Dissecting the Surreal Symbolism of Ariana Grande’s ‘No Tears Left to Cry’ Stairways
We go up. We go down. Life is directional—except when it’s not.
There was no clear direction for Ariana Grande to take after the devastating terror attack that killed 22 people and injured hundreds more outside of her concert stop in Manchester on May 22, 2017. The harrowing incident left Grande suspended, an impossible object in her own surreal narrative. “To make art that was explicitly about [the Manchester attack] would look exploitative. But to ignore it would be disingenuous,” TIME recently wrote of the quandary.
So, she took some time away from the stage, from social media and from the scrutinous glare of celebrity to figure things out on her own. (“I’m pickin’ it up, I’m pickin’ it up…”) The result was “No Tears Left to Cry,” the complex and symbolism-packed lead single off her forthcoming album, Sweetener. The song tread a delicate line, touching upon the tragedy without pandering; it offered earnest hope without discounting the complicated healing process, trauma and realities facing those affected, including herself.
Similarly, the music video, which featured imagery inspired by the artwork of M.C. Escher—impossible stairways, infinite landscapes and ethereal archways—mirrored Grande’s dreamlike state, as well as the challenges both behind and ahead of her. A month after the release of the visual, the image of Escher’s iconic stairways has become an omnipresent force in the artist’s new era of creative work, working its way not only into the music video, but as part of the set design for two televised performances. But what does it all mean?
As an object of utility, stairs serve one purpose: to get us where we need to go. Sometimes that’s up, and sometimes that's down—a symmetrical dichotomy often sharply metaphorized as either positive or negative. But what if we find ourselves suspended on an impossible staircase, one which neither truly goes up nor down, but simply leads us back to ourselves in a sort of infinite loop?
Perhaps this is the conundrum at the heart of Grande’s intoxicating imagery: In dream analysis, the stairs represent literal transition to some degree, yes—from one album to another, from tragedy to healing—but more importantly, they represent an odyssey of spirit, one which calls for deep, static self-reflection and, ultimately, the acceptance of things we cannot change. “I wish there was more that I could fix. You think with time it’ll become easier to talk about. Or you’ll make peace with it. But every day I wait for that peace to come and it’s still very painful,” Grande told TIME about life one year after her Manchester concert.
In one mesmerizing scene from the “No Tears Left to Cry” video, Grande is poised on an impossible staircase, suspended between two skyscrapers threatening to fold into one another, Inception style. A blur of celestial night sky bursts behind her as gravity pulls her up and pushes her back down, leaving the performer perpetually floating and falling as she holds onto the railing for dear life.
The moment captures the emotional weight placed on Grande's shoulders: it's not so much about whether she moves forward or back, up or down, but rather how she adjusts to where she is in this particular moment—right here, right now. On the concept of the impossible staircase, Wired writes, "The same steps are traversed, but, impossibly, after the first time around (or second, or third...) one ends up back at the beginning, and the whole journey starts again." The very same might be said about an artist in a state of flux.
Much like the complexly layered messages contained within the lyrics and energy of “No Tears Left to Cry,” the image of stairs represents a number of things for Grande. It symbolizes growth, self-discovery, the acceptance of her place in the world, and a simultaneous ascent (into the light) and descent (into the subconscious). Most importantly, however, it signals that the pop star is no longer concerned with the destination, but rather the journey itself.
We go up. We go down. No matter the direction, though, Ariana Grande is out here vibin’.