For Ariana Grande, 2018 has been a lot like the first year of college. Many relationships have ended as new ones have formed and then faded away—in her case, all under the watchful eye of the tabloids. Like first-year students, she has been confronted with the difficult truth that as life moves forward and circumstances change, old relationships either persevere in all their absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder glory or disappear into out-of-sight-outof-mind oblivion. In the latter case, Grande, like most of us upon entering college, has been forced to consider what is left behind when connections are severed. Her latest single “thank u, next,” is her answer.
In May (almost one year after a terrorist killed 22 people at her concert in Manchester) Grande broke up with her long-time boyfriend, rapper Mac Miller, citing his struggles with substance abuse as the reason for their split. At the end of the same month, she started dating “Saturday Night Live” actor Pete Davidson, to whom she was engaged by June. In September, Mac Miller died of accidental drug overdose. In October, Grande’s relationship with Davidson ended.
Like countless women across the globe and throughout history, Grande faced criticism for each decision and blame for actions taken by the men in her life. In late May, one of her Twitter followers tweeted, “Mac Miller totalling [sic] his G wagon and getting a DUI after Ariana Grande dumped him for another dude after he poured his heart out on a ten song album to her …is just the most heartbreaking thing happening in Hollywood” (Twitter, [at]FlintElijah, 05.21.2018). In response, Grande gave followers a hint of the self-assured, confident, inspirational woman she has been turning into: “How absurd that you minimize female self-respect and selfworth by saying someone should stay in a toxic relationship because he wrote an album about them…I am not a babysitter or a mother and no woman should feel that they need to be…Shaming/blaming women for a man’s inability to keep his shit together is a very major problem” (Twitter, [at]ArianaGrande, 05.21.2018).
“thank u, next” emphasizes and elaborates on this point. Five months ago, Grande simply observed societal patterns; now she has the insight to flip the idea that women should be responsible for men’s failures, claiming instead that such issues may actually provide a source of women’s strength, if women can learn to view and use them that way.
Instead of subscribing to the myth that she and all young women whose love lives do not reflect simplistic societal standards are messes, she quite literally thanks these patriarchal philosophies for the confidence that she and the women in her life have gained. After listing off each of her exes in the first verse, Grande sings the pre-chorus: “One taught me love/one taught me patience/one taught me pain/now I’m so amazing/‘I’ve loved and I’ve lost’/but that’s not what I see/’cause look what I got/look what you taught me/and for that I say/Thank you, next.” Despite—or rather thanks to—the painful impacts these men have had on her life, Grande looks back on her recent past as a period of development.
She goes on, however, to point out that those experiences do not translate into growth on their own. That process requires hard work, self-reflection and strength. In order to elucidate this crucial point, Grande references the positive influence of friendships and employs the metaphor of conversations with herself: “Spend my time with my friends/I ain’t worried ’bout nothing/plus I met someone else/we having better discussions/I know they say I move on too fast/but this one’s gonna last/’cause her name is Ari/ and I’m so good with that.” This is a major turning point in the song. Grande transitions from thanking men for teaching her to thanking herself and the women in her life for being thoughtful and brave enough to take the shitty things that the world (and men in particular) throws at them and transforming them into power. To drive this message home, she repeats the pre-chorus with a conspicuous change: this time she is the teacher in place of her exes: “She taught me love/she taught me patience/she handles pain/that shit’s amazing.”
Having dealt with her exes, herself and her friends, Grande turns her focus to two of her other major influences: her parents. The singer has been estranged from her father since 2013, for reasons she has kept private. In fact, “thank u, next” offers one of the most personal glimpses into that relationship that Grande has ever shared: “One day I’ll walk down the aisle/holding hands with my mama/I’ll be thanking my dad/’cause she grew from the drama.” Here, she alludes to how watching her mother deal with her father’s “drama” allowed Grande herself to tap into a long history of women turning pain into strength.
I’ve witnessed the same history in my own family. I’ve seen it in my friends’ parents, too. And as we grow up and the number of relationships in the oblivion category accumulates, I see it in my friends themselves.
Over Thanksgiving break, I hosted a party for friends from high school. As is often the case in these situations, there were uninvited guests in attendance, and several of my closest friends’ exes were there. A few of them had just recently broken up, and in a moment of drunken bravery, one friend took the AUX and played “thank u, next.” I watched as she locked eyes with her ex-boyfriend, who had been particularly cruel to her when they broke up last year (they were both first-years at the time). Finally on the other side of all that pain and self-blame, she looked so confident and carefree. From the speaker, Grande’s final pre-chorus said it all: “I’ve got so much love/got so much patience/I’ve learned from the pain/I turned out amazing…and for that I say/Thank you, next.”