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It was a whirlwind summer for Ariana Grande. The death of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller and her highly publicized engagement to “Saturday Night Live” star Pete Davidson coincided with the lead-up to the August release of her album “Sweetener.” All the while, Grande continued to struggle with her mental health in the aftermath of the Manchester concert terrorist attack. With all of it came the internet’s usual storm of vitriol and anonymous hate. The dust around her never seemed to settle.
How does a celebrity respond to cruel gossip and internet toxicity without stooping to its level and replicating the cattiness herself? In “thank u, next,” the single she dropped on Saturday, Grande opts for brazen self-empowerment, reaffirming that she has never depended on a man to be relevant.
For all intents and purposes, “thank u, next” is a diss track. The kicker is that it’s disarmingly polite. Grande forgoes both the swaggering braggadocio and the desperate regret typical of breakup songs, choosing to espouse acceptance, forgiveness, and self-love instead : “I’m so fucking grateful for my ex,” she asserts in the chorus. In the age of internet takedown culture, the same one that often has Grande in its crosshairs, kindness feels particularly radical. “no drags.... no shade..... jus love, gratitude, acceptance, honesty, forgiveness ... and growth,” she tweeted recently. (A brief, indirect exchange earlier this week between Davidson and Grande seemed to suggest some vestigial rancor: In an SNL promo, Davidson jokingly proposed to Maggie Rogers, and Grande tweeted, “For somebody who claims to hate relevancy u sure love clinging to it huh.” However, in the song, Grande is even gracious toward her most recent ex: “Even almost got married / And for Pete, I’m so thankful,” she sings in the opening verse.)
Lyrically and compositionally, “thank u, next,” could be faulted for its simplistic chorus. With another singer, the repetitive four-note verse motif and two-note chorus melody might have sounded grating. But with her four-octave vocal range, Grande makes difficult riffs sound like off-the-cuff vocalizing. She’s effortless, from the notoriously difficult bel canto whistle register of Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” to a belted rendition of “The Wizard and I” for an anniversary special of the Broadway musical, “Wicked.” While it doesn’t reach the upper limits of her (seemingly infinite) register, “thank u, next” is no exception when it comes to exquisite vocals. Grande is a powerhouse, and she flexes in smooth, floaty melismas and layered, multi-part harmonies.
As impressive as Grande’s vocals are, what’s most satisfying about “thank u, next” isn’t sonic, but thematic. As a self-described feminist, Grande has previously embraced empowerment as part of her ethos. In a viral video from three years ago, she defiantly declined to comment on the rumors about her love life, saying, “I’m not Big Sean’s ex. I’m not Niall’s possible new girl. I’m Ariana Grande, and if that’s not interesting enough, don’t talk to me.” The same badass energy both shrugs off the rumors and unequivocally asserts her own self-worth in this single. Even the title is blasé, unbothered by drama: “thank u, next,” is punctuated with the same dismissive syntax of an “I’m over it” text message or tweet. Not only does Grande turn failed love into potential for growth, but she also embodies an iteration of herself who learned her lessons and returned better than before, self-assured and fortified by loss. “I know they say I move on too fast / But this one gon’ last,” she sings. “‘Cause her name is Ari, / And I’m so good with that.” The second verse flips the script on who’s got the power: “She taught me love, / She taught me patience / How she handles pain / Yeah, that shit’s amazing.”
The strongest suit of “thank u, next” is its precision. Here, Grande moves past the oversimplified rhetoric of generic female empowerment (“You’ll believe god is a woman,” “I’m so successful”) and the gauzy sugar of love songs (“I’m so into you,” “I need to be the one who takes you home”). This level of specificity is a territory where few singers have gone before. Even Taylor Swift, a certified pro at thinly veiled references to exes, tries to keep a front of mystery, in hopes of leaving room for interpretation. Ariana Grande puts a new spin on that tradition by lifting the veil and dropping names. She doesn’t want to be excluded from that narrative. She wants to write it herself.
And the song is a smash.
—Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @carolinetsai3.
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