Earlier this week, Ariana Grande was crowned Billboard‘s Woman of the Year with a generous, intimate cover story and a banquet of striking photos. In it, she opened up as much as she could about her upcoming fifth album — yes, the one apparently due to drop only a few months after this year’s excellent Sweetener — that’s officially called Thank U, Next. (Its vibe, she said, is “feminine energy and champagne and music and laughter and crying.”) But that was only the beginning.
Thursday night (December 6), Grande took the stage at Billboard‘s Women in Music 2018 to officially accept the honor after performing the album’s title track. And following a thread she first presented in November when she debuted it on Ellen, the singer gave even more details on what to expect. “I feel like we made if The First Wives Club were an album,” she said onstage, adding it was “some of the most fun times of my life in the studio.”
After a loving (and genuinely hilarious) intro by soul legend Patti LaBelle, Grande alternately got very real and punctured the more serious moments with light ribs at her own expense. “I find it interesting that this has been one of the best years of my career and the worst of my life,” she said, before admitting that while people may see her success as a sign that she has her shit together, she decidedly doesn’t. But she’s trying.
It was a joyful and cathartic expression of sentiments, in line with the tenor of the entire evening. Some laughs, some tears, and a lot of celebrating the endless drive and work of women in the music industry. Here are the highlights.
Kacey Musgraves Keeps On Giving Butterflies
In addition to strumming out a pared-down “Butterflies” performance accompanied by banjo and cello — one that replaced the groove of the album version with a gentle breeze of country strings — Musgraves stayed on theme. “Women are fuckin’ awesome,” she said, accepting the Innovator honor. “The female perspective is so important … now at age 30, I’m more connected to my femininity than ever and I’m really proud of it.” As numerous year-end lists point out, her album Golden Hour is being (rightfully) celebrated as one of the year’s best — fitting for an album that kicks off with a tender rumination she dreamed up on an acid trip.
Though she didn’t perform, Monae stepped up to accept the Trailblazer honor, immediately recognizing “so many cool ass women” in the room. Before she went much further, Monae also stopped to also thank Whack, the young rapper and artist behind the concise, whimsical Whack World album, for blazing a trail of her own. “The way you’re innovating right now is so inspiring to me,” Monae said. “Keep going. Go further than where I’m taking it.” Both artists saw their complete visions take shape in 2018: Monae with Dirty Computer (which debuted alongside a magnificent “emotion picture“) and Whack with a series of short, interconnected visuals that brought her album to life. Looks like the admiration is mutual.
Hayley Kiyoko Closes Out #20GayTeen On A High Note
In a nice nod, 2018 breakout star Kiyoko accepted the Rising Star honor after a nice introduction from Lauren Jauregui — the same pop singer who also unveiled her very own “Expectations” in October. And then, the realness: “My mom told me that you’re only a rising star once,” Kiyoko said, “and then after that, you’re old news.” She was determined to make her moment count, though, with a charged-up rendition of “Curious” alongside two backup dancers. When it was time for her speech, she choked back tears, saying it was her first time receiving an award on a stage. By the end, she had the crowd laughing with a passing mention of flirting with Ariana. Onward to 2019!
Tituss Burgess Makes The Foundation Crumble
Cyndi Lauper received the night’s Icon award and gave a wonderful stream-of-consciousness speech celebrating the women secretaries who helped get her song “True Colors” played when male executives weren’t sold on it. Right before, though, it was up to the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt star to set the stage and the mood and, well, I’m just gonna leave this right here. Prepare the tissues.
SZA Breaks The Rules
Though plagued by persistent vocal problems this year, the Ctrl singer sounded confident as ever on the mic accepting the Rule Breaker award. The best part was when she thanked her family, specifically her grandma, who came out to see her do her thing in the music industry for the first time ever. “I lied and told her I was in school for mad long,” she said. “I’m not in school!” SZA also shouted out everyone who was patient with her, including fans and behind-the-scenes players like TDE’s Top Dawg. And then, because circles always come back to their origin, SZA ended with her own Tierra Whack shout-out: “You’re the most interesting person I ever known.” Tierra Whack for Woman of the Year, 2019 edition?