This past August, Ariana Grande released her newest album, Sweetener, and it is a masterpiece. I have streamed the album a number of times that shouldn’t be possible. Now, there are people in this world who disagree with the fact that Sweetener is one of the best albums of the year, but here’s the thing: those people are— objectively— wrong.
The album has been out for a few weeks now, so it’s about time to start thinking of new ways to enjoy it. Books and music are like wine and food: they complement each other. This list includes several works that will make excellent reading companions during your next listen of Sweetener, should you find that your mind needs a bit more stimulation now that you’ve memorized all the lyrics.
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1. When God was a Woman by Merlin Stone
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One of the leading tracks on Sweetener is the theologically revolutionary “God is a woman”, of which Grande did a beautiful performance at the VMAs. When God Was a Woman is Merlin Stone’s best known work. It is a historical account of the erasure of womanhood from depictions of grand deities in various religions, especially Judeo-Christian tradition. Stone is a prominent figure in the Goddess movement, which seeks to reestablish femininity’s role in organized religion. The book was published in 1976, 42 years before the release of Sweetener, and yet despite the temporal distance between the two works, “God is a woman” acts as the spiritual inheritor of the Goddess movement.
First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson
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On Sweetener, Grande opens up about her personal struggles with anxiety, especially in the aftermath of the attack at her Manchester concert. Grande’s use of her art to process her struggles is an admirable choice. First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety is being praised as one of the best books on anxiety ever written. Inspired by a Chinese proverb that dictates any beast must be made beautiful before being conquered, Wilson delves deep into all aspects of living with anxiety, from the perspective of a lifelong sufferer of anxiety. She includes tips and strategies for making life with anxiety more comfortable and refers to famous figures who also suffered from anxiety as inspiration.
Wilson is also the author of I Quit Sugar, and so perhaps her other works can guide us toward some sugar-free sweetener alternatives, for the health-conscious Arianator.
The poetry of e. e. cummings
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The title of every track on Sweetener is stylized in lowercase. The purpose of the lowercase titles on Sweetener has not been explicitly explained by Grande, however, when asked why she changed the title of a song formerly known as “Pete” to what we now know as “pete davidson,” she tweeted this:
i like the way it looks
i love his name and i love him
music lasts forever. it’ll outlive any tattoo, any memory, any anything, even myself so i want my love for him and how i feel to be a part of that
— Ariana Grande (@ArianaGrande) July 30, 2018
So there you go. Now, Grande is not the first artist to use lowercase stylizing in their work; e. e. cummings was a prolific (incredibly so, having published nearly 3,000 poems during his lifetime) poet, who was known for the many ways in which he played with typical formal writing conventions, including the use of lowercase. One may brush up on the artistic legacy of lowercase letters in places where they don’t belong by reading from this volume of selected e. e. cummings poems.
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
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Grande has been very forthcoming about the songwriting process for Sweetener acting as a kind of therapy for her; when asked about the process that birthed her song “breathin,” she said,
“We were in the studio, we were writing and I was like, ‘Ugh can’t breathe.’ And they were like, ‘We’re going to write this song.’ And I was like, ‘OK, I still can’t breathe, but we’ll write it.'”
John Green, the astronomically famous YA author, has also been forthcoming about his experience with anxiety. Like Grande and Sweetener, Green’s most recent work, Turtles All the Way Down, emerged from his need to use art to process his struggle with anxiety:
“I couldn’t escape the spiral of my thoughts, and I felt like they were coming from the outside. Coming out of that, it was difficult to write about anything else. The topic demanded itself.”
Many fans have already expressed the comfort they have experienced while listening to Grande’s work, given that despite recent strides in the right direction, role models who have struggled with mental health are still hard to come by. If you are seeking more artists’ whose work describes mental health difficulties, consider reading through Turtles All the Way Down during your next Sweetener session.
Women and Leadership by Deborah Rhode
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Out of all the tracks on Sweetener, “successful” is one of my favorites. With “successful,” Grande has written a track celebrating successful young women, not just in music, but in all industries. Furthermore, she uses her success to uplift the young women who look up to her with the lyric, “and girl you too, you are so young and beautiful and so successful.”
Sadly, there is still a long way to go for women in the workforce, and Deborah Rhode’s Women and Leadership is a fantastic resource for those seeking to learn the history of the gender gap in leadership positions. Rhode chronicles the many factors that have prohibited women from taking on prominent leadership roles, and directs readers to where the workforce needs to go in order to remedy gender-based imbalance and discrimination.
This is the Place by Tony Walsh
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In the aftermath of the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017, Grande has done exceptional work to contribute to the healing efforts made to aid Manchester’s recovery, including performing at the One Love Manchester concert only two weeks after the attack and visiting hospitalized victims of the attack. The final track on the album, “get well soon,” commemorates the victims. The runtime of the track is five minutes and twenty-two seconds, representing the date of the attack, May 22nd, and there is a 40-second long period of silence at the end to honor the people lost in the attack.
Grande had to be convinced to turn the trauma and grief she experienced into a song; she has acknowledged Pharrell as her coach through the writing process, saying, “he was like, ‘You have to write about it. You need to make this into music and get this shit out, and I promise it will heal you.’ And it definitely helped.” It is important to remember the victims of the Manchester bombing, and one way you can do that is by reading Tony Walsh’s memorial poem “This is the Place,” which he performed at a vigil for the bombing victims at Manchester Town Hall. The poem was released as a book, featuring contributions from other Mancunian artists, which is not currently available, however, the vigil performance of “This is the Place” may be viewed here, and the transcript may be read here.
I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone by Richard Brautigan
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One of the leading themes in Sweetener is love. Of course, as we are all familiar with, Grande recently became engaged to comedian and Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson. Several tracks on the album reflect the passion that holds together young relationships, as does Richard Brautigan’s short story “I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone.” The story, which is included in the collection Revenge of the Lawn, is a first-person description of the struggle the narrator feels when trying to describe their partner, eventually settling on using a film they once saw as a sort of abstract way to describe their feelings:
“Then the movie showed electricity like a young Greek god, coming to the farmer to take away forever the dark ways of his life. Suddenly, religiously, with the throwing of a switch, the farmer had electric lights to see by when he milked his cows in the early black winter mornings. The farmer’s family got to listen to the radio and have a toaster and lots of bright lights to sew dresses and read the newspaper by….”
“I wanted electricity to go everywhere in the world. I wanted all the farmers in the world to be able to listen to President Roosevelt on the radio….
And that’s how you look to me.”
In the immortal words of our reigning pop queen:
— Ariana Grande (@ArianaGrande) June 23, 2018
Featured Image via The Hollywood Reporter, The New School Archives, and HarperCollins