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Ariana Grande’s ‘Dangerous Woman’ still challenges taboos of sex and power

Ariana Grande‘s third album Dangerous Woman takes its title from a quote by Nawal El Saadawi. “They said,” the feminist author wrote in 1975, “‘You are a savage and dangerous woman.’ I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.

Ariana Makes Her Stand

This was a bold statement for Saadawi to make. She lived in Egypt at a time when women were imprisoned and brutalized for expressing their thoughts. The world in which Ariana Grande found herself in 2016 was not as far removed from Saadawi’s Egypt as many liked to think. To speak too many truths as a pop star was career suicide.

Yet times had changed. This was no longer the era of Girl Next Door pop stars like Britney Spears. Rihanna and Beyoncé had broken their molds and shown the world pop was a platform for empowerment and self-expression. Like these women before her, Grande too was ready to take her stand. And when she did the world would never be the same.

The cover of ‘Dangerous Woman’.

The Cultural Impact of Dangerous Woman

With her third album, Ariana Grande wove a pop narrative of what it really meant to be a modern woman. Her soulful pop tunes spoke to a generation. The album was also an important step in Grande’s own personal transformation. With it, she cast aside the innocence of being a child. With a hint of debauchery, she helped millions of young women grab their femininity and sexuality with both hands.

Songs like Nicki Minaj collaboration ‘Side to Side’ and title track ‘Dangerous Women’ leave little to the imagination. They are empowering. Sex, Grande shared, was not lewd for the sake of being lewd. It was part of her journey to becoming a woman. Grande’s exploration of these new experiences was startlingly personal.

Grande’s relatable stories were put across by her powerhouse vocals. Which, at the time of Dangerous Woman, were becoming celebrated for their timeless essence. Grande owned her power and sang with absolute confidence.

Dangerous Woman made clear Grande was on her way to becoming one of the all-time greats. Though even a statement like this would be cutting her ambition short. Not only could Ariana sell as many records as Whitney Houston. She could do so while telling women that their minds and bodies were their own.

The cover of ‘Dangerous Woman’.

Her Story

Ariana Grande began her career in music as a Nickelodeon star. Die-hard fans will remember Grande as Cat Valentine from teen sitcom Victorious. Cat was a far cry from the image of Grande today. The character was known for being “adorably dim-witted” though she soon gained a reputation for stunning viewers with her powerhouse vocals on screen. From there, it seemed Ariana’s future was set in stone. She was going to be a pop star.

In 2013 Grande released her first studio album Yours Truly. It was quickly followed by her second album My Everything. Grande blew through the charts with hit after hit. Outside of her albums she also built a reputation as a highly sought-after collaborator. Working with pop heavy-weights, she further solidified her place at the top.

Grande poses for a ‘Yours Truly’ promotional photo.

Decoding Ariana Grande

Throughout this period Grande never stopped soaring to new heights. Then came Dangerous Woman. The album was an exploration of something sexier and more suggestive. Grande was no longer the innocent girl from Victorious. She was a woman coming into her own.

The album’s accompanying photos expressed this. Here Ariana kept her now-famous high ponytail. This suggested youth and playfulness. She also opted for a latex bunny mask.

The mask drew inspiration from New York photographer Helmut Newton’s famous 1975 photograph of model Elsa Peretti. Newton’s work embodied a mixture of sex, subdued elegance, and luxury. Grande’s new black and white images suggested likewise. Here Grande and photographer Matt Barnes fused her good girl persona with the more mature side explored on Dangerous Woman’s songs.

A Dangerous Woman promotional GIF.

Ariana Grande Challenges Systemic Sexism

Dangerous Woman was a step above Grande’s previous albums. Stepping into her own, she projected an attitude of untouchable femininity. Some critics labeled her as ‘Selling out’ referencing the idea that “sex sells”. However, by this period of her career, Grande had become well versed in dealing with the sexism prevalent in the music industry. She was casually responding with shrugs.

One example is this. In 2015, a Power106FM radio host famously asked Grande “If you could use your phone or makeup one last time, which one would you pick?” the reply Grande gave him was well deserved. “Is this seriously,” she shot back, “what you think girls have trouble choosing between?

In a 2019 Vogue interview, Grande revealed that while she is vocal in calling out sexism, she does not take negative comments to heart. “I like having my funny character that I play, that feels like this exaggerated version of myself,” she confided. “It protects me. But also, I love disrupting it for the sake of my fans and making clear that I’m a person. That’s something I enjoy fighting for.”

Grande poses for Dangerous Woman promotional photo.

Dangerous Woman Empowered Fans

Sentiments like these are found throughout Dangerous Woman. The album is filled with the snappy expressions of a 22-year-old exploring her sexual and intimate identity while flipping off the male gaze. The album’s mature nature is conscious and direct. Grande is giving a step-by-step manual on how she became to be a dangerous woman while showing her listeners how to do the same.

Grande poses for Dangerous Woman promotional photo.

Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman Turns 5

In one sense, Dangerous Woman can be viewed as a quintessential Pop and R&B album for the masses. But Grande made it much more than that. Dangerous Woman is infused with an honest and explorative concept of sexual liberation. What is more, it a stepping stone to Ariana Grande’s celebrated albums Sweetener, Thank U, Next, and Positions. All have influenced generations of women with powerful statements of their own. They would not exist, however, without the foundation of Dangerous Woman. Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman set the tone not only for her own work but altered the trajectory of pop for the years which followed. Today, Dangerous Woman is still as influential and important as it was five years ago.

Ariana Grande as photographed by Matt Barnes.

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