Currently, Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift are two central artists in the pop-music sphere. Grande is at the pinnacle of her career, following the release of “thank u, next”, and Swift is in the inactive stage between album cycles after a whirlwind several years as one of the front runners in the pop industry. With both sharing enormity in their successes, it is natural to wonder if they also share the traits that made their music so relevant.
Initially, Swift and Grande adopt, or possess, a ‘victimhood narrative’ in their public image and/or lyrical content, which subconsciously allows their songs to feel more heartfelt and personal to each listener. Swift is very much known for her public image as a ‘victim’, dominated by her “unwelcomed” feuds with other celebrities such as Kanye (who “character assassinate[d]” her…whatever that means), Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry. Such portrayals of herself are continued in her songs, often describing her being wronged by her man or accused by her lovers. “You Belong with Me” is an example of this, as is “Bad Blood” where she describes someone trying to “write [her] off” leaving “battle wounds…scars”.
It would be naive to ignore the role of Grande’s publicised and unfortunate life events in the past year in fuelling part of the record-breaking success of ‘thank u, next’. Of course, this is not to positively perceive her circumstances, but it is undeniable that increased exposure to mass media lead to global empathy which established her as a true victim of the Manchester Attack, broken engagement and loss of her ex, Mac Miller – not unlike Swift’s public image. Swift’s most common criticism comes from her “perpetual victimhood”, a quality that makes her “so difficult to support”, however, it is also this very quality that may have grown her audience from the offset, making her somewhat relatable. The narrative not only evokes empathy from the listeners but also aligns with the highly biased way in which we perceive our everyday experiences. The self-serving bias that everyone automatically possesses (although, of course, this is debatable) means that humans will, most often, favour the idea of oneself as a victim rather than take responsibility for their own actions. Thus, narratives that acknowledge themselves as victims are appealing and relatable.
Swift and Grande both astutely take advantage of the high publication of their private lives through the inclusion of bold, unapologetic references to their past relationships which they know peak interest. Swift’s fifth studio album “1989” is almost an ode to her infamous relationship with Harry Styles in its entirety. This is particularly evident in the song “Style”, where the title in itself is so blatant; she admits she “should have just called it ‘I’m Not Even Sorry.’ Indeed, there are also subtler references provided by the ex-country singer, including a frame 14 seconds into the music video where she shows the paper airplane necklace that she and Harry famously exchanged.
Similarly, Grande’s literal name-dropping in the single “thank u, next” may be one of the crucial features in making the song a hit. By the end of the first verse, she has named four of her publicly known exes – Sean, Ricky, Pete and Malclom. The penultimate song of her previous album “Sweetener” is named after her fiancé at the time – “pete davidson”. In blatantly hinting or overtly name-dropping people from their personal lives, both Grande and Swift use celebrity interest as a big seller, benefitting from the intrusion of privacy they experience.
Nevertheless, the explicit referencing of specific people falls under their key, overarching song writing trait of honesty. Both Swift and Grande share a specificity in their main ideas as well as the details of the songs. Swift stated in her essay with Elle – “Pop is personal” – that she believes “music lovers want some biographical glimpse into the world of our narrator”, “reaching out for connection and comfort…”, “being confided in and hearing someone say, ‘this is what I went through” as proof to us that we can get through our own struggles”. Thus, the particular lyrics, such as “twenty stitches in the hospital room” and “order me pad thai” or the specific idea of Grande asking someone to “break up with [their] girlfriend, ‘cuz [she’s] bored”, all mark an honesty that enables them to write about things that are real, raw and personal. This connects them to audiences on an emotional level, making them relatable whilst fulfilling the listeners’ desires to be emotionally comforted and connect through the lyrics.