No tears left to cry? Well, that part was a lie, or at least a false prophecy. Ariana Grande couldn’t have been more recurringly tearful at the final date of her “Sweetener” tour Sunday night than if she’d been bottling it up for the tour’s entire 10-month routing. And she made it clear she was (in the parlance of “Thank U, Next”) f—ing grateful for the ex-attendees at every stop of the way on an outing that was a major component in one of the pop success stories of the year.
“This year would not have gone the way it went without you,” Grande told fans at the Sunday closer at the Forum, wiping away the weepiness during an impromptu five-minute speech. “Thank you for traveling around the world to see me. How many of you guys flew all over the f—ing place to see me? I mean, why? Why? Thank you — and why? I don’t deserve it.”
The L.A. wrap-up offered good cheer as well as good tears, as Grande sang something that obviously had not been part of her set when she first came through the area for a series of arena and festival shows back in April and May: a Christmas medley. Grande has just reissued her 2015 EP “Christmas & Chill” (now on vinyl for the first time, albeit sold out at the merch stands), describing it in recent social media posts as “my favorite body of work… my fav project,” and saying its re-ascendance on digital charts made her “the happiest I’ve ever been.” Her mid-set assemblage included three songs from that project (“December,” “True Love” and “Wit It This Christmas”) along with an earlier single, “Santa Tell Me.”
But she and her cast of dancers performed the Christmas sidebar in non-holiday drag, saving the Santa mini-skirts for the show’s finale, “Thank U, Next,” which had a confetti drop to mirror the fake-snow drop that occurred earlier.
“If you’re not sure why I’ve been crying the whole time, this is the last show on the Sweetener tour,” Grande said. “I can’t tell you how much joy this experience has brought me. … Everybody has worked so f—in’ hard and been away from their families and their homes,” she said, in the midst of name-checking, or at least profession-checking, everyone from her band members to lighting personnel and security. “Everyone is so nice and so sweet… To be away from home and their family for this long, and no one ever has a bad f—in’ attitude…” She walked to the rear of the stage to hug one of her keyboard players, and the lights dimmed. “Turn the lights up!” she said, walking back to the front. “I’m not done! Sorry!” After more profuse gratitude, she retreated to the rear again, this time still illuminated. “Turn the lights off now,” she commanded with a laugh. “Thank you.”
Grande didn’t mention that, while the show was going on, the Republic label had just dropped a new live album of the tour, titled “k bye for now (swt live).” The first four words of that title did appear in script as she exited the stage, with the audience perhaps not realizing that was a plug for a newly released soundtrack to what they’d just seen as well as wistful farewell note.
The track listing for the live album reflects some changes the setlist has gone through between Grande’s first five SoCal dates in the spring (when she played two nights at the Coachella Festival, two at Staples Center and one at the Forum) and now (when she did one night at the Honda Center in Anaheim before the two Forum gigs).
Songs that appear on the live record that were in and out of the tour along the way and didn’t survive to the finale include “Successful,” “Love Me Harder,” “Tattooed Heart,” “Only 1,” “Goodnight N Go,” “Get Well Soon,” “Break Free” and a medley of “Right There,” “You’ll Never Know” and “Break Your Heart Right Back.”
But there were tradeoffs that benefitted tour latecomers. Replacing that latter medley in early November was the Christmas medley. A less expected added treat, perhaps, was the addition of “Honeymoon Avenue” for just the final six nights of the tour — and not the balladic “Honeymoon Avenue” that 99% of the world knows, but the bouncy, Motown-style, “OG” arrangement that she first tried out in the studio and ultimately rejected in the early 2000s, only to eventually release it via Soundcloud in 2016.
It made sense that if she were going to finally perform it on this tour, Grande would revive the lesser-known, peppy version of the tune, and not the heartbreak version: This really is a no-tears tour, notwithstanding whatever sentimentality might occur between songs at a finale.
What remained constant over the 10 months, besides a party spirit and Grande’s unerring reliability as a singer, was how the “Sweetener” tour is a triumph of pop design as well as of pop music. The singer and designer LeRoy Bennett were a match made in heaven — a dimly lit, but still gorgeous, heaven — together making bold choices at every step of the way that flew in the face of what would seem obvious to do on a superstar diva tour.
Rather than be spotlit in blinding white and stand apart from her backup dancers, Grande treated herself as part of a fluid ensemble, usually illuminated in the same soft, muted, warm colors as the rest of the set. That could make for some grumbling at first from fans who wondered why they hadn’t been warned to bring night-vision goggles to the show. But once your eyes adjusted to the subtler visual schemes, it became easy to give in to the unusual loveliness of what was on stage as well as the R&B rhythms — beauty and the bop. And with all those half-globes in the design, or actually a full globe, as one giant, descending orb turns out to be midway through the concerts, the whole feel could be described, in a nutshell, as: Pink Floyd meets a very pastel disco.
What’s the “next” part of Grande’s career, to proceed apace with the “thank u” part? Maybe a kiss-and-make-up appearance at the 2020 Grammys? If so, you can be sure of two things: It won’t look like anything else on the show, and she’ll sing the hell out of it. But even if her Grammy romance ends with her multiple nominations, that’s still a worthy victory lap in itself for somebody who made two superior albums back to back. If there were a Grammy for the most ingeniously conceived and executed feel-good pop tour of the year, she’d have that in the bag.