POP CUL­TURE PER­FEC­TION

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - EDITOR'S CHOICE - CHRIS RICHARDS @Chris _Richards | The Washington Post

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.

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