It’s quite an understatement to say queer folks are excited about Ariana Grande’s new single, “No Tears Left to Cry.”
A few days ago, someone I follow tweeted in mock-exasperation: “Gay Twitter is ruining Ariana’s new song for me and it’s not even out yet.” Now, LGBTQ pop fans are always going to clamor for an A-lister’s new era. But with Ariana Grande, the waiting and anticipating has felt more breathlessly intense. We care a lot about her, because she cares a lot about us.
Sure, in 2018 you’d struggle to find a pop star who doesn’t speak appreciatively about their LGBTQ fans. It’s almost become a cliché to see female icons celebrating their drag queen impersonators. Superstars like Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue are headlining Pride events this summer. But I’m not interested in ranking performers according to how much they support usan ally is an ally. What I’m saying is Grande’s relationship with the LGBTQ community feels deeply ingrained.
This relationship surely stems from spending her formative years with Frankie, the older gay brother she clearly idolizes. “My brother is like my other half. I love him so much,” Grande told me in 2014 when I interviewed her for Attitude magazine. “When we were growing up, he was always doing musical theatre and I was always surrounded by his gay friends, so most of my best friends are gay or transgender or some beautiful kind of fun. I don’t know what it is, but it seems like gay people are a lot more pleasant and more individual than most people.”
At this stage in her career, when she was just 21, Grande already felt comfortable enough with queer sexuality to incorporate it playfully into her music. “Break Your Heart Right Back,” a stealth-bop from her My Everything album, included a witty sample from Diana Ross’s gay icon “I’m Coming Out.”
“Originally, [that song] was going to be about a boy who cheats with a girl,” she told me during the same interview. “But then I was like, ‘No, I want it to be about a boy who cheats on a girl with another boy.’ The sample on the song is “I’m Coming Out,” so I was like, ‘How funny and tongue-in-cheek would it be if the song was about him coming about because he cheated on her with another guy.’”
“Break Your Heart Right Back” may not be especially risqué or envelope-pushing, but it felt significant from Grande, a singer who’d cut her teeth on the wholesome Nickelodeon shows Victorious and Sam & Cat. To put it in perspective, Taylor Swift earned praise the following year when she gave a subtle nod to her gay fans by singing: “And you can want who you want / Boys and boys and girls and girls.”
Grande’s support for the LGBTQ community has never felt tokenistic, patronizing, or skin-deep. Yes, she’ll come on stage draped in a rainbow flag and use pro-LGBTQ imagery in her tour visuals. But this feels less like a gesture, and more like a representation of how she feels inside. She revealed in 2014 that even she re-thought her spiritual beliefs after learning about the Catholic Church’s attitude towards homosexuality. “When my brother was told that God didn’t love him I was like, “OK, that’s not cool.” They were building a Kabbalah center in Florida so we both checked it out and really had a connection with it,” she told The Sunday Telegraph.
Santi, a longtime Grande fan who’s gay, says the singer’s attitude towards her queer following sets her apart. “It’s not just about saying ‘I see you LGBTQ fans and I love you,’” he explains. “Ariana spreads a message out to a whole generation about unity, love, and equality. She allows people to express themselves regardless of sexuality and gender. A lot of LGBTQ icons in the past have treated LGBTQ fans as a separate group, whereas Ariana makes us feel as one. And she makes her non-LGBTQ fans into allies.”
Grande’s message of unity, love, and equality has never shone brighter than last June. Two weeks after a senseless terrorist attack killed 23 people at her Manchester Arena concert, she laid on a galvanizing benefit concert called One Love Manchester.
“I was at the Manchester Arena show last year, but luckily I had to leave early [and before the bombing],” Andrew, a gay Grande fan, recalls. “That was such a devastating event for the city, and when Ariana announced the benefit show a few days later, I felt so in awe of her poise, strength, and grit. Like most gay men I’m drawn to defiant, strong women and seeing her come out at One Love Manchester with her arms held high, voguing to “Be Alright,” with a look of absolute defiance was incredible for all of us.
“Whenever I go to a dark place, I use that image as a protection charm of sorts. Hopefully one day I can meet Ari and thank her for what she did for the city and for me following those days.”
I spoke to quite a few queer Grande fans for this piece. They all said they drew strength from her strength and pointed out different ways in which she’d displayed kinship. “Did you see Untucked when she was on RuPaul’s Drag Race?” a fan called Mark asked me. “She came backstage and hugged Kandy Ho after she was eliminated. No other judge does that, but she wanted to show her support in a genuine way and went beyond what she had to do as a guest judge in order to do that. It just comes naturally to her.”
Then, of course, there’s the music. “Problem” and “Dangerous Woman” have become pre-drinks staples. “Into You” is already a cult classic, partly because it underperformed on the charts. And in “Break Free,” we might just have a new queer anthem. “I’m stronger than I’ve been before,” she sings defiantly. “This is the part when I break free/’cause I can’t resist it no more.”
And that new song, “No Tears Left to Cry,” really delivers what fans were hoping for. Alluding to the tragic events of Manchester, it’s a defiant, discofied ode to dancing the pain away that continues in the time-honored tradition of Madonna’s “Vogue” and Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.” The artwork shows her looking on purposefully, a flash of rainbow color illuminating her face. It’s flawless shorthand for Ariana Grande, queer icon, in 2018.