When Ariana Grande surprise-dropped “thank u, next” on a night in early November, sending social media into a frenzy, the only thing I could think to add to the online conversation was, “Ariana’s a life-saver. She saves people’s lives.”
My (admittedly weak) tweet was a play on Janis Ian’s characterization of Regina George as a “life-ruiner” in Mean Girls, shared with Cady Heron after Regina kisses her crush, Aaron Samuels, on Halloween. It was all I really had at the time, overwhelmed by the song I’d just heard and, admittedly, wanting to weigh in while it was trending. I guess I envisioned Ariana in that moment as a sort of inverse Regina George, someone who’d obviously been put on this planet to make young people’s lives easier instead of harder. That might sound overdramatic, but it’s arguably been the central premise of her Sweetener era and what we’ve seen of the thank u, next one thus far: keeping things light (or remembering that the light will come back) amid awful, even unthinkable hardship.
A few weeks later, my tweet proved weirdly prophetic once it was revealed that Ariana would be portraying Regina George, among other teen comedy characters from the early aughts, in the “thank u, next” video. The social media lead-up to its release promised several celebrity cameos as well as additional nods to Bring It On, 13 Going on 30, and Legally Blonde. It was quickly shaping up to be a music video event, something few artists these days have the social or artistic wherewithal to pull off.
But pull it off, she did. A staggering 829,000 viewers tuned in to watch its live YouTube premiere, marking a new record. I was catching up with a friend over coffee at the time, and cut him off (sorry, Dan) to point out that two young women nearby had paused whatever they were working on and moved over to the same side of their table so that they could watch it—sharing a pair of headphones and smiling as they pointed out the references to one another.
The four films saluted in the “thank u, next” video are all former sleepover staples whose screenplays are forever etched into the brains of most young women I know. Ariana evidently understands her target audience—not only what’s sure to hit them right in the feels but what they’re guaranteed to turn into memes. As Rachel Syme put it on Twitter after the video’s release, “[M]usic videos more than most things these days are gif engines and [Ariana] as a denizen of the internet knows that.”
But aside from the memeable quality of these films, each is either a revenge narrative, a reinvention narrative, or some combination of the two. Cady Heron and Elle Woods remake themselves into entirely new women after suffering rejections. Jenna Rink learns, in being catapulted into adulthood before her time, to appreciate what she has instead of pining for what she doesn’t (yet). And Torrance Shipman, the newly-elected captain of her high-school cheerleading team, is forced to get comfortable with plan B when plan A turns out to be—quite literally—someone else’s.
These films haven’t been referenced by accident. They’re all about young women who learn that they’re actually fine the way they are, or that fine is within reach even when it doesn’t feel like it, or that your definition of fine can change. Regina took Aaron back; Warner needs to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn; Matty hasn’t seen Jenna since high school; Big Red stole the Clovers’ routine; a marriage is called off after an already devastating couple of years.
Breakup songs are usually therapeutic because they give listeners the chance to blow off some steam. Some of the most famous ones, like Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” fall into this category. They tend to be shamelessly angry, perfect for listening to on a long run or a lip-synching session in the bathroom mirror. And their videos often play a crucial role in setting this tone—artists are featured trashing their exes’ apartments, keying their cars, screaming fervidly in the desert. The exes in question are also usually nameless, giving these songs universal appeal. Alanis and Kelly seem to want you to know: This song’s as much about your ex as it is about mine.
Considering that this is the tried-and-true formula for end-of-relationship tracks, listening to “thank u, next” for the first time caught me completely off guard. Ariana namechecks her past boyfriends (like, think about that for a second) and then frames each as a chapter on a larger journey of self-actualization: there’s the one who taught her love, the one who taught her patience, the one who taught her pain. “I’ve loved and I’ve lost / But that’s not what I see,” she sings. “Look what I got / Look what you taught me.” Unlike the average breakup song, it’s not a lamentation that’s vague enough to suit any newly-single listener; it’s one woman shrugging and declaring: This is how I’ve chosen to deal with this. Join me if you want.
There’s no one way to overcome a love “lost,” and there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with harbouring anger or resentment towards one. But Ariana’s approach—the one she unloaded on the world almost a month ago—is one that many of us find more useful. It’s more open to the fact that your relationship probably wasn’t all bad, to things like inside jokes and funny memories and everything else that makes it hard to feel bitter about someone through and through. It’s a bit easier—maybe even healthier—on your mind and heart. “It’s a proclamation that forgiveness is cool and growth is a flauntable quality,” as Ann-Derrick Gaillot wrote in The Guardian.
“thank u, next” is really a lemons-into-lemonade story, and puts Ariana back in the driver’s seat when it comes to controlling her life’s narrative. There’s nothing left to be said by click-hungry gossip sites that hasn’t been sung, tweeted, or joked about by the star herself in the last month. As for us, it’s a slice of optimism in a year defined by cynicism and uncertainty—a reminder to always look for the good.