How A Beatles Classic Helped Inspire Ariana Grande’s ‘Eternal Sunshine’

Credit: Katia Temkin*; Bettman Archive/Getty Images

Credit: Katia Temkin*; Bettman Archive/Getty Images

Ariana Grande has a whole new era—or should we say, it has her? Her excellent new Eternal Sunshine is a bold personal statement, with her most inventive, pained, reflective songs. “It’s kind of a concept album,” the pop queen said in February. “‘Cause it’s all different heightened pieces of the same story, of the same experience.” So no wonder she’s taking inspiration from the crazy boys who invented the concept album: The Beatles. In a NYC playback session for Eternal Sunshine, the pop queen revealed that she made this amazing album while listening obsessively to the Fab Four’s 1965 classic Rubber Soul. Some of you might not be ready to hear this, but make no mistake: Ariana is the ultimate Beatles geek.

You can hear that secret Rubber Soul connection all over the album, in her combination of sonic experimentation and raw emotion. She fills each track with trippy secret details you might miss the first few listens. Her Number One single “Yes And” has Beatles-inspired flutes in the break—but she felt people didn’t notice them enough on the single. So for the album, she mixed them way the hell up, so they ring out loud and clear. She’s passionate about details like this. At the playback, she actually wrote “Enter Flutes” on a napkin and held it up to make sure nobody would miss them. (A very Paul thing to do.) That’s the hardcore Beatlemaniac nerd behavior we all need and deserve.

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Two of Ariana’s favorite Rubber Soul moments in the music: the psychedelic murk of “Intro (End of the World)” and the head-spinning guitar swirl of “Imperfect for You.” But the connection goes deeper than that—you can hear it in the honesty of her songs. Like Rubber Soul, Eternal Sunshine is an album of painful romances with no happy endings. Ariana sings about looking back at lovers and friends she still can recall, in her life. These are love songs, but they take place in a world where love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight.

It’s fitting because Rubber Soul is an album that has been inspiring people to reinvent pop music for 60 years. It’s more than just the original Concept Album—it’s where they invented the whole idea of the album as we know it today. John, Paul, George, and Ringo showed the world how far you could reach on a collection of pop songs, making it flow as a unified artistic statement. The Fabs grew up and got weird, ditching their tried-and-true moptop sounds for tough adult love songs like “Norwegian Wood,” “In My Life,” “Girl,” and “I’m Looking Through You.” As Paul McCartney said in 1965, “We are so well established that we can bring the fans along with us and stretch the limits of pop.” At the time, this probably sounded like a cocky boast from a delusional madman. Yet it turned out to be a massive understatement.

Ariana is stretching the limits, too. She’s in her “Saturn’s Return” era, talking her shit after some major life turmoil—turning 30, emerging from the heartbreak of a divorce, taking time off from the music-biz cycle to check her head. So she charges into her big statement with DGAF energy. Like Rubber Soul, it’s a singer’s singer’s singer’s album, full of intricate vocal interplay. Like Rubber Soul, it was made fast—“Things are kind of just pouring out and happening very quickly,” she said this winter—in an intense three-month studio retreat with a trusted collaborator, in her case Max Martin. (No relation to George.) It’s the sound of a fearlessly ambitious artist refusing to play it safe, making her bravest, riskiest music yet. As John Lennon would sing, this bird has flown.

Eternal Sunshine takes its place in the long history of brilliant artists taking inspiration from Rubber Soul over the decades. Ever since The Beatles dropped it in December 1965, it’s been a challenge to other musicians.  It’s the one Brian Wilson heard and decided to top with Pet Sounds. The one Bob Dylan heard and decided to top with Blonde on Blonde. The one that that blew the minds of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and Carole King, opening the door for Music Of My Mind and What’s Going On and Tapestry. So many legends have heard it as a dare, an invitation, a map to their do-it-yourself future. It’s kept inspiring them to ignore the rules and make their own Nevermind or Kid A or Beyoncé or Folklore. These days, pop albums matter more than ever—now they’re “eras,” but they’re still the way artists mark their growth, their maturity, their clout, their ambitions, their pretentions. No album did more than Rubber Soul to define what an album is, and how much an artist can say with it.

That’s why it’s always been a beacon to pop visionaries. “Rubber Soul—that’s my favorite from The Beatles,” Harry Styles told Rolling Stone. “‘Girl,’ ‘Michelle,’ ‘The Word’—those are brilliant.” Phoebe Bridgers said that if she were a music teacher, Rubber Soul is the first album she would play for the kids. “I think that’s a good introduction-to-everything record,” she said in 2018. “If you have no preconceived notions of music, probably that’s a good introduction.” Drake went off the deep end on Certified Lover Boy—the first sound you hear is that bizarro “Michelle” sample in “Champagne Poetry,” with Macca chirping “I love you, I love you, I love you” like an oversexed squirrel. (And Drake is the man with the cover of Abbey Road tattooed on his arm, because he’s got more slaps than the Beatles.)

Nothing like Rubber Soul ever happened before. The boys were getting into Bob Dylan. They were smoking weed, writing songs about their real lives. “We finally took over the studio,” John Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970. The music was full of bold experiments: George Harrison’s sitar on “Norwegian Wood,” Paul’s fuzz bass in “Think For Yourself,” the “In My Life” piano George Martin sped up to sound like a harpsichord. No hits—no singles at all. They didn’t even put their name on the cover—just their warped faces.

The Fabs were confident—and typically brash— about their new sound. “You don’t know us now if you don’t know Rubber Soul,” John told Newsweek’s Michael Lydon at the time. “All our ideas are different now.” Just a year earlier, on Beatles for Sale, the poor lads sounded exhausted—you can see their weary faces on the front. They had to pad out the album with a last-minute batch of oldies covers. But on Rubber Soul, you can hear they’re on fire with excitement.

“If someone saw a picture of you taken two years ago and said that was you, you’d say it was a load of rubbish and show them a new picture,” Paul said. “That’s how we feel about the early stuff and Rubber Soul. That’s who we are now. People have always wanted us to stay the same, but we can’t stay in a rut. No one else expects to hit a peak at 23 and never develop, so why should we? Rubber Soul for me is the beginning of my adult life.”

This was crazy talk in 1965. There was no model for a wildly successful group to throw out “the early stuff” and start over. Rock & rollers were supposed to be young and disposable, not have an “adult life.” As the producer warns George in A Hard Day’s Night, “You can be replaced, chickie baby.” (George: “I don’t care.”) Yet the Beatles were breathing in new ideas from everywhere, exploring Stockhausen, John Cage, Ravi Shankar, Otis Redding, the Marvelettes. Innovation was in the air—but so were some other aromas. As George confessed, “Rubber Soul was the first one where we were fully-fledged potheads.”

Brian Wilson was just one of the fans whose life was changed by just one listen. He first heard it one night in the Hollywood Hills when a friend brought it over. “I’d never heard a collection of songs that were all that good before,” he recalled in 2009. “It inspired me. When we were listening to it that night I said to myself, ‘Now I’m gonna make an album just as good as Rubber Soul.” It set him off on the imaginative rush that turned into Pet Sounds. “It inspired me to do my own thing,” he said, “and so the next morning I went to the piano and wrote ‘God Only Knows’ with Tony Asher.”

For Motown artists like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, this was a model for seizing creative control of their music, and using the full album format to declare their independence. Berry Gordy didn’t want his stars messing with his commercial formula, but they fought to do it their way, leading to their 1970s masterworks. (Stevie flaunted his Rubber Soul fandom earlier, taking off from “Michelle” for his own French-kissed “My Cherie Amour.”) It was only right since the Beatles in this era couldn’t stop raving about their Motown heroes, calling Gaye their favorite fellow artist. You can hear that in a tune like “You Won’t See Me.” “To me it was very Motown-flavored,” McCartney said later. “It’s got a James Jamerson feel. He was the Motown bass player, he was fabulous, the guy who did all those great melodic bass lines.”

Even Dylan was transfigured by it. If you listen to Blonde on Blonde back to back with Highway 61 Revisted, you can hear how deep he was listening to the Beatles in between, from “Just Like a Woman” to “Visions of Johanna.” Blonde on Blonde had a hilarious parody of “Norwegian Wood” called “4th Time Around,” which Dylan cruelly played for John in London. John, ever the diplomat, told him, “I don’t like it.” But the wake of Rubber Soul, the whole art of album-making exploded in 1966. The Rolling Stones rose to the challenge with Aftermath, dabbling in sitar and dulcimer. So did the Kinks, The Who, the Yardbirds. Meanwhile, out in Memphis, their idol Otis Redding raised the bar with his Dictionary of Soul, with a sly cover of “Day Tripper.”

When they made Rubber Soul, The Beatles didn’t plan on altering history. They just needed to crank out a quickie in time for the Christmas 1965 market, in just four weeks. So they threw all their craziest ideas into it, working around the clock at Abbey Road. George wants to play sitar? A stoner harmonium mega-drone called “The Word”? Confessional poetry like “In My Life”? They were too rushed to say no. They wrote seven of the songs in a week. And because they were the Beatles, they never stopped trying to dazzle each other—at this stage, the only people they cared about impressing were each other.

But people have been stunned ever since—especially vocalists. Rubber Soul has the Beatles’ best singing ever, as their voices weave in and out of each other’s stories. The background vocals alone are insane: Paul out-Johns John in “Norwegian Wood,” just as John out-Pauls Paul in “You Won’t See Me.” But the songwriting was a total breakthrough. They sang about independent adult women with their own lives, their own careers, their own philosophical views. Jane Asher is too busy to call Paul back in “You Don’t See Me”; Michelle won’t even talk to him in English. The very first line on the album: “Asked a girl what she wanted to be.” Not a question that any other rock & roll boys would ask a girl in 1965. But their “Drive My Car” L.A. heroine has her career plan: she’s going to be a star, of course.

Like the Beatles of Rubber Soul, the Ariana Grande of Eternal Sunshine is combining a musical renewal with a personal reckoning. The closest her album gets to a cozy resolution where it all works out? “Imperfect For You,” one of the most poignant yet witty things she’s ever done, a bittersweet guitar jam where the couple settles for being a “happy disaster.” But like so many other greats before her, Grande takes off from Rubber Soul to go somewhere totally new. It’s yet another example of how this album keeps changing pop music, as it’s been doing since the day it came out. Some might not expect the cosmic connection between the Fabs’ “it’s so fine, it’s sunshine” and Grande’s “you are my eternal sunshine.” But it’s another surprise twist in the long, crazed, glorious story of Rubber Soul, even after six decades of inspiring other artists to make their own masterpieces. That’s the unique place of The Beatles’ Rubber Soul in pop history: it’s the album that never stops giving the world new surprises.

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