So where does “Thank U, Next” rank on the list of things that made you feel insane this year?
Since perching on our planet’s scorched crust last month, this massive Ariana Grande hit has been difficult to escape, making all kinds of people feel all kinds of ways. It’s a pop song about finding enrichment through heartbreak, and in the opening verse, Grande cites four of her exes by name — one of whom recently became her ex-fiance (“Saturday Night Live” star Pete Davidson), and another who recently died of an accidental drug overdose (the rapper Mac Miller). Supporters have called it “brave,” “empowered,” a glint of “feel-good honesty,” and all of the other nice things that nice people say on social media whenever we prioritize cheering for music over experiencing it.
Yes, this song might be the biggest brave-empowering-honest-pure-unapologetic-lit-YASSS-etc., hit of 2018, but it’s also profoundly atypical and disconcertingly weird. Grande isn’t just calling her glass half-full. She’s doing a new kind of alchemy, transmuting trauma into Bubble Yum. And without blinking. It’s as if a singer at the height of her fame accidentally wandered into pop’s uncanny valley — a disconcerting gray zone between a superstar’s glazed image and the sentient being behind it.
Shouldn’t we want all of our American idols be this real? Yes, but no. Over the course of our strange new century, we’ve been given reality shows that follow a script, and more recently, a reality show president who doesn’t. We crave what’s real, but sometimes we actually get it. But it’s different with pop music. The space between what’s real and what isn’t is where our imaginations get to play, and we start to lose something whenever that gap begins to close.
With “Thank U, Next,” Grande practically seals it shut. She and Davidson began dating in May, had gotten engaged by June, then went poof in October — with the media monitoring every 15 minutes of it. When Grande dropped her fourth album, “Sweetener,” in August, the only way to truly hear it was to break out a reliable measuring stick: How much would we care about this artist’s music without their celebrity, and how much would we care about their celebrity without their music?
Grande’s music has always been softly magnetic, even when it wasn’t all that great. It usually comes down to her voice, which remains as plush, clean, smothering and anonymous as a luxury hotel room pillow. And like any nameless coo that permeates so much of our communal airspace, hers sounds more and more human year after year. Maybe the blunt-force candor of “Thank U, Next” was an attempt to speed the process along.
The song’s music video, however, taps the brakes, pushing away from reality by re-creating various scenes from an array of aughties coming-of-age movies — “Mean Girls,” “Bring It On,” “13 Going on 30” and “Legally Blonde.” Yes, this cozy nostalgia mash-up earned a record-setting 50 million views within its first 24 hours online, but the video ultimately feels drab and unimaginative, stepping out of the uncanny valley and back into fantasy-land. As the writer Tobi Haslett aptly pointed out, Grande’s makeup has her looking like a Pixar cartoon.
Watch closely, and you’ll notice Grande moving her mouth in weird ways, too. During that first verse, she isn’t actually singing, or even syncing. She doesn’t want her glossed lips to touch as she rattles off the names of those ex-flames. This is the kind of pop artifice we’re comfortable with. She’s only keeping it real as she has to.