It's not uncommon for someone to compare an artist to The Beatles, usually hyperbolically, to express their level of popularity.
But for the first time ever, someone really is as popular as The Beatles. The top three songs on the Hot 100 this week are "7 Rings," "Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I'm Bored" and "Thank U, Next," all by Ariana Grande. Billboard reports that this hasn't happened since 1964, when The Beatles held the top three spots with "Can't Buy Me Love," "Twist and Shout," and "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" If her extraordinary 2018 hadn't already made it clear, this proves once and for all that Ariana Grande really is a once in a generation musical phenomenon.
In different circumstances, one wouldn't ever think to compare Grande and The Beatles because of the extreme differences in their music, the 55 year gap between their careers, and the fact that The Beatles were a band while Grande is a solo act. But, given they're the only two musical acts to have ever accomplished this kind of chart success in the history of music, it's impossible not to consider what it is Ariana Grande and The Beatles have in common. Is the unabiding passion of Arianators as well earned as Beatlemania?
The Beatles introduced ways of recording music that changed the industry, they wrote music that sounded like nothing anyone had ever heard before, and they redefined the art of songwriting. They ushered in a counterculture movement that would change the world. The Rolling Stone said of the band, "The impact of the Beatles – not only on rock & roll but on all of Western culture – is simply incalculable … [A]s personalities, they defined and incarnated '60s style: smart, idealistic, playful, irreverent, eclectic…. [N]o group has so radically transformed the sound and significance of rock & roll. … [they] proved that rock & roll could embrace a limitless variety of harmonies, structures, and sounds; virtually every rock experiment has some precedent on Beatles record." That The Beatles were previously the only act to ever hold the top three places on the Hot 100 is unsurprising, well-earned, and indicative of their lasting impact on music.
So, can the same be said of Ariana Grande? She is undeniably talented, with a powerful voice and all around star quality of which fans can't get enough. But her music is engineered more than its created, with predictable lyrics and tired pop melodies — but fans don't seem to care that there is nothing particularly special about an Ariana Grande song compared to any other pop song on the radio. There is a philosophy and self image that comes with being an Ariana Grande fan that has nothing to do with the music. Fans have bought in wholeheartedly to what Ariana Grande stands for: female empowerment through the pursuit of commercial success, unapologetic self-prioritization, and a classic diva image. Grande offers fans an easy to swallow brand of resistance in a heated political moment, making them believe that in listening to her music they are somehow empowering themselves and their communities in a concrete way. Because, "didn't you see her leave that interview when she was asked a sexist question? Isn't that amazing?!" The music itself is secondary. Above all else, Ariana Grande is a remarkable feat of marketing.
While it would be easy to use this news to condemn modern pop and the taste of the American people, it's just not that simple. The music industry is convoluted and complicated in ways that George Martin probably couldn't have even imagined. If The Beatles had existed in the era of social media, viral posts, and streaming algorithms, who knows if they would have ever become the band we know and love today. They became famous because of the quality of their music and the hard-earned cultivation of a following that began in Liverpool pubs, eventually swelling large enough to launch them to America. But is that kind of organic rise to fame even possible anymore?
Fans of The Beatles in the 60sBusiness Insider
The Beatles didn't have to play the algorithm game, Ariana Grande does, and she's better at it than anyone else. The indistinct nature of her music is one of its greatest strengths: in sounding like nothing, it sounds like everything, perfectly tapping into the algorithms streaming platforms use to promote music to listeners. While there are decidedly positive things to be said about the fact that anyone can make music in their bedroom or on a laptop, one could also say that the sheer volume of music being made makes it extremely difficult for your average person to wade through it all and find something in an organic way. When The Beatles were on the rise and you wanted new music, you walked into a record store and there were only so many options to choose from. It was possible to really find what you loved and wanted to support. Now, it often feels easier to just stick with whatever's on the "New Music Friday" playlist on Spotify than wasting time on the limitless online selection of music.
Which raises the question of whether there is any space left in the music industry for artists who rise to fame on the quality of their music alone. Those great talents, innovators, and game changers, like The Beatles, are probably out there — but they have 1000> streams on Spotify and will never come up on your "Discover Weekly," so how will anyone ever know they're worth listening to? What Ariana Grande tying The Beatles indicates is that people really will listen to whatever they're told is popular or "recommended for them," because it's just...easier.
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