Grammys flashback: Victory was sweet for Ariana Grande’s ‘Sweetener’

Winning the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album is a huge deal. The category has been consistent in rewarding the biggest pop star of the year in most years, from two-time winners Adele and Kelly Clarkson to Harry Styles, Bruno Mars, and Taylor Swift. So it’s no surprise that one of this generation’s leading vocalists has also claimed the award: Ariana Grande, who won for her 2018 effort, “Sweetener.” Grande is a consistent nominee in the category, with all her albums except her debut receiving at least two nominations in the pop field. But what made her 2018 record the one to finally get her a long-awaited Grammy win, especially with heavy competition from previous winners like the aforementioned Swift and Clarkson?

Grande had a massive comeback in 2018. She was coming off one of the most traumatic experiences an artist could ever experience: the 2017 bombing at one of her concerts in Manchester, England, where 22 concert-goers lost their lives. Grande responded by hosting a charity event for the families, One Love Manchester, which cemented her as one of the most gracious pop stars of her era.

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By this time, Grande was already a consistent Grammy nominee in the pop field and had amassed a number of hits across her first three records. But “Sweetener” saw her return in a big way. The album’s lead single, “No Tears Left to Cry,” became her highest-charting solo song ever at the time, peaking at number-three on the Billboard Hot 100, and it was praised for expressing resilience and hope after dark times. Grande then followed it with the semi-controversial “God is a Woman,” a female empowerment anthem that also peaked in the top 10 of the Hot 100.

The “Sweetener” era was aided by massive promotion, from performances at the VMAs and BBMAs to talk show appearances. Upon its release “Sweetener” broke records for the largest streaming week ever for a female pop album and a non-hip-hop female album. The album’s 231,000 units were also a career-best figure for Grande, showing her increased support. But perhaps most importantly, the record received critical acclaim after the more muted receptions of her previous two releases, garnering praise for its creative production and more mature approach.

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Despite the success, “Sweetener” wasn’t a runaway frontrunner. Before nominations many were considering a possible win for Taylor Swift’s “Reputation,” which sold over a million copies in its first week. Though when nominations came around, arguably both albums underperformed: “Sweetener” missed an expected Album of the Year nomination, while “Reputation” missed the general field and Best Pop Solo Performance.

Alongside the two albums were Camila Cabello’s “Camila,” which included the nominated smash hit “Havana”; Kelly Clarkson’s “Meaning of Life,” which had gotten a Pop Solo nomination the year prior for its lead single “Love So Soft”; Shawn Mendes’s self-titled record, which was also up for Song of the Year; and Pink’s “Beautiful Trauma,” which like Clarkson’s record had scored a Pop Solo nomination the year prior.

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This lineup meant “Sweetener” was one of the only three nominees to score another nomination that year along with “Camila” and “Shawn Mendes.” Crucially, “Sweetener” and “Camila” were the only albums with supporting song nominations in the pop field, which is always an indicator for a win; the only two BPVA winners not to have additional pop nominations were James Taylor’s “Hourglass” and Joni Mitchell’s “Turbulent Indigo.” As such, many pundits switched from “Reputation” to “Sweetener,” since “Camila” didn’t have as much critical acclaim and Grande had a stronger track record than Cabello up to that point.

“Sweetener’s” win was the result of a couple factors. First, goodwill. Grande’s respect grew massively after how well she handled the Manchester tragedy. She had also mourned the death of her famous ex-boyfriend Mac Miller just a couple months prior and broken off her recent engagement to her then-boyfriend Pete Davidson. It was clear that voters knew how much Grande had endured and admired her ability to put that all into her work.

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But besides that, the release of her follow-up single, “Thank U, Next,” certainly also helped. The song, which dropped a couple of weeks before voting and introduced a new era mere months after “Sweetener’s” release, spent seven weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. It was a big step for Grande in acclaim and commercial success, cementing her as the pop star of the year, and Best Pop Vocal Album is usually reflective of that. Come Grammy time, Grande was expected to win, and so she did.

Personally, “Sweetener’s” win remains one of my all-time favorites. The record serves as a reflection of its time and the complex success of Grande in 2018. It felt like a crowning achievement for her, and the Grammy win was well-deserved for one of our generation’s biggest stars, even though pop stars like Grande often get passed over on the awards stage for more singer-songwriter-style artists like Swift and Adele. Plus, “Sweetener” manages to put a smile on every listener’s face by honoring the ups and downs of life, something so basic to the human experience that it can connect a regular person to a pop behemoth like Ariana Grande.

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