Ariana Grande’s latest single “thank u, next” opens with a bright, synth pop beat. As the melody progresses, her sweet-as-sugar falsetto paints a chronological picture of her well-publicized romantic struggles. The lyric “Even almost got married/And for Pete I’m so thankful” immediately amuses pop culture savvy listeners. She directly interpolates SNL cast member and former fiancée Pete Davidson, along with other ex-boyfriends Big Sean, Ricky Alvarez, and the late Mac Miller. Taken at face value, it’s a well-produced Top 40 song by a mainstream ingénue. However, in the context of Grande's public life, it is so much more than than that. Self-aware and tongue-in-cheek, “thank u, next” handles serious heartbreak with the expert precision of a young woman who is well-acquainted with pain. Ariana Grande has turned resilience into an art form.
The song evaluates past relationships with honesty and gravitas, while also crafting a vision of a future Grande who is spirited and self-sufficient. This message is especially powerful when juxtaposed against her history of personal misfortune and heartbreaking disaster. Originally finding fame as a Nickelodeon child star, Grande rose to solo stardom with her first two studio albums. Although her vocals were undeniably impressive, she drew criticism for seemingly airheaded lyrics like “I only want to die alive” and “Now that I’ve become who I really are”. As time passed, Grande’s music evolved and she became a household name. The pop diva’s career seemed to be going seamlessly, until she was struck by tragedy. In 2017, a Grande concert at the O2 Arena in Manchester, UK was attacked by a suicide bomber, leaving 22 people dead and 116 injured. Grande honored the victims with a tear-jerking benefit concert before retreating from the spotlight for a few months to heal.
Approximately one year after the terrorist attack, Grande went through a very public breakup with rapper Mac Miller. She pushed back against tabloid noise and released the single “No Tears Left to Cry," signaling her triumphant comeback and resolution moving forward. Soon after, she went public with a new relationship: SNL’s Pete Davidson. The two quickly got engaged and created widespread media debate over the validity of their whirlwind romance. Grande seems unfazed by the press. She released her fourth studio album “Sweetener” in August, featuring a song titled “pete davidson”. Everything seemed to be looking up for her, until September, when news broke of Mac Miller's death. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that Grande and Davidson had split.
In the midst of this sorrow and emotional turmoil, Grande could have withdrawn from the public eye again. Instead, she reached outward with the surprise release of “thank u, next” last week, just months after her recent full length album. “thank u, next” is an ode to Grande's strength in the face of adversity. Forthright and earnest, the song stands in stark contrast to other pop diva break-up songs that are passive-aggressive and confrontational. It is like Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” all grown up. Grande name-drops her ex-boyfriends unabashedly and faces tragedy directly, addressing Mac Miller’s death with the lyric “Wish I could say thank you to Malcolm/ ’Cause he was an angel”. The soaring pre-chorus, which has inspired a new meme, attributes a specific lesson to each ex-boyfriend: “One taught me love, one taught me patience, and one taught me pain." On first listen, the catchy hook and high quality production are pleasantly entrancing. However, a second play reveals the beating heart beneath the glittery façade. It is the kind of song that is equally at home blaring from the speakers in a nightclub or playing quietly as an upbeat accouchement to a self-pity breakup playlist on Spotify.
The song tells a story of hope amid suffering and grace that rises above mockery. It’s an anthem of self-love that does not exclude mutual appreciation. On Sunday, Grande encapsulated these feelings, tweeting, “What an interesting, challenging, painful and yet beautiful and exciting chapter of life….” In “thank u, next”, Grande processes pain with poise and musicality. She declares to the world that she has and will continue to overcome the hardships that persistently pursue her. “thank u, next” is more than just a new single: this is her pièce de résistance.