My interest in Ariana Grande was piqued by 2018’s Sweetener, a critically-acclaimed jazz-infused love letter to then-beau, comedian Pete Davidson. thank u, next is the antidote to Sweetener, a cryptic dissection of the infamous broken engagement that has been met with similar praise. And yet, it is at this juncture that I must admit my brief love affair with Grande has also come to an end.
On Nov. 30, Grande released her music video for the titular “thank u, next,” a short that features Grande as various female protagonists in early 2000s rom-coms, lazily pandering for nostalgia’s sake. The video was good in the way that a perfunctory Saturday Night Live impression is good: Director Hannah Lux proficiently recreates Mean Girls, Legally Blonde, Bring It On, and 13 Going on 30 but offers no artistic intervention. Aside from an empty female-power mantra in which Grande chooses herself, and an overdone reference to Pete Davidson’s penis size for salivating fans, “thank u, next” does little in the way of expression.
With the release of “7 Rings,” Grande set the record for most streams in a single week, but the song faced intense criticism. The video appropriates kanji characters, and Grande has since touted an unfortunately-misspelled tattoo—the design, which is supposed to read ‘7 rings’ in kanji, in fact, says ‘barbecue grill.’ Accusations of cultural appropriation have plagued Grande throughout her career, but her empty use of Japanese language and culture is especially vexing when matched with an equally hollow song about being a rich white woman shopping. It’s not just Grande’s kanji that reads as inauthentic, but the entire production; she writhes forcedly, chants unconvincingly of buying diamonds for her bitches, and apes the worst of trap music for an exceptionally-long 30 seconds. The video’s pink fur, diamond-crusted, girl boss aesthetic feels manufactured, and six months too late—Grande has missed the boat on millennial pink.
Despite their uninspired videos, “7 Rings” and “thank u, next,” are perhaps the album’s best tracks—or at least its most distinct. The rest of thank u, next features vaguely-catchy, nearly-indistinguishable songs: I know I enjoyed listening to “imagine,” “bloodline,” and “makeup” but I can’t recall any specifics. “NASA” is another pandering reference to a belated Urban Outfitters trend. On “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” Grande croons that “you make me feel some type of way,” a sentiment that wasn’t particularly profound when Rich Homie Quan said it in 2013 and hasn’t appreciated in potency in countless Drake songs since. “needy” is one of the album’s strongest, and her refrain “I can be needy, tell me how good it feels to be needed” is a refreshing break from the album’s vacant girl power-isms a la “God is a Woman.”
References to ex-lovers meant to rouse public interest ultimately hamper the album. “thank u, next” isn’t an ode to empowerment so much as a list of celebrity names; likewise, pithy and transparent nods to famous breakups populate the entire album.
While thank u, next feels like it was produced by a focus group, Grande is not without talent. She just won her first Grammy, and without even attending the awards ceremony where she was set to perform, citing the show’s alleged constraints on her creative freedom. Still, listening to “one small step for woman…. one giant leap for womankind” on the intro to “NASA,” it’s tough to imagine any particularly subversive spirit that The Recording Academy should need to censor.