Artist: Ariana Grande
US chart peak: 7
Release date: October 30, 2015
Writers: Ariana Grande, Savan Kotecha, Peter Svensson, Ilya Salmanzadeh
Producers: Ilya, Max Martin
Quintessential Max moment: The fact it sounds like ‘Problem’
Video synopsis: Ariana ‘sports’ a white wig and dances awkwardly in a box
Finding it hard to avoid the comparisons to her own ‘Problem’, Ariana Grande told Entertainment Weekly that ‘Focus’ was “the perfect transition record from the last album to the new album, because it sounds like ‘Problem 2.0’”. Only it doesn’t sound like ‘Problem 2.0’, it sounds like ‘Problem: Redux’. Madonna would call it ‘Problem: Reductive’ (were it still 2012). Songs can sound like other songs by the same artist, that’s fine. ‘Oops I Did It Again’ is basically ‘Baby One More Time’ but bolder, and there’s something amazing about how Lady Gaga refined the RedOne sound across most of her early singles until she wound up at ‘Bad Romance’ (in fact, ‘Judas’ is close to ‘Bad Romance’ in lots of different ways).
But, yes, ‘Focus’ felt like a holding move at the time, and has apparently now been forgotten by Ariana herself since. Mainly released to promote her perfume, it was initially meant to be on her third album, then called ‘Moonlight’, but was unceremoniously dumped off the tracklisting when the album was retitled ‘Dangerous Woman’. Rather than act as a bridge between the two, it suddenly felt like something that should be left in the middle bit of the bridge and then the rest of the bridge connecting her back to that bit just be burnt. Or something. There was a bridge, but the bridge has gone now.
To be honest, there’s nothing particularly wrong with ‘Focus’, it’s just that it doesn’t deviate away from the ‘Problem’ formula enough. So there are ‘retro’ horns just like ‘Problem’, and a big build up of a pre-chorus just like ‘Problem’ and then there’s the chorus fake-out at the last second, just like ‘Problem’. The difference here is that that was quite exciting the first time, whereas here it just feels like treading water. Things weren’t helped much by the fact that the song was ‘teased’ for months, with the build up falling flatter than Ariana’s dance moves at the time when the song finally appeared. Plus, she sounds properly bored on it, which just won’t do.
It’s not all bad though – the songs that followed were all amazing and ‘Focus’ was awarded the prestigious Best Song To Dance To at the 2016 Radio Disney Music Awards.