Music

Ariana Grande’s ‘Thank U, Next’ Proves Breakup Anthems Don’t Need To Be Savage

Ariana Grande refuses to be your 'clap back queen'.

When news broke that Ariana Grande would release a new song 30 minutes before this past weekend’s Saturday Night Live aired, fans erupted with bloodlust over the ‘savage’ move.

By its title and the lyrics she’d tweeted, ‘thank u, next’ was clearly a diss track against recent ex-fiancé (and SNL star) Pete Davidson. Diabolic genius.

But we had it wrong. Instead, we got a gracious, candid bop about reflecting on her major previous relationships: while the chorus might have Grande sing ‘thank u, next’, the bitterness and pain is soothed by self-reflection upon experiences that mightn’t have worked out, but made her into the person she is today. The thank you is sincere; the next is realistic.

Had it taken more of a ‘clap back’ route, ‘thank u, next’ would have been quite a comedown from Sweetener, Grande’s latest album. Released this August, Sweetener arrived in wake of both the dissolution of her relationship with the late Mac Miller and the bombing of her Manchester concert, which claimed 23 lives and injured hundreds — its resolute lead single ‘No Tears Left To Cry’, indirectly referenced both, equally soaring and somber.

Despite its name, Sweetener wasn’t saccharine escapism, nor the ‘serious’, ‘dark’ turn most artists might be pressured to lean into post public distress. Instead, it’s a rich, innovative blend of The Neptunes-leaning R&B and oddball, quirk-driven pop, tied together with a sensual, healing tone.

It was, to use a cliché, both ‘her most personal album yet’, drawing upon Grande’s past year, while remaining, for lack of a better word, fun.

Inevitably, it was also tabloid fuel. Grande and Davidson’s fast-moving relationship was befuddling for the masses — it even spawned the year’s biggest meme as we collectively attempted to understand Davidson’s appeal.

Given the two were engaged in June, just a month after publicly beginning dating, the public collectively decided their relationship would burn bright and fast. Even among fans, there was a pre-emptive embarrassment around ‘Pete Davidson’, the one-minute interlude in which Grande sings “my whole life got me ready for you”.

When the two announced their breakup a fortnight ago, the reaction was feverish. Naysayers relished that they were right about the relationship, and fans began cementing Davidson as ‘trash’ or a ‘mistake’. They felt further licensed when Grande sub-tweeted Davidson’s tepid jokes on SNL about Grande. “For somebody who claims to hate relevancy u sure love clinging to it huh,” she tweeted, before adding her new single’s title.

But ‘thank u, next’ plays with our expectation — our seeming need — for ‘shadiness’ and spite. It’s a refusal to play the game the public have put on Grande and other pop-stars, to require a torched-lover renouncement. With news that Grande’s impending fifth album will be also be named ‘thank u, next’, it’s clear that Grande is not interested in Taylor Swift-styled savagery.

‘Least This Song Is A Smash

Davidson isn’t the only ex Grande references on ‘thank u, next’. Off the bat — and off the beat of some fairytale-like chimes — Grande runs through her past four relationships in quick succession.

Big Sean “wasn’t a match”; reflecting back on backup dancer Ricky Alvarez makes her “laugh”; she’s “so thankful” for Davidson; and she calls late Mac Miller an “angel”. In what’s since become a meme, she raps how one taught her love, one patience, one pain (sorry Ricky).

As the chorus arrives it’s evident it’s not a diss track: as Grande sings ‘thank u, next/i’m so fucking grateful to my ex’, the song’s chimes trill and synths bubble with gratitude.

Grande is not interested in Taylor Swift-styled savagery.

And, really, there’s no reason to expect anything else: to release something spiteful would be to sully the healing heard on Sweetener. Rather than feel embarrassed about the naivety of ‘Pete Davidson’, the musical equivalent of a name tattoo, Grande refuses to negate the intensity of the feelings across her last album. Yet just like the ending of a relationship, the end of a pop-star ‘era’ encourages a severing from the past.

But when Grande teases a new relationship in the song’s second verse before revealing (à la Lorde’s ‘Liability’), that this mysterious new lover’s name is “Ari”, it’s clear that ‘thank u, next’ is a continuation of Sweetener’s self-acceptance and love — one often publicly conflated with her relationship with Davidson, but never defined by it.

Neither is this song: while the direct call-outs of her exes immediately attracts attention, the song quickly moves beyond to focus on Grande herself. Towards the song’s end, she imagines getting married to an unknown figure — while she still wants ‘real bad’ to find her soulmate, she’s ‘so good’ with just herself in the meantime. After all, “least this song is a smash”.

Pop music is often about heartbreak — at its best, it’s about finding redemption through pain. But just like many breakups, exes can easily become evil in pop music for ease of a narrative: they become ‘toxic’, a wasteland of a person from whom there is nothing to be gained.

To grow is to leave them, but ‘thank u, next’ topples those expectations: it takes the high road. It’s telling that thank u, next won’t mark the end of Sweetener singles or promo — the two feelings will co-exist, both commercially and artistically.

The single’s a message to her fans, too. In the weeks since their breakup, Davidson has become a punching bag for memes, if not the receiver of outright abuse from Arianators, Grande’s fanbase.

Maybe you’d be right to be skeptical, but sometimes, it’s simply nicer to choose the sweeter side.

While some of Davidson’s recent remarks have been off-colour and deserving of criticism, he must be somewhat terrified by the reality that to many, he’ll forever be the man who broke Grande’s heart — enough to be allowed to make a last-minute placating “I wish her the best” speech during precious SNL air time. ‘Thank u, next’ will calm that vitriol, as fans follow Grande’s honey-over-vinegar mantra.

It’s also a rare coup of tabloids. Rather than stoke the fires like Mariah Carey’s recent break-up anthem ‘GTFO’, it completely removes the whispers of resentment and scandal. Whereas whole articles can be written off a celebrity’s ‘shady’ Instagram caption, Grande’s said everything she needs to say here, removing any ambiguity and the interest of any follow-up stories by outright naming names.

Of course, cynics will question the sincerity of Grande’s high road, saying that it’s only used as a checkmate against Davidson, to control the narrative. And the most conspiratorial will say it’s all too tidy and convenient, that Davidson and Grande’s break-up was preordained as part of a masterplan for pop supremacy.

Maybe you’d be right to be skeptical, but sometimes, it’s simply nicer to choose the sweeter side.

Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.