Ariana Grande stalks her way from pop star to icon at the Xcel Center

Ariana Grande at the 2016 iHeartRadio Music Festival [Photo: John Salangsang/Invision/AP]

Ariana Grande at the 2016 iHeartRadio Music Festival [Photo: John Salangsang/Invision/AP]

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Ariana Grande is the new princess of pop.

Britney Spears, longtime holder of that prestigious title, has moved past it, and fellow Madonna devotee Ariana has taken up the tiara. Grande proved her readiness at the Xcel Center last night with a concise, sexy, polished set that highlighted her incredible vocal talent and hinted at her future as a serious icon for both young women and gay men.

Ariana comes from the same world of tween-oriented TV as Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez (both compelling pop stars in their own right), but she has something different: the stage-actor chops that bring a theatrical air to everything she does. It’s not like the spirit of Judy Garland is inhabiting Ariana’s body, but that’s honestly not too far off. (Did you see her play Judy in a scrapped SNL sketch? Or impersonate Celine Dion on The Tonight Show?) While Ari’s music is hardly Broadway, she kills it on torch songs like “Moonlight” and “Honeymoon Avenue.” And she’s not content to belt out ballad after ballad -- she experiments with different genres, and her sheer talent usually makes it work.

The Xcel stop of the “Dangerous Woman” tour was nearly sold out. There were young women and tween girls in cat ears and thigh-high boots, gay men wearing blush pink tones -- all hallmarks of Ariana’s brand of cute femininity mixed with steely power. UK girl band Little Mix opened with catchy if forgettable pop songs like “Shoutout to my Ex” (which is probably about Zayn Malik) and “Touch.” The crowd was vaguely interested in the Mix girls, but far more excited when Ari stepped onstage to the ‘90s-styled opening bars of “Be Alright.”

Ariana is a pop diva who’s done her homework. The show was rife with Madonna influences: Ariana and her dancers vogued through “Be Alright,” and later she displayed some vague Catholic iconography. Her dancers, mostly men, wore cat burglar outfits -- black tank tops and beanies – before changing into white exercise gear. The show moves smoothly and dreamy, rainbow-tinted interludes give the audience something pretty to look at while Ariana changes clothes.

The “Dangerous Woman” set is relatively simple: Nothing like Madonna’s over-the-top tour design, it’s just a white lacquered stage that gives Ariana plenty of room to stalk up and down in her spiked-heel, thigh-high boots, often flanked by dancers. Those boots mean most of her moves are of the arm-dancing variety, but her limited choreography isn’t a bad thing--Ariana sings live, and she sounds nearly flawless. When artists like Future and Nicki Minaj showed up via video during singles “Everyday” and “Side to Side,” it didn’t feel weird or forced. Ariana, never shy about revealing both her dark and nerdy sides, was mostly bathed in deep, club-like colors, fitting the low-key, sensual vibe of the album.

Most of the St. Paul stop featured material from the her most recent album, Dangerous Woman, though she did rework previous singles like the electro-pop “Break Free” and the hateful, screeching “Bang Bang.” (Please remove that from the set list, Ariana.) The audience ate it up, losing a little momentum during lesser-known Dangerous Woman songs like “Leave Me Lonely” and “I Don’t Care,” but regaining traction when she brought out the big guns like the perfect “Into You” and the encore, “Dangerous Woman.”

Ariana is a young female pop star who has never been afraid to express herself as both an artist and a sex-positive feminist. That may be why tween girls, their moms, and their BFFs were screaming out the words together, even during overtly sexual songs like “Side to Side,” which is not about going to spin class. Ariana has staying power; she’s talented and savvy enough to adapt to the changing musical landscape without losing herself, which is why Dangerous Woman is so deliciously memorable, and why her fans aren’t going anywhere.

Critic's bias: Huge Ariana fan. Played Dangerous Woman to death all summer. Am currently in an Ariana T-shirt.

The crowd: Mostly twenty-something women wearing Ariana’s trademark cat ears, smelling of Michael Kors perfume.

Overheard in the crowd: "YAAAAS QUEEN!"

Random notebook dump: Slay us queen of demons! Slay us queen of cat burglars! Slay us queen of pink balloons!

Set list
“Be Alright”
“Bad Decisions”
“Let Me Love You”
“Knew Better Pt. 2″
“Forever Boy”
“One Last Time”
“Touch It”
“Leave Me Lonely”
“Side to Side”
“Bang Bang”
“I Don’t Care”
“Love Me Harder”
“Break Free”
“Thinking Bout You”
“Into You”
“Dangerous Woman” (encore)