First, has there been a Top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hit in 2013 with a lower profile? Maybe it's the fact that I've been living on the other side of the world, in lands far far away from the one whose collective musical taste is measured by Billboard's pop singles chart. It's entirely possible that back in the U.S.A., everyone is already sick to death of hearing about Ariana Grande, who was previously best known as a star on Broadway (in 13) and Nickelodeon (on Victorious, iCarly and Sam & Cat). But here in my world, although "The Way" recently hit No. 9 on the Hot 100, it feels like Grande has gotten relatively little play as budding pop princess.
Maybe it's her timing: Grande's recent pop breakthrough came just as three other former tween/teen-TV sensations of a certain age (20) -- Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez, who turned 21 two weeks ago -- were scoring even bigger hits of their own with, respectively, "Heart Attack," "We Can't Stop" and "Come and Get It." "The Way," by the way, is the only one I wanted to hear again after listening to it for the first time.
Since then, the only places I've heard the song have been on my iPod and on YouTube. Meanwhile, Icona Pop's "I Love It" continues to be the most overplayed hit of the moment worldwide (with the Pharrell-assisted "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke and "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk coming in a close second and second), and I'm still not sick of hearing it a billion spins later.
It might be a good thing that Grande doesn't have that kind of overexposure because although I wanted to press repeat on "The Way" once more after listening to it six straight times yesterday, I'm not sure how I'd feel after hearing it over and over and over, on my iPod, on Girls, and on dance floors and TV commercials from Melbourne to Buenos Aires to Bangkok to Berlin -- all places where "I Love It" has been so prominently featured over the course of the last six months.
My second realization during yesterday's "The Way" listening spree was how much Grande reminds me of a young Mariah Carey -- beautiful and demure, scaling multiple octaves and climbing into her whistle register with the precision and wild abandon of a vocal gymnast -- only slightly saucier than Carey was at roughly the same age when "Vision of Love" became her debut hit.
With its turn-of-the-century R&B-pop sound (a piano riff and shuffle beat that wouldn't have seemed so out of place on Mya's 1998 eponymous debut), "The Way" is what Carey might have been doing about a decade into her career had she not been sidetracked by a mental crisis that coincided with a two-album lapse in sound musical judgement (2001's Glitter and 2002's Charmbracelet). It's a refreshing departure from a female-driven contemporary pop sound that's too often mired in overproduction and foolish beats. It's also so '90s (like Carey at the peak of her powers), which makes me feel young again, though still about a decade older than Grande.
Will Grande enjoy Carey-caliber staying power? We'll have to wait until the September 3 release of Yours Truly, her debut album, to fairly assess her chances. I'd rather listen to "The Way" half a dozen times than "Baby I," the set's second single, but judging from its No. 21 debut this week on the Hot 100, and Grande's confident negotiation of its jazz-inflected R&B terrain, I'd already say she has as good a shot as Icona Pop does at still being on everyone's playlist in 2014. And it won't be just with one song.