis with her fanatical audience, shrieking, singing and striking endless poses for a multitude of selfies. It can be difficult, at times, to discern exactly where the boundary is between artist and audience.
Tuesday’s stop on the Sweetener World Tour was Grande’s first trip through town in two years, and the setting — a stage boasting an enormous runway that reached deep into the room, backed by an enormous video scrim with a semi-circle bulging out of it — befit Grande’s status atop pop music’s A-list.
She was often flanked or even obscured by a small army of athletic dancers, whose limbs were a rush of near-ceaseless motion, and backed by a quartet of musicians so often shrouded in shadow as to be effectively invisible.
With more than two dozen songs — by turns sweet and tough and sassy and alluring, Grande’s music is full of controlled smolder, infectious pop bleeding into R&B and hip-hop — to get through, the woman of the hour didn’t have much time for conversation with the gathered faithful: “Thank you so much for being here tonight,” she offered, just before the main set-closing “No Tears Left to Cry,” “I love you guys so much.”
Instead, the 25-year-old Grammy winner let her collection of multi-platinum hit singles do the talking: “God is a woman” spun into “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” (Yes, in lowercase) spilled into “Side to Side,” leaped into “the light is coming,” a veritable cascade of heavy rotation highlights eliciting ecstatic reactions throughout.
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Grande, who often maintained a cool distance from the outstretched hands and smartphones, proved to be most gripping when the sensory overload was scaled back. Her muscular, four-octave voice is all the special effect any pop act could ever need.
In the moments Tuesday night when it was just Grande onstage, as during the “Love Me Harder/breathin” medley (her “glory note” at the climax of “breathin” was otherworldly) or “Dangerous Woman,” the impact was astonishing.
Hearing her fill the room with notes of crystalline clarity and force was breathtaking, made even more so by Grande’s seeming lack of effort, her diminutive frame launching that extraordinary sound into the ether and hardly breaking a sweat.
At once vulnerable and diffident, Ariana Grande is the perfect pop star for our chaotic, self-obsessed times. The electric screams of the American Airlines Center crowd confirmed as much, and Grande’s controlled yet expansive performance, a master class in Instagram-ready preening and phenomenal technical skill, served as nothing less than a perfect reflection of our mercurial moment.