POP CULTURE PERFECTION
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.
It’s about finding enrichment through heartbreak, and in the opening verse she cites four of her exes by name – one of whom recently became her ex-fiancé (Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson) and another who recently died of an accidental drug overdose (rapper Mac Miller). Supporters have called it “empowered” and all the other nice things nice people say on social media whenever we prioritise cheering for music over experiencing it. Yes, this song might be the biggest brave-empowering-honestpure-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 creating 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 grey zone between a superstar’s glazed image and the sentient being behind it.
Shouldn’t we want all of our music idols to be this real? Yes, but no. In 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 when that gap begins to close. With Thank U, Next, Grande practically seals it shut.
When she dropped her fourth album, Sweetener, in August, the only way to truly hear it was to get 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 candour of Thank U, Next was an attempt to speed the process along.