Ariana Grande made some of the first quarantine music of the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in May, she released “Stuck With U,” a charity duet with Justin Bieber that was the first song created during isolation to hit No. 1 on “The Hot 100.” It’s perfectly understandable if you forgot about all that though, because, well, it’s a perfectly forgettable song, a stale attempt at a quarantine sex jam. But even if it didn’t feel like it at the time, May was relatively early into our new normal of isolation. Grande was still figuring this whole thing out, just like the rest of us. She was also still getting acquainted with new boyfriend and muse Dalton Gomez, who appeared in the “Stuck With U” music video at the time. Nearly half a year later, she’s back with a full album of quarantine music, and it’s largely a better version of what she teased on “Stuck With U”: lavishly horny R&B bops, presumably inspired by her quarantine boy toy.
So maybe I shouldn’t have expected anything else from her quarantine music, but for once this year, I find myself wishing Grande had tapped into the isolation that had been so fruitful for some of her peers. She’s proved herself uniquely skilled at channeling difficult emotions in her music, from her experiences with anxiety on sweetener with highlight “breathin” to the death of Mac Miller and her broken-off engagement to Pete Davidson on “thank u, next.” She didn’t have to address quarantine literally (it was merely a framing device for Taylor Swift) or not make love songs (Charli XCX did it movingly). But it could’ve been her moment.
Instead, Grande’s music is the most mundane of the bunch, chronicling how she’s spent the past months eating healthy, meditating, and having wild sex with her boyfriend through the night. By the final track, “pov,” she finally sits down for a second and does a bit of reflecting. The song falls snugly in a tradition of songs about switching places with your lover. “For all of my pretty, and all of my ugly too,” she sings. “I’d love to see me from your point of view.” It’s the sort of question that must come up after spending months mostly indoors with a new person, making for a rare moment on the album where Grande isn’t a confident sex demon but an unsure human like the rest of us. She’s breaking out of the persona she’s established over the album to show us the insecurities that have been underneath. Positions falls into its own quarantine-like routine of bite-size declarations of new love, and “pov” ends as a welcome minor shakeup: a question after a series of statements.
Vocally, “pov” is one of Grande’s best performances on positions, an ecstatic finale presenting her whole range of whistle tones, belts, and runs in just three and a half minutes. But by now, we know Grande can sing. We know she can make radio-ready R&B too, and as lead single “positions” showed us last week, she doesn’t seem keen on disrupting that formula just yet. So strip that all away and we’re left with the substance of the songs — and on that front too, positions mostly finds her retreating into familiar topics. Which is an understandable response to this year. But while the rest of positions just leaves me jealous that I don’t have a quarantine boyfriend to love and play video games with, “pov” ends with the emotional release I’ve been waiting for all along. In a year like this, we could use a whole lot more of that catharsis, especially from someone as capable as Grande.