Wednesday, November 14th, 2018

Ariana Grande – Thank U, Next

How about that ever-elusive five spots on the sidebar?


Julian Axelrod: Ariana’s career-defining year has run parallel to her marathon of heartbreaking and overwhelming personal setbacks, occasionally intertwining but mostly existing as twin poles of her professional triumph.  So it’s understandable, if unexpected, that she’d attempt to close the loop with a comment on her crazy 2018. But as her contemporaries have shown time and time again this year, it’s hard to rewrite your narrative in real time. So it’s amazing that “Thank U, Next” is tolerable, and even more amazing that it’s, well, amazing. Sonically, it’s nothing to write home about; Ariana can do this kind of bittersweet, insidiously catchy R&B in her sleep. But as an act of celebrity, it’s unparalleled. It’s an assertion of independence in the ashes of tragedy. It feels ripped from the headlines and borne from the heavens. It’s the pop star equivalent of sticking the landing after a 10-minute floor routine. And just as she predicted, the song is a smash.

Pedro João Santos: Sweetener capitalized on its three most out-there tracks, but the other cuts approximated Grande to an organic, twinkling sonic palette favoring crushed velvet beats and free-flow melodies (plus a healthy amount of yuhs). “Thank U, Next” is that album’s spiritual successor, a minimal, shimmery R&B-pop number that floats like a cloud through synth blips and luscious harmonies, doubling down on the feel-good — yet bold — artistry. The title encapsulates the lyrics: gratitude and willingness to move on, the first anchored to exes with earnest name-checking, the second stemming from new values instilled upon Ari in the emotional aftermath. It could be a sanitized kiss-off, immaculate and frictionless, but the lyrics don’t smooth out the past but pick up from a point of underway recovery, inhabiting a lilac microcosm of serenity and warmth. No wonder the single’s become her first US No. 1 and found credence among so many demographics, with how regenerative, lush, and immersive it is. If Sweetener was the advent of an imperial phase for Grande, this single cements it — all while abandoning the very notion of imperial pop.

Edward Okulicz: I like how Grande’s just dropped this brand-new single the same week she also dropped the “Breathin” video, making a mockery of any concept of discrete album campaigns. And she’s half-pinched the title from an Alanis Morissette song, but also half-pinched the concept from a completely different Alanis Morissette song. Also, as she’s smart enough to know that being a crank about your exes reflects on one’s choices more than anything, she’s also smart enough to not deliver the meme-able title with withering sarcasm, just a little grin. It’s a little throwaway, given as generously to her fans as to her exes. 

Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa: The line “One taught me love/One taught me patience/One taught me pain” is the source of the endless wave of memes, but it’s also the source of this track’s incredible power — it’s memorable, descriptive, accessible — because it sums up the reflective nature and the underlining serenity of the song as a whole. It works in the same way as the contrast between the beat (garage-esque in its production, rather than its cadence), the jazzy chord progression, the nocturnal vibe of the keys, and that irresistible upward chromatic motion in the bass. 

Katherine St Asaph: The most Mariah-esque song Ariana’s done since Yours Truly, both in her meringue vocal — the most convincing she’s ever sounded in that mode — and magnanimously, memeably presented shade. (A lot of people have claimed it isn’t, but come on: This is an over-effusive “and after the breakup I’m just doing so much better” Instagram update, with the ex tagged, in the language of a dismissed American Idol auditioner.) Not sure it’d work as a standalone song, like if it were an untagged mp3 — but of course that analogy doesn’t work; it’d be asking her to be an anachronism.

Jonathan Bradley: “Thank U, Next” is self-affirmation wearing the robes of grace: it is a sweet song, but Grande’s appreciation for her past loves is the sort necessarily created from closure. It’s a soft cruelty: These men, named and presumably listening, are able to impose such a warm presence on her past precisely because they no longer matter in her present. Their names have been subsumed into incidents of her own history and points of personal growth (“one taught me love/one taught me patience/and one taught me pain”). And the woman who emerges — “her name is Ari/And I’m so good with that” — is able to revel in how decisively she’s moved on: this lyric really is more “next” than “thank you.” The sonics help the song hew to a gentler interpretation, however: here is a composition woven from threads of filtered light, luminous like Grande’s high and lambent tone, which resolves into photons for an “I’m so fucking grateful” hook that only almost becomes corporeal.

Taylor Alatorre: “Thank U, Next” is primarily an Ariana Grande song about Ariana Grande, but it’s partially an Ariana Grande song about Mac Miller. It was disgusting, and yet so very predictable, to watch the world’s least self-aware people try to blame Ariana for Mac’s death, and if this song had just been a middle finger to them it likely would’ve been an instant classic. Likewise, if Ariana had put Mac Miller aside and focused only on her recent breakup with Pete Davidson, that would’ve been fine too; she can get around to the heavier stuff later, and she’s had to process so much tragedy through her music already. But combining the two men into one song, and then making it about the lessons she’s learned from all her past relationships, leads to an emotional muddiness. Her one-line tribute to Mac Miller is nice enough — she uses his real first name, calls him an “angel,” and sends him posthumous gratitude. But he’s still slotted into the same lyrical schema as three living ex-boyfriends, implying that his permanent exit from this world is roughly equivalent to Big Sean’s departure from Ariana’s daily life. Surely that wasn’t the intention, but the context points that way, and for a single whose cover artwork is a collection of news headlines from the day before its release, context is everything. The title, taken from an inside joke and strategically deployed for maximum virality, is a prime culprit in this flattening of emotional response. It’s there for you when you need a quick reaction to some guy you’ve never heard of announcing a presidential bid. It’s the Judge Judy eye-roll, the Kamala Harris stare-down, the James Harden interview walk-out. It’s everything but a reflection of the song’s ostensible themes of graciousness, introspection, and personal growth. This may be the most performatively honest #1 hit in some time, but that doesn’t negate the overwhelming falseness at the core of its marketing. Give me righteous pettiness or give me big-hearted serenity, but don’t give me one and tell me it’s the other. After all, it’s not as if thanking your past lovers with varying degrees of sincerity is new in pop music. Ariana’s innovation is the “next,” and to my mind it’s not a good one. If I wanted to buy into a narrative of human disposability, in which every person I come across is worth only as much as their in-kind contribution to my hero’s journey, I would just become a libertarian.

Alex Clifton: I flipped my shit when Ariana subtweeted the hell out of Pete and thought that “Thank U, Next” would naturally be her wrath unleashed in one full song. I was so wrong, and I am so glad I was wrong. “Thank U, Next” is not just a Mature Breakup Song where Grande refuses to take cheap shots at her exes, but a single imbued with a genuine sense of gratitude most breakup songs seem to lack. “Don’t be sad because it’s over; be happy because it happened” is a well-worn platitude that seems impossible in the moment, but Grande handles it with grace by thanking all the boys she’s ever loved and what they’ve taught her. The most important relationship, she realizes, is the one with herself, which could come off as cheesy but feels like a revelation the same way it did in Lorde’s “Liability.” But where “Liability” got swept up in melodramatic self-pity, Grande’s song feels both vulnerable and light. It’s classy and delicate, and a banger to boot. 

Alfred Soto: The sweet malice suggests peak Janet Jackson, and the restraint by all involved is in service of a track that sounds wonderful on the radio.  It takes more effort than you and I know for a star of Ariana Grande’s size to resist the tug of self-empowerment bromides. 

Vikram Joseph: “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” — no, sorry Ru, repeating something that often doesn’t stop it from being trite and reductive. If no one’s born to hate, then equally, none of us are born loving ourselves to pieces. “Thank U, Next” is about growing into yourself through your relationships with others, and honestly, if we take “relationships” in the broader sense, how else does anyone do it? All we really do is take the best parts of other people and use them to patch ourselves together, to create a whole that’s more convincing to ourselves. The state of well-being and self-acceptance that Ariana Grande attests to feels true enough to override the slightly self-congratulatory tone in the second verse; she’s earned it. The song rides a comfortable, shimmering groove, assured enough to feel effortless but catchy enough to achieve instant meme-dom. Love, patience, pain: if you don’t love somebody else, how in the hell you gonna love yourself?

Stephen Eisermann: There’s something so freeing about rising above any previous relationship pettiness and just appreciating everything, or anything, you experienced during your time together. It’s easy to associate a failed relationship with negativity because that’s always how we think of failure, but Ariana frames the discussion around her exes differently. There’s nothing too specific besides their names, but that vagueness allows listeners to replace each name with one of their own exes so the sentiments become more real. Even her more relaxed singing style lends to the relatability of the track: No longer do we have to belt with her, we can just humbly sing along.

Tobi Tella: A song referencing her celebrity exes may seem like a shameless attention grab, but if one thing is clear, it’s that this song is coming straight from the heart. It has been quite a 2018 for Ariana Grande, and her releasing another song like “No Tears Left to Cry” would feel inauthentic. These are easily the best lyrics of her career, honest and genuinely uplifting.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Ariana Grande’s humility and forgiveness are moving, but “Thank U, Next” finds its power in what they reveal: the necessity of self-affirmation in surviving a breakup. It’s a sturdy framework with which Ariana can procedurally move past any relationship. Whenever she sings it, she’s not just reminding herself of any personal growth but reenacting the very steps that led her there, refuting any doubts that tell her otherwise. The pre-chorus shows how it’s done, changing “one” to “she” to “I,” but also “taught” to “got.” People have said she “moves on too fast,” so she leans into that idea by rifling through a list of exes in the very first verse. Considering her parents divorced, Ariana was probably also victim to sneers that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” How does she respond? By mentioning the strength her mom gained through that separation. Even the title, a millennial wink, points to a reframing of self. That “next” — sung with the casual indifference of a clerk, the playful callousness of a dating show contestant — is a portrait of self-love, of self-preservation through resilience.

Jibril Yassin: Scoring this an [8] solely for the “I’m so fucking grateful for my ex” line because it’s one of the best examples of Ariana making “Thank U, Next” feel like sincere self-reflection. I already miss the strange pinball lands that defined Sweetener, but thankfully she’s retained its cheeky and irreverent tone, out in full force during the second verse. Is it great that after her whirlwind year, this slice of earnestness is what earned Ariana her first #1 single? The answer is an unequivocal yes. (*Ariana adlib voice* next)

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: This isn’t Ariana Grande’s best song, her best single, or even her best single from this year. And yet it’s one of those songs that feels preordained to greatness, a coronation where most pop hits are more like a negotiation for your attention. The Ariana Grande of “Thank U, Next” wastes no time in immersing you into her perspective — aside from a light, lilting electric piano-sounding loop, that’s all there is. And yet she never grates, never forgets that the song is both an exercise in image-play and an actual workable song for its own sake. It’s a weird flex — not in the Twitter meme sense, but in its simultaneous confession and restraint. There’s a version of this song that is vengeful, cruel, or even just smug, and Ariana knows that you know that. But by playing on that possibility — both in the song’s prerelease hype schedule, which seemed spite-fueled, and in the song itself, with its naming-names energy — she makes her own positioning seem all the more powerful, a portrait of pop magnanimity.

Joshua Copperman: I initially thought about “Thank U, Next” as a reflection of the ways streaming has changed music, not just turning everything into depressive Muzak, but gradually making Spotify no different from Instagram or, importantly, Twitter – a screenshot of Ariana’s tweet is even on the cover. That take was taken. But the point stands; it’s a Twitter thread, possibly a Notes screenshot, as a song. “Thank U, Next” uses the rapid pace of social media to its advantage, to the point where the pre-chorus is a pretty great meme in and of itself. In twenty years, the names, loaded with context and meaning now, will mean as much to younger listeners as Monica, Erica, Rita, and Tina. But as has been referenced before, in 20 years we may all be dead anyway. There’s no reason for songs to be timeless classics when we’re apparently headed toward the end of time, so why not live in the moment? Why not try to better yourself, become more self-sufficient, learn gratitude while having people think you’re either coming out or outing Drake? There’s enough depressive music on the Hot 100 as is. Real, hard solutions (well, mostly) are needed instead of vague gestures toward self-care. This is what separates “Thank U, Next:” it uses being Extremely Online to its advantage, and exposes Ariana as the definitive millennial star all along, raised on the Internet, coming of age as the world falls apart, facing trauma and trying to cope with it when your brain is irrevocably changed. By that point, the rest is simple: You release two albums in a year, be as self-referential as possible, compress the last two years of your life into three and a half minutes, and fast-track it to release half an hour before SNL. (How do you like them transparent dangling carrots, Pete?) Forget the tilted stage; forget the wasted zombies; forget the Illuminati mess. “Thank U, Next” is the apotheosis of incorporating a public persona into music. In a vacuum, it’s not that great a song musically, but it’s rare that you remember a Twitter thread two weeks after it’s gone viral either. This will be remembered, if only to show how Ariana adapted perfectly to the culture of 2018 by proving that she was in tune with it the whole time.

Reader average: [5] (18 votes)

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5 Responses to “Ariana Grande – Thank U, Next”

  1. the song is poorly composed.

  2. “Least this song is a smash” going unmentioned by all 16 of you makes me so wish I had been able to review this!

    (Also, uh, anti-congrats to Scooter Braun on finally turning Ari’s “shitty boyfriends” into something to sell.)

  3. Julian mentioned it!

  4. Shoot. I Ctrl + F’d the whole line.

  5. we’re doing a unit on commentary in my English class and i’m thinking of showing this post to my high school kiddos. what a great collection of blurbs.

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