Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants! New year, new Rant, let’s jump on.
A quiet but triumphant thing happened last year: Ariana Grande became an actual, solidified pop star. While true that she’s in her second major album cycle (discounting “The Way,” Yours Truly was basically a Selena Gomez and the Scene album), everything Grande did in the My Everything era had that self-conscious “I do adult pop music now, please do not mention my old kids show” slant that Gomez and Miley had in 2013. She was wobbly at Dangerous Woman‘s release too, for different reasons, but that seemed to work itself out by summer’s end. As a result, Grande ended last year as the newest pop star with an established base. Now, to be clear, part of it is also the field; anyone bigger than Grande seems either too disinterested in the pop idol game (Rihanna, The Weeknd) or has transcended it (Beyonce, Drake), while her competitors who haven’t imploded already (Charli XCX, Iggy Azalea) lack the right songs to personality ratio (Meghan Trainor, The Chainsmokers). She’s pretty much alone in her lane as the industry backed, personable, good but never singular, pop star. Welcome to the new age.
But, nothing feels as convincing of Grande’s newly minted stardom as “Side To Side,” which consists of exactly one entendre tucked inside a nothingburger of a song. If this is Grande’s biggest single off of Dangerous Woman (it’s already her highest charting), and not the a-okay title track or the fantastic “Into You,” then she’s clearly hit the point of pop entrenchment where she’s rewarded more for showing up than bringing her best material. I’ll say this for “Side To Side:” it’s the most unhurried she’s ever sounded on record, which is good for Grande’s long-term career prospects, but doesn’t add much to a song that’s already low energy. It comfortably sounds like a third single, which is to say, kind of conservative. Regardless of quality, the third single is the one that’s just kind of there. It’s not as attention grabbing as the lead single, nor designed for maximum airplay like the second one, but doesn’t have that “why the fuck not?” edge that comes with batting clean-up (Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream and T.Swift’s 1989 exemplify this order).
And musically, “Side to Side” is the epitome of “just kinda there.” It has that incorrigible reggae/tropical bounce to it that pop ran into the ground a year ago, and that just sounds bizarre next to single degree temperatures outside. The heavy bassline in the verses adds a little texture, but it’s not enough to give the song any kind of life beyond Max Martin-led pop song #1138. What’s weird about “Side to Side” is how the pre-chorus and chorus both hint at this release that never comes; the pre-chorus (“These friends keep talkin’ way too much”) raises the drama, and the first two lines of the chorus (“I’ve been here all night/I’ve been here all day”) hint at a climax, but when it comes to the actual delivery of “You’ve got me walking side to side,” the song shoots a blank. While it splashes around in the same vaguely tropical waters as “Cheap Thrills” and others, “Side to Side” comes up dry.
But I’ve jerked around as long as I can, it’s time to get to the thrust of what people talk about when it comes to “Side to Side:” did you know that this song is about getting dick? In fact–ahem, I don’t know if you know this yet–but it’s about getting dicked so hard you can’t walk straight the next day. Scandalous. It’s compulsive to hint that you know this whenever “Side to Side” comes up; even yesterday, I heard the song on the radio, and the DJ followed it up with “That was Ariana Grande’s ‘Side to Side,’ I’ll let you figure out what it’s about” like the meaning is some Dan Brown Illuminati shit to be decoded, and not immediately where your mind goes after hearing “I’ve been here all night/I’ve been here all day/And boy, you got me walking side to side” for the first time.
Two things with this. First of all, y’all, this is not a secret. The only reason the “You Won’t Believe What ‘Side to Side’ is Actually About” narrative exists is because Grande and her team framed the song that way. Grande copped to the meaning as soon as the song started getting promotional push before playing coy about it on twitter, at which point Buzzfeed ran a piece on Pop Twitter’s wild overreaction, and we all agreed to just go with it. No one who took more than a glance at this song or its video thought it was actually about bicycles (speaking of the workout video: Kanye did it first, Best Coast did it better). Second of all, I don’t know how much sex Ariana Grande does or doesn’t have, but I do know that “Love Me Harder,” a song of hers that’s just barely not about rough sex, already exists, so the sexual nature of “Side to Side” barely registers. The shock behind “dick bicycle” exists just so this song can sell.
Otherwise, there’s not much to “Side to Side.” Grande sounds fine, the beat’s unremarkable, and Nicki does one of those solid pop verses that I feel like we take for granted, but I also don’t have much to say about (aside from “Rappers in they feelings cuz they feelin’ me” getting a lot funnier now that she’s broken up with Meek Mill). I want to say that I’m surprised this has been Grande’s big hit off Dangerous Woman, but I get how it’s ridden the charts so long. It’s so slight that you don’t notice it chafes.