The cliché that great art emerges from great suffering—that pain and creativity are hopelessly entangled, and that contentment (or, God forbid, happiness) yields banal and unchallenging pap—is as pervasive as it is damaging, which makes it difficult to talk about Ariana Grande, who has somehow churned anguish into the best music of her career.
In 2017, twenty-three people—ten of them under the age of twenty—were killed when a terrorist detonated a bomb at Grande’s concert in Manchester, England; in 2018, shortly after the release of “Sweetener,” a record that directly addressed the Manchester incident, Grande’s former boyfriend and collaborator Mac Miller died of an overdose in his Los Angeles home. There was a very public engagement to the comedian Pete Davidson—it inspired endless memes, and reënergized the now-immortal phrase “Big Dick Energy”—followed by a very public breakup. Now, less than five months after “Sweetener,” Grande has released another full-length album. A person might think all that loss would yield only endless, aching ballads—that Grande might lean into the theatricality of heartache—but she’s merely gotten lighter, funnier, and more spry. Following the end of her engagement, Grande dropped “Thank U, Next,” a twee, peppy single that espoused gratitude and self-possession. The new record shares its title, and its ethos: “Now I’m so amazing,” she sings.
Grande, a woman of her moment, understands that the work of a contemporary pop star is complex and multitudinous, and that singing is but a wee fraction of the gig. She maintains a chatty, confessional presence on social media, and, unlike many of her peers, knows that humor and transparency are valuable currency, and that neither can be very credibly fudged. Both her music and her presentation are tinged with a kind of radical disclosure; she is perhaps young enough, at twenty-five, to know that online personas, even when they are expertly articulated, create distance, and in 2019, nothing is less fashionable than a secret. A few days before this year’s Grammy Awards telecast, the producer Ken Ehrlich told a reporter that Grande wouldn’t be appearing on the show because she didn’t have time to put together a performance. On Twitter, Grande gleefully corrected the record. “it was when my creativity & self expression was stifled by you, that i decided not to attend. i hope the show is exactly what you want it to be and more,” she wrote. Conversations that were once held privately now happen in public and the fastest, truest route to communion with your fans is to reveal absolutely everything.
Of course, being active on social media means that eventually you’ll get clowned for something, and Grande has mastered the self-effacing comeback, too. In January, when she got a tattoo on her hand that was supposed to spell out “7 Rings,” a song from “Thank U, Next,” in Japanese characters—apparently, an undying trend among young Americans—she was informed that it actually said something like, “Japanese-style barbecue grill restaurant.” Rather than revel in humiliation, Grande attempted to get the tattoo fixed, and acknowledged the mistake. “rip tiny charcoal grill. miss u man. i actually really liked u,” she wrote on Instagram.
Offline, she is mischievous, girlish, and weird. For a while, she was rarely spotted without a pair of costume cat ears set atop an enormous ponytail. In 2015, she licked several unmanned doughnuts sitting on the counter of a Los Angeles-area bakery (TMZ acquired the footage, and published it with the headline, “Ariana Tongues New Boyfriend and Donuts!”), a maneuver that was discourteous and inelegant, sure, but also foolish and human in a way that felt sort of endearing. “To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality,” the Victorian-era art critic John Ruskin once wrote. Who among us has not been seized by the desire to do something impolite and boorish in a doughnut shop late at night?
Unlike those by other stars of her calibre—Taylor Swift, Beyoncé—Grande’s songs don’t contain oblique or enigmatic references to her life, but, rather, lists of recognizable names. The album’s title track opens with a rundown of her recent exes, including the rapper Big Sean, the dancer Ricky Alvarez, Davidson, and Miller:
Thought I’d end up with Sean
But he wasn’t a match
Wrote some songs about Ricky
Now I listen and laugh
Even almost got married
And for Pete, I’m so thankful
Wish I could say, “Thank you” to Malcolm
’Cause he was an angel.
Another single, “7 Rings,” is a boastful paean to accumulated wealth, and the awful pleasure of spending money on stuff you don’t need; Grande sings the verses to the tune of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things.” These are not uncommon themes in hip-hop, but for most rappers, wealth itself is subversive, political. For Grande, a young white woman who grew up in Boca Raton, Florida (home to some of the most expensive gated communities in America in 2004, according to Forbes), her money means something different. Though she is striving for the kind of self-celebration and empowerment that’s become inescapable in pop music, when she sings, “Whoever said money can’t solve your problems / Must not have had enough money to solve ‘em,” it only sounds cruel.
“7 Rings” also got Grande accused of theft—the rappers Princess Nokia, 2 Chainz, and Soulja Boy have all noted similarities to their work—and some critics and fans were made uncomfortable by her casual embrace of black aesthetics. (“7 Rings” was co-written by Tayla Parx, who recently defended Grande.“We’re at a time in music where all of these lines are being blurred,” she told Vulture.) As a vocalist, Grande already borrows from the brash female blues singers of the nineteen-twenties and thirties—women like Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, and Alberta Hunter, who used range and melisma to tell risqué and trenchant stories. Their particular singing style—muscular, hearty, galloping—has been aped and reinvented so many times over the last century that it’s easy to misremember its origins, or to overlook the ingenuity and power of the black women who pioneered it, furthering a vision of femininity in which women could both demand and revel in sex, booze, and cash. Grande is a distant part of that lineage now, though on “Thank U, Next,” she leans less heavily on her four-octave range and more on her clipped, soft rapping. On “Make Up,” her vocals are quick and nimble, and on “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” a slinky song about lust, she exhibits a lovely restraint.
Although Grande was first a child star, appearing on two successful Nickelodeon series, she has mostly outrun her origin story. “Thank U, Next” establishes Grande as a savvy, astute, adult pop singer, more tapped in to the zeitgeist than almost any of her peers, and preternaturally comfortable with the choices she’s made. Several of the album’s songs open with the same series of blunt, pinging tones, as if what’s about to follow will serve as a public-service announcement. Even when her voice is high and sweet, she never kowtows. “Fuck a fake smile,” she sings.