ARIANA GRANDE Straight outta Nickelodeon.
Brian Bolton

CONSIDER FOR A MOMENT the Tiffanys, the Debbie Gibsons, and the *NSYNCs of the world. (Consider the O-Towns, too; they always get forgotten.) These teen idols of the '80s and '90s reached the height of pop popularity for the same reason—they earned it the hard way. After being discovered, they weren't automatically given recording contracts or pushed into world tours. In fact, their beginnings were embarrassingly humble: They toured shopping malls.

Performing in malls may sound like the ultimate in humiliation for us, but for the then-burgeoning pop idol it was critical to future success. Mall shows provided a low-stakes method of sharpening their performing ability, finding out which songs worked (or flopped), and learning how to work a screaming crowd of teens—or even worse, a disinterested crowd of teens. It was a place where, in old-timey showbiz parlance, one earned one's "chops." And it's obviously a place current pop princess Ariana Grande has never visited... unless she was shopping at Forever 21.

Radio fans instantly recognize Grande's hits—which include soaring club jams such as "Break Free" (with electro house DJ Zedd), "Problem" (with Iggy Azalea), and Bang Bang (with Jessie J and Nicki Minaj)—and her vocal range and control is unquestionably impressive. While she's often compared to Mariah Carey, Grande doesn't rely on vocal pyrotechnics alone. She wields her pipes judiciously, saving her dog-whistle register for exactly when the song requires.

But according to reviews of her current Honeymoon Tour, while Grande may be one of the best live singers around, her command of the stage is less impressive. This is because she was plucked from her role on the Nickelodeon teen show Sam and Cat and prematurely fed into the music biz sausage grinder. Her first two albums came within a year of each other, and were quickly followed by her current world tour. That didn't leave a lot of time for learning how to perform in front of 10,000 people.

So if you attend Grande's show at the Moda Center, and are less impressed with her stage presence than her vocal ability? You can thank the mall for that. Or the lack thereof.