Music/Features

Thank U, Next is Ariana Grande’s tribute to herself

The pop queen literally thank u, next’s the break-up album trope and instead pays tribute to her messy, complicated self.

March 1, 2019

This month marks the beginning of Ariana Grande’s Sweetener/Thank U, Next world tour—a spectacle sure to dominate the news, pop culture cycle most of the year. She’ll headline Manchester Pride in August, too, a bittersweet return. What was to be a dedicated world touring performance of love and emotional liberation, the essence of Sweetener, has transformed with the release of Grande’s Thank U, Next, a sharp turn inward.

There is an assumption that break-ups fuel creative genius. Art derived from heartache is inherently good, this myth tells us. I’ve stabbed my own heart time and again for an essay, throwing my emotional well-being into a fiery pit for clicks. Musicians do it for much more money and acclaim. At times, we’ve prioritized agony and melancholy over optimism or joy. But why? It’s a funny sort of business to indulge in the despair of others for entertainment—devoting entire pop albums to romantic wreckage. I suppose that helps us make sense of our own failures in love. Or perhaps we just love the drama. (Why, more than 40 years later, do you think Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors still sells so well and goes so hard?)

But let me get this out of the way: Thank U, Next is not Ariana Grande’s break-up album.

When Grande surprised dropped her track “thank u, next” last Fall, that exact moment—more than any other on the entirety of Thank U, Next the album—felt like catharsis. A sweet release. Free now from Pete Davidson and Pete Davidson adjacent takes, memes, Big Dick Energy, the tabloid fanaticism that comes with rushed, new love. From, too, her ghosts including Big Sean, Ricky Alvarez, and the late Mac Miller, as well as any other temporary lust or crush in-between. It was a division between her early career and an established one. From there, her new work would be a declaration that a break-up would not and could not be the sole source for her creative surge. Rather, her own self would be the catalyst. She was literally thank u, next-ing the break-up album trope—favouring instead a tribute to the messy, complicated person she lugs around on this Earth.

On her fifth album, Ariana Grande consciously played away from genre and into an esoteric and sonic aesthetic. Thank U, Next is horny, loose, limerent, lovesick, heartbroken, an exorcism of ghosts, anxious and bold. It’s a public diary; a long lost Xanga entry, overwhelming and therapeutic, but reverent in the same way that Sweetener was. Arriving six months after Sweetener, her latest is dark and more honest. Ambitious and of the moment, Thank U, Next is sometimes confusing lyrically, but otherwise a brazen defiance reclaiming Grande’s adaptability and evolution as a grown, thorny woman.

There is an arc in pop music that usually happens later in a female performer’s career, one often afforded to men in similar positions from the outset.

There is an arc in pop music that usually happens later in a female performer’s career, one often afforded to men in similar positions from the outset. At a certain point, pop’s big time women stop playing to the demands of record execs and forge new avenues to work through knotty bits of their lives on their own creative terms. An exception in recent memory is Lorde, who made her second LP, Melodrama, a complete tribute to herself four years after her debut. Melodrama celebrated Lorde’s youth, fury, and chaos. Beyoncé’s self-titled in 2013 honoured desire, perception, and new motherhood, navigating the spaces in-between. Likewise Rihanna’s rollicked ANTI from 2016 celebrated the title exactly: a rejection of being only one thing to people.

So it would seem fitting that the abrupt sentiment of Thank U, Next go beyond the title of the record and a song. Moving on and forward. Adapting quite quickly to a new environment; one that embraces instability, lust, ambivalence, greed, whatever because Grande is solely focusing on herself and whatever her needs may be. (If it’s a one night stand, go forth!) Grande’s reverence swerves considerably on the album, almost dizzyingly so. Grande can be as urgent and lonely on “Needy” as she is distant and unsure on “NASA”; confused and horny on “Bad Idea” and toying and even more horny on “Make Up.” The narrator on this record is unreliable, which is sort of the point.

In a much quoted Billboard interview, Grande said that she’d rather like pop performers to move similarly to rap artists: dropping hits day of, continuing to shake the precarious music industry structure. Grande does more on Thank U, Next than pull inspiration from hip hop’s propensity to drop hits without notice—perhaps too much. Grande digs into the trap phenomenon taking hold of pop music, too, before sliding back into R&B. The beats on Thank U, Next are dense, murky; thicker still against her honeyed, lush vocals, and remarkable ability to get to that whistle register. She tends to flex on this record, amid hitting beats of self-awareness, loneliness and feeling too much.

Imprints of the most relevant bits of pop culture and music exist somewhere on Thank U, Next. (Grande even references Fenty Beauty.) “Break up with your girlfriend, I’m bored” is this generation’s answer to the prior one’s “Call Your Girlfriend” by Robyn, but a little cheekier, funnier. Booming horns on “Bloodline” further propel Latin music’s influence on pop; Grande hints at J-pop (and anime in general!) on “Bad Idea.” “Imagine” just might be better than John Lennon’s “Imagine”! (No one but me likely thinks that and I’m fine with it.)

The centerpiece of the record though is “Fake Smile.” What is so compelling about Ariana Grande as an artist is how open she wants to be with us. Genuinely! Other pop stars perform the illusion of relatability and closeness, while keeping their cards very close to their chests, which is fine! To reveal too much can be a detriment. But Grande sees that as her ultimate strength; working within a comfortable framework that allows her to connect to fans (social media) and relate more easily to them. However breezy she manages to be on the track’s chorus (“fuck a real fake smile, smile”), sounding as though she’s smiling sweetly, the point is, as she later sings, “If I’m hurt/ I ain’t gona lie ‘bout it.” Grande put forth on Sweetener that we’re all in this together; feeling, aching, living, whatever. That extends itself here but even more pronounced. The track swings back and forth joyfully as she decides to not put up a front of perfection and instead be imperfect and proud.

Did you know that Ariana Grande has a tattoo of the Pokémon Eevee on her arm? The furry fox-like creature has a couple prominent abilities, like running away and adaptability. (My research also tells me anticipation is another of its fighting strengths.) The thing about Eevee is, while it looks tender and sweet with its big eyes, lush mane, and high ponytail-like tail, it is often portrayed as a fearful little thing that needs protecting. Look up any description of Eevee and you will read that environment is a big factor on why or how it adapts to the creatures it eventually does, listing so in a negative tone. Why is adaptability seen as a disadvantage instead of a benefit? Is it not a powerful kind of evolution knowing when to become something different or better in a given spot—to become stronger?

That’s a sort of “thank u, next”-ing of its own, isn’t it?

 

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