Cultures Music

Ariana Grande’s Positions: Some New, Some Old, Lots of Sex

Ariana Grande released her sixth studio album, Positions, on Friday 30th October under Republic Records. It’s available on Amazon for £10.29 if you want to check it out.  

Her previous albums have received positive reviews. Positions meanwhile has received mixed reviews, earning three stars from many outlets. Despite this, it’s still heading for the No. 1 spot in the UK charts, so it can’t be that bad.

A lot of the criticism comes from the fact that Positions is not Ariana Grande’s usual style, although her voice, lyrics and material are all perfectly recognisable throughout the album. It’s a quieter, slower affair, although none of the songs are long enough that this decrease in pace becomes boring. This makes it a combination of the Ariana that we know and love, and a new Ariana who’s more mature in more ways than one.

While reviews have been right to point out that in Positions there are no dynamic songs like those that brought her fame, such as ‘Break Free’, the album isn’t monotonous. There is variation between the songs, with more tender offerings like ‘POV’ and ones that leave nothing to the imagination like ‘34+35’. Like most reviewers, I prefer Ariana’s more dynamic offerings, but that doesn’t mean that Positions should be written off as a failure.

The album is all about sex, but the musical composition makes this surprisingly subtle despite the explicit lyrics. For instance, in the opening song, ‘Shut Up’, Ariana combines orchestral strings with hip-hop and funk influences, which makes it easy to miss exactly what the lyrics are saying. Likewise, Ariana’s voice alongside her choices of lyrics and composition makes the album more intimate than vulgar, which would have been let down by having more dynamic songs. As a soprano, her voice can go incredibly high, but she also tends to sing in a very breathy way that in previous albums could be considered ‘cutesy’ and in Positions lends it a more seductive than demanding tone.

The lyrics aren’t as poetic as they could be, but perhaps that’s what Ariana was going for. It’s certainly not the first time that she’s given us songs about sex, considering songs such as ‘NASA’, and ‘Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored’ from the preceding album Thank U, Next (2019). She’s just being significantly more explicit this time. One reviewer on Amazon decries the idea that she’s got a sixth album out of the image of being a confident, independent woman who wants sex. But, if that image has been so clear for so long, then a lot of the things being criticised can’t be that much of a surprise.

It’s better to view Positions as different, as a slowing of pace and change of tac and possibly as an experiment. It’s a pared down version of what Ariana’s already been doing and is as coherent as her previous albums.

It’s been suggested in various media that this new album is a sign of recovery following Ariana’s previous two albums, both of which followed very public and personal tragedies. Sweetener (2018) was released following the Manchester Arena bombing and Thank U, Next (2019) after the death of her ex Mac Miller and end of her engagement to Pete Davidson. Positions follows no particular events, so perhaps that’s why it packs less of a punch for listeners. Even so, Ariana’s certainly due a break from bad luck regardless of the music that she produces.

Ariana is no stranger to change in her career, either. My Everything (2014) and Dangerous Woman (2016) were both noticeably more mature than her debut album, Yours Truly (2013). Positions sticks faithfully to this trajectory, as it focuses explicitly and unashamedly on sex. A lot of reviews in both media outlets and store pages have fixated on this, but while it is undoubtedly her most explicit album, I can’t help but feel that the same lyrics wouldn’t be received so negatively if coming from a male artist.

So, is Positions an album that you can rock out to in a club? No. It’s more upbeat to listen to than it’s been given credit for, but without the bangers that Ariana’s known for it’s unlikely to be the album of choice at a disco. She’s been criticised for releasing an album so focused on sex at a time when many people are missing intimacy thanks to the pandemic. Nonetheless, if it’s not what you’d hear in a club, it’s a great album to listen to at home. Dua Lipa released her follow-up album Future Nostalgia early on in the pandemic, which is less explicit but definitely focused on sex, and listeners welcomed the distraction. Perhaps people’s patience has worn thin in the months since. 

There is clear thought behind the lyrics and Ariana’s voice is actually done a service by the change of pace. Her range and lyrics are both clearer thanks to the less dynamic songs. While this has been mentioned by critics, perhaps it’s worth focusing more on Ariana’s talents than the non-PG content, because Positions shows that in bucketloads. 

Chloé (she/her) is an Egyptologist who, when not studying obscure ancient languages, writes fantasy and sci-fi fiction and non-fiction articles on education and the arts for The Oxford Blue, The Oxford Student, and Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative.