Ariana Grande’s latest single, “thank u, next” had a perfect rollout. She scored her first #1 hit on Billboard – breaking all kinds of records on Spotify and Apple Music in the process – and what’s interesting is that it was probably her least calculated release yet. We see this phenomenon quite often – when an artist puts out a song without all the pretense of excessive promotion because the song captures a current moment in the artist’s life. There’s a sense of urgency to get it out in the world before the moment passes and the artist can no longer share this experience with the fans with the same level of intimacy. It’s the kind of release that is based on authenticity, harnessing a power that record labels often scramble, yet fail to replicate when they’re in control of the product.
At the beginning of October, Ariana revealed via her Instagram story that she was back in the studio working on new music. This would have been a bit less surprising if she was just hopping in the booth to record some features or what not, but she teased that she was preparing a nine-track album. Considering this was occurring less than two months after the release of her fourth studio album, Sweetener, it shouldn’t be overlooked that this is a rather radical move coming from a pop star of Ariana’s stature.
It’s the kind of release that is based on authenticity, harnessing a power that record labels often scramble, yet fail to replicate when they’re in control of the product.
Major record labels keep the biggest names in pop on extremely strict album cycles. The process usually goes something along the lines of: release a few singles and music videos, drop the album, tour the world for a year, record the next album for a year, then repeat (see timelines of Taylor Swift or Shawn Mendes discographies for reference). For Ariana to jump off this hamster wheel in the midst of promoting Sweetener wasn’t necessarily giving the finger to her label, but it definitely asserted that, at the end of the day, she knows what’s best for her career, and more importantly, her mental health.
Even fans were a tad confused, fearing the Sweetener era was prematurely coming to a close without them even getting a music video for the certified bop, “breathin”. They were also frantically tweeting Ariana regarding when she would be announcing her tour. She directly replied to a fan that, as of that moment, only a mini-tour seemed possible, since “it’s the [long] chunks of time from home that are scary to [her right now]”.
We’re all probably familiar with the tragic timeline of Ariana’s past year that would cause her to fear being away from the support system of her friends and family while on an extensive tour. It started with the Manchester Arena bombing at her show in May 2017, followed by a rocky year of grieving and healing. Fast-forward a year and she’s breaking up with long-time friend Mac Miller, who then passed away in September. Her engagement to Pete Davidson hadn’t even been called off yet when she sent out the tweet about her hesitation to go on tour. And of course, these are just the public struggles.
Fortunately, she found strength in music (and her new emotional support pig). When she got back in the studio, she tweeted that “music is the best medicine”. While Ariana has always been a dedicated artist, it can be reassuring to know that she is still able to turn to music for purely therapeutic purposes. We often have this idea of the larger-than-life pop star: trapped in the machinations of the music industry and forced to churn out formulaic hits to the point that making music might become more of a chore than an emotional discharge. However, we never have to worry about this being the case with Ariana.
She collaborated with her friends, Victoria Monet and Talya Parx, to write a song about having enough peace of mind to learn from the pain of the past and having enough love in your heart to propel you forward. It may have been rather scandalous for Ariana to have unexpectedly put the song out an hour before Saturday Night Live aired, just two days after she took a jab at Pete on Twitter for clinging to relevance by publically making a joke about their failed engagement. Regardless of this slight drama surrounding the song’s release or the fact that she name-drops four of her exes in the first verse, “thank u, next” was a success because it’s a damn good song.
No pettiness overshadowed Ariana’s return. Any Pete-talk quickly dissipated. She took control of the narrative and “thank u, next” became solely a celebration with her fans of her being in a better place and now ready to resume all she had put on hold. The memes that the song spurred were plentiful and Ariana was down with them, sharing them on her previously unlively social media accounts throughout the week. She released the awaited music video for “breathin”. She announced a full North American tour, with dates for more continents on the way.
She took control of the narrative and “thank u, next” became solely a celebration with her fans of her being in a better place and now ready to resume all she had put on hold.
She went on Ellen to perform “thank u, next” with her co-writer friends, dressed in deconstructed wedding attire and doing choreography that referenced the 1996 film, The First Wives Club – a perfect theme for a breakup anthem. Ariana stumbled after attempting a totally unnecessary chair stunt and then (fittingly) regained her composure while giggling about the mishap. She choked up while singing a line about her father and then proceeded to slay the rest of the song, ending it by skipping into the crowd with her hands waving in the air. The performance was grounded, real and fun – all the characteristics Ariana radiates that make her such a vital light in pop.
For 2019, I hope Ariana is left alone unless it’s love. Of course, happiness isn’t a constant state and growth isn’t a linear process, but “thank u, next” is Ariana accepting that. She’s grateful for having friends and family to help her weather the storm, for having music to help her make sense of it all and having fans who support her doing just that. If, for some reason, next year isn’t easier on her, at least we know she’ll learn from the pain and emerge victorious with another smash.