Music & Nightlife

Ariana Grande’s concert isn’t ‘Problem’-free

Ariana Grande performs on stage at Time Warner Cable Arena on July 21,2015.
Ariana Grande performs on stage at Time Warner Cable Arena on July 21,2015. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Chocolate glazed.

This is the type of doughnut that popped into my head as I watched Ariana Grande perform on Tuesday night at Time Warner Cable Arena, 17 days removed from that time when she licked a few pastries at a bakery in California while proclaiming “I hate America.”

Which doesn’t bother me as much as it bothered some. I mean, hey, more than a few of us did similarly dumb (or much dumber) stuff back when we were 22 years old.

So I wave that image away, and what I see is this: a pop star with ravishing looks and an astonishing voice... who struggles to string together enough material for a headlining set... and who is still probably several years from possessing the charisma to truly connect with her fans, in a way that doesn’t involve social media.

Not since Beyonce – or, to be gender-fair, Adam Levine – have we encountered such a perfect, almost incomprehensible balance of beauty and singing chops; Grande’s four-octave vocal range is one short of Mariah Carey’s (a singer to whom she’s often compared), yet in some instances the younger artist’s instrument sounds smoother and milkier than her idol’s.

On Tuesday night, the eight-piece band threatened on several occasions to drown her out, but when it backed off enough – most notably for 2013’s “Tattooed Heart” and 2014’s “Best Mistake” – she made practically everything you’ve ever heard on “American Idol,” by comparison, sound like Karaoke Night at your local bar.

Still, arena shows can be tough, and headlining arena shows can be unforgiving. Though Grande has slingshotted to superstardom, it’s easy to forget she only has two studio albums under her belt, and so she faces a distinct challenge in keeping the energy level up at her shows without a deep catalog of hits from which to draw.

“Bang Bang” (originally recorded with Jessie J and Nicki Minaj) was a get-your-motor-running leadoff song; however, the set seemed to deflate the crowd in the middle with unmemorable songs like “Break Your Heart Right Back,” “Be My Baby” and “Why Try.”

Fortunately, monster hits like “Break Free” and “Problem” ended things on a high note.

Both songs made her sound and look great – she was dancing and smiling – and at the same time, her performance felt faintly detached, distant, cold.

All night, Grande never seemed fully connected to her fans. She blew a few kisses and at one point late in the show held the hand of a young man in the front row while singing “Honeymoon Avenue.” But for most of the night, she seemed to be looking through the crowd, not at it.

She ventured onto the catwalk sparingly, and when she did, security guards brusquely prevented those with the best seats from leaving them to get close to the stage. On multiple occasions where she was just a few feet from the masses, she appeared to be more interested in flirting with her backup dancers than making eye contact with one of her tween worshippers.

It’s just a little surprising. After all, these are people who paid $40 at merch stands for cat ears that glow. Forty dollars! For cat ears. That glow!

If that’s not a reason for Ariana Grande to love, love, LOVE America, I’m not sure what is.

Janes: 704-358-5897;

Twitter: @theodenjanes

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