How Ariana Grande’s Sweetener Reckons With the Aftermath of the Manchester Bombing

The new Ariana Grande album isn’t just about Pete Davidson.

Ariana Grande "Dangerous Woman" Tour Opener - Phoenix
Kevin Mazur

Amid the celebrations of Ariana Grande’s impending nuptials with fiancé Pete Davidson, it can be easy, at times, to forget that the 25-year-old musician has been through the wringer in the two years since the release of her last album, 2016’s Dangerous Woman. Prior to her engagement, she split from longtime boyfriend Mac Miller (though she swiftly rebounded, and then some, with Davidson). And, more tragically, last May, her concert at the Manchester Arena in England was bombed, resulting in the deaths of 23 concertgoers and the injuries of 139 more—and, given the demographic of Grande’s fandom, many of them were kids and teens.

She’s spent a lot of time since then grappling with the aftermath—including reckoning with her own mental health as well as the well-being of the survivors of the incident and acquiring a tattoo of the Manchester bee, a longtime symbol of the city—and her new album, Sweetener, which came out Friday, bears traces of that reckoning. (Indeed, in an interview with the Fader for a profile of Grande, Pharrell Williams, who produced Sweetener, said it changed how record label executives viewed Grande’s upcoming album.) The final track, “Get Well Soon,” describes feeling “too much in my head.” (“They say my system is overloaded,” she begins; “My body’s here on Earth but I’m floating.” The lyrics echo the language she’s used to describe the panic attacks she suffered in the wake of the attack, and fans have largely interpreted it in that context.) While much of the song dwells on the larger issues surrounding fame and isolation, the feelings she describes are ones that must only be compounded by something like the Manchester bombing.

But it’s not just in the substance of the song’s lyrics: “Get Well Soon,” Sweetener’s closing track, clocks in at five minutes and 22 seconds, thanks to 40 seconds of silence capping off the track. Five-22—5:22, or 5/22, or May 22—was the date of the Manchester bombing, a subtle reference to the event that only reinforces fan readings of the track’s lyrics. (It’s also almost Taylor Swift–like to include a numerical reference, a small Easter egg for sharp-eyed fans.)

Elsewhere, Sweetener seems to be populated with brief references to Manchester. (There is also, as has been amply covered, a track called “Pete Davidson”—or, as it’s styled on the release, “pete davidson.”) After all, it’s not simply a trauma she experienced once and put behind her; as she’s described in interviews, it’s become part of the fabric of her existence. “Breathin,” the album’s ninth track, for example, is a bop. It’s also about the physical experience of having a panic attack—something she hadn’t encountered until Manchester, she told Elle during an interview for the magazine’s August cover. The Guardian’s review of the album also pointed to the title of “No Tears Left to Cry” and the chorus of “The Light Is Coming,” the Nicki Minaj–featuring third track.

“I guess I thought with time, and therapy, and writing, and pouring my heart out, and talking to my friends and family that it would be easier to talk about, but it’s still so hard to find the words,” Grande told the Fader in a recent profile. “When you’re so close to something so tragic and terrifying and opposite of what music and concerts are supposed to be, it kind of leaves you without any ground beneath your feet.”