Monday night’s attack occurred at a moment in Grande’s career in which the 23-year-old’s status as a headlining pop act was unquestioned. With three albums released over the course of four years, Grande has scored 10 top 10 hits on the Hot 100 chart since 2013, and last year’s Dangerous Woman has moved 1.3 million equivalent album units, according to Nielsen Music. Her Dangerous Woman tour, her second trek as an arena headliner, earned $24.5 million in the 30 North American dates from this spring reported to Billboard Boxscore, with an attendance count of over 323,000.
Grande is an A-list music star, a distinct hitmaker with a massive voice that can adeptly handle a buttery R&B ballad or a whirring Zedd collaboration. While it usually takes pop artists years to build up to arenas, Grande — whose debut single, the Mac Miller-featuring “The Way,” hit the top 10 of the Hot 100 in its first week four years ago — has been in-demand from day one.
Yet Grande’s commercial appeal is only one puzzle piece of her larger cultural impact. While her voice and knack for hooks have cemented her as a fixture at Top 40 radio, Grande’s unflinching approach to addressing issues large and small -- to representing her younger fans with her words and actions -- have made her a true star.
“I can’t wait to live in a world where people are not valued by who they’re dating / married to / attached to, having sex with (or not) / seen with… but by their value as an individual,” Grande wrote in a 2015 post that went viral. At the time, Grande was addressing the unending questions about her ended relationship with star MC Big Sean, but she was also articulating the “double standard and misogyny” that she has been fighting against throughout her whole career.
Grande constantly promotes feminism and gender equality on social media, asking each fan to “celebrate yourself [and] celebrate others"— and in turn, inspires the millions of young girls that call themselves Arianators to do the same. She’s also a vocal ally of the LGBTQ community, performing at New York’s Pride Week in 2015 and welcoming fans of any orientation into her universe. "How much further can your head get up your ass that you're actually judging someone as a person based on their sexuality before you even have a conversation with them?” she asked in a 2015 interview.
She also knows how to sell a message. In her 2016 Billboard cover story, Grande offered, "If you're going to rave about how sexy a male artist looks with his shirt off, and a woman decides to get in her panties or show her boobies for a photo shoot, she needs to be treated with the same awe and admiration. I will say it until I'm an old-ass lady with my tits out at Whole Foods. I'll be in the produce aisle, naked at 95, with a sensible ponytail, one strand of hair left on my head and a Chanel bow. Mark my words. See you there with my 95 dogs.”
It’s a hilarious passage that got picked up by pop blogs, but Grande’s cogent point was two-fold: She wants all women to feel comfortable and respected in their own skin, and she will never, ever stop wanting that. Grande has utilized the Notes app for social media posts when she wants to get a point across bluntly, but she’s also skilled at shutting down sexism IRL in interviews, onstage and in late-night variety show appearances. (Remember “This Is Not a Feminist Song” on SNL? A lot of her fans undoubtedly do).
And in the little downtime she’s had between albums, tours and acting appearances (fun fact: She was great on Hairspray Live!), Grande has thrown herself into activism. She has railed against online bullying and child homelessness, adopted rescue dogs and participated in Stand Up To Cancer, in addition to co-founding the youth singing group Kids Who Care. As last year’s Viva Glam Girl, Grande worked with MAC Cosmetics to donate all proceeds from a line of beauty products to people affected by HIV and AIDS. Reports that Grande has offered to pay for the funerals of the Manchester victims remain unconfirmed, but if the rumor is true, it wouldn't be surprising in the least: Grande has consistently put her time and money where her mouth is, and will surely continue to do so in the wake of Monday’s attack.
In a New York Times piece published Tuesday titled “What Ariana Grande Represents To Her Fans,” Joe Coscarelli and Jon Pareles write, "In her music, shows and videos, Ms. Grande -- ever-smiling as she unleashes a soaring voice -- is what her fans long to be: Self-assured, sexy, talented, optimistic, in control and proudly feminine.” Each of those adjectives can be synthesized to reflect Grande’s overall strength -- in vocal ability, sure, but also in character, conviction, action and determination. Grande has spent her career turning negative energy into positive activity and corralling more fans by making tolerance a non-negotiable.
The NY Times piece points out that Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the Manchester attack, may or may not have deliberately targeted the audience of an artist noted for her "amorous self-assurance” as a woman. It’s sickening to think that Grande’s advocacy of her own agency could have compelled action against her or her fans, but it’s worth noting that the outpouring of support that has followed this tragedy has helped her message spread further, and will continue to do so in the following weeks and months.
To read Grande describe herself as “broken” in the hours after the Manchester attacks was devastating to those who have followed her career and know what she is capable of achieving. She is an artist still relatively early in her career, but already with more accomplished than most in a lifetime. Grande’s past informs us that her power as a pop performer stretches well beyond pop music — and whatever comes next, she will only get more powerful.