Ariana Grande's Whistle Notes Are a Flex, But What Kind?

About three minutes into her performance of her new single “Imagine,” on Tuesday’s episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Ariana Grande unleashed. And what came out sounded something like the whistle notes that Minnie Ripperton used to adorn her 1975 hit “Lovin’ You,” and, of course, those that close out (and sometimes pop up in the middle of) dozens of Mariah Carey songs.


That Grande could pull these off (albeit without the oh-so-I-guess-you’re-just-an-alien quality that they have when they emit from the throat of Carey) isn’t a surprise to anyone who’s been following her closely—she nailed them on this studio cover of Carey’s “Emotions” from 2012. Whether she should have is another question. Without getting too armchair-psychologist-who-overheard-my-roommate-talking-about-their-musicology-class-once, I want to explore what could have been going on in her mind when she decided to make such a vocal leap. Could this be:

  • A straight flex: “I can do it, I’m gonna do it, you’re gonna talk about it on the internet tomorrow.”
  • An emotional flex: “As a singer whose palate is crammed with elements of the soul tradition, I sing what I feel and what I felt at the 2:50 mark in this performance was [abstract high-frequency tone].”
  • An I’m-the-new-Mariah flex: “I can confirm the rumors—I am Mariah 2.0. That’s why I referenced Mean Girls in my ‘thank u, next,’ video even though Mariah’s love of that movie has been well established for over a decade and most famously inspired her 2009 hit ‘Obsessed.’ And it’s why I’m putting high-pitched vocal curlicues at the end of this performance. Accept it now, it’ll be much easier for us all moving forward.”
  • An I’m-not-actually-the-new-Mariah-we’re-quite-different-artists-really-but-I’m-also-not-not-gonna-do-this-thing-with-my-voice-just-because-you’ll-say-it’s-derivative flex:Yuh.”

(I think it’s the last one.)

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.

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It’s nice that some singers can do this with their voices and I’ve always really enjoyed it when Minnie Ripperton and early 90's Mariah did it, but there is something about Ariana’s that I just don’t love. The song is nice, but it just doesn’t need a whistle note. It feels unnecessary. Also, the comparison to Mariah is inevitable because of the similarities in their voices, but I think 90s Mariah’s voice was a lot fuller and she was better at connecting with the audience. Ariana is cute tho. I like her.