Nickelodeon star Ariana Grande performs unreleased album at “Listening Sessions”


Erick Mancebo

Earlier this summer, against all odds, a teenage Nickelodeon star’s pop song found itself climbing the Billboard Hot 100. Ariana Grande’s “The Way,” a teeny-bopper anthem with a late ‘90’s R&B heart, managed to reach Top 10 status on the charts before eventually losing ground to the summer super-hits “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky.”

But the success of the single proved extremely beneficial to Grande: Critics, new fans and tween Nickelodeon viewers alike had all set their sights on Grande, and were clamoring for the release of another single from her debut “Yours Truly.”

Seemingly in response to the demand, and perhaps as a way to get the young starlet into the touring routine, Grande and her team of choreographers and managers assembled a series of pre-album-release one-off shows, aptly named “The Listening Sessions,” as they allowed fans to hear selections from Grande’s upcoming LP.

While sitting in the audience at her Aug. 18 show, it became apparent that while Grande generally flew under the radar in the mainstream, she boasted a number of die-hard young fans. Half an hour before the show was to start, a single scream multiplied throughout the slightly cavernous auditorium—Grande was standing behind the stage’s curtains, waving a singular hand through the divide, to massive yells from her fans. A few minutes later, kicking up a high-heeled foot through the divide proved to drive the audience into yet another frenzy.

As such, by the time the curtains opened to reveal a (surprisingly intricate) stage and lighting setup, the audience was at a fever pitch. Roars filled the room as Grande climbed the steps onto her raised platform and began belting out the notes to “Baby I,” the fun follow-up to “The Way.” She reached the end of the track and unleashed a few high notes that seemed to take some of the parents in the audience by surprise—they seemed to have remained skeptical of Grande, who turns out can really sing those Mariah Carey-esque whistle-register notes heard on the radio.

As Grande moved on to another bouncy and unapologetically bubblegum pop song—“Lovin’ It”—she began to show off some choreography. A crew of dancers flanked the star as she teased the audience with a few flirtatiously sexy dance moves; Grande, now 20, manages to carefully toe the line between Nickelodeon-friendly and sexually appealing. A few missteps, most notably the unveiling of a slightly too-suggestive album cover, were handled quickly and efficiently—the cover was swapped for a more toned down version and Grande addressed the controversy by pointedly tweeting the reminder, “But it’s about the music.”

Back on stage, Grande addressed her audience, announcing, “I’m gonna slow it down a bit if you guys don’t mind.” Moving on to the doo-wop flavored “Honeymoon Avenue,” Grande’s full voice filled the room again as roses cascaded from the screens behind her. Her next song, a moody blues piece with a soulful Mary J. Blige twist was introduced as “Tattooed Heart.” The piece grew, building with a lot of full, sustained notes that really showed off Grande’s vocal strength.

“Better Left Unsaid” masqueraded as a ballad until tom drums began the build-up to a fantastic electro-synth banger chorus. A male voice supplied a catchy “If you wanna party put your hands up” refrain, a small touch the audience went absolutely crazy for. But just as the audience got comfortable with the direction of the show, Grande veered wildly, taking the audience from the figurative center of a New York City dance club to a small London pub gig as she sank her teeth into a ballad called “Daydreamin.” An absolute dream of a song, the blues piece’s bouncy piano was ripped from 1955 in the best way possible. As the song winds down, Grande—a 21st century Susie Q in a shimmery pink above-the-knee dress—tells the audience, “That audio snippet at the end was my grandparents talking about how they fell in love,” to a collective and earnest “aww” from the audience.

Although Grande’s level of training and talent throughout the show was obvious, her rapport with her fans was also endearing: Between songs, an overzealous fan tossed a phone on stage to Grande, who giggled and passed the phone back, shaking her head but clearly amused. At the conclusion of her set, once the stage lights had been put out, light laughter again filled the room as Grande was seen not so sneakily crawling her way back to the raised platform for her encore.

The encore, arguably one of the best parts of the show, started off with “Right There,” a track which features rapper Big Sean. Almost a continuation of “The Way,” the melodies in the track are derived or inversed from Grande’s Top 10 hit. The reference seems deliberate, because once “Right There” was wrapped, Grande sang an acappella intro to “The Way” which literally drew deafening screams from her fans. The acappella intro leads into the full instrumentally backed track, and with that, Grande’s hour-long show is wrapped (To tremendous applause, of course).

Although only a small sample of the work Grande and her producers have put into the album, the show seems to display a burgeoning talent. Grande shines through as a talented and well-trained artist with a defined taste and sense of direction. While her other singles have failed to become as successful as “The Way,” it will be interesting to watch Grande’s career, especially once “Yours Truly” is released in the U.S. on Sept. 3.