The Week In Pop

There’s Never Been A Pop Song Quite Like Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next”

It all happened so fast — and it keeps happening faster.

If Ariana Grande was having a turbulent year when Sweetener dropped back in August, her life has only gotten crazier in the less than three months since then. In early September, Grande’s ex-boyfriend Mac Miller died of an overdose, inspiring an army of contemptible Twitter trolls and a few less-than-thoughtful journalists to insinuate she somehow caused the rapper’s death by breaking up with him. A few weeks later, Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels revealed Grande had backed out of her gig performing on the show’s season premiere due to emotional distress, information I’m sure Grande would have preferred to keep private. And a few weeks after that, her whirlwind engagement to SNL comedian Pete Davidson came to its inevitable end.

All that upheaval seemed to happen at a brisk pace, but it had nothing on the passive-aggressive war between Grande and Davidson that has played out in the media this past week. Last Thursday, in a promo for the first SNL episode since their breakup, Davidson fake-proposed to musical guest Maggie Rogers. Grande wasn’t too happy about it. And when word got out that SNL was planning to air a sketch about Grande this week, she served up a preemptive strike, surprise-releasing a new single that name-checked Davidson and three more of her former boyfriends — at 11PM Saturday, just 30 minutes before SNL went on the air.

That song — “thank u, next,” the title track from what may well turn out to be Grande’s second album of 2018 — is unlike any pop single I can remember in terms of its content and delivery. Sonically it’s conventional almost to a fault, a largely straightforward ’90s-inspired R&B-pop tune that could have appeared on any of Grande’s four albums — think “Everytime” from Sweetener or “Let Me Love You” from Dangerous Woman or “Be My Baby” from My Everything. The music is smooth, graceful, low-key joyous, and immensely pleasant. It’s good enough to hold up long after the tabloid drama around Grande becomes old news, but it’s not what stands out about the song. What stands out is what Grande is saying — a complex knot we’ll attempt to untangle momentarily — and how she’s saying it: essentially beating SNL at its own game, commenting on the events of the moment in something close to real time.

Such rapid-fire discourse is customary in rap music, where feuds often unfold in a flurry of dis tracks within days of each other. All told, the Drake-Pusha conflict this summer only lasted four days from opening blast to kill shot, even if the hysteria around it lingered much longer. Speaking of kill shots, the Eminem-Machine Gun Kelly beef played out over two weeks. This past spring, at one of the most contentious moments of his MAGA phase, Kanye West poked and prodded the world through quick, messy dispatches “Lift Yourself” and “Ye Vs. The People” within hours of each other. Spontaneity is built into the genre and its culture.

By contrast, the pop music machine tends to lumber along more slowly. Artists increasingly comment on their personal lives via their music, but they usually do so as part of calculated album rollouts planned months in advance. Rather than spelling things out, they tend to obliquely reference their own headlines in ways listeners intuitively understand without. Think of Beyoncé’s Lemonade or Taylor Swift’s entire discography. Even Grande herself used this approach throughout most of Sweetener, indirectly addressing the trauma from the bombing at her 2017 Manchester concert on “No Tears Left To Cry,” “Breathin,” and “Get Well Soon” and dissecting the breakdown of her relationship with Miller on “Everytime” and the now extremely bittersweet “Better Off.”

Such carefully scripted pageantry has been the modus operandi of most major pop stars this decade. It’s that or fired-off social media warfare, and very little in between. So when Grande added an interlude called “Pete” to Sweetener and then renamed it “Pete Davidson” just weeks before the album’s release, it was both an acceleration of the usual cycle and a radical increase in transparency. Both the speed and the vulnerability multiplied exponentially with “thank u, next.” For one of pop’s biggest stars to swing in so quickly with a fully formed single processing her own weeks-old breakup is surprising — even more so that the song names names.

“Thank u, next” wastes no time getting into specifics. At the jump Grande rattles off her four most recent ex-boyfriends, Davidson and Miller plus Big Sean and dancer Ricky Alvarez (who joined her in her notorious donut-licking incident). In each case, she fondly remembers their time together while gently scoffing at herself for thinking any of these relationships would last:

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

When I first heard those words Saturday night, I couldn’t believe their pointed clarity and frankness. And even after Grande made it clear she was recording the follow-up to Sweetener and planning to release it before year’s end, the fact that this sparkling product had manifested within weeks was even more astonishing. When Sweetener dropped, I compared the production on the buzzing, whirring “The Light Is Coming” to a social media feed come to life, but in subject matter “thank u, next” feels excerpted directly from the timeline, with lyrics that could pass for a confessional Instagram caption.

Speaking of which, as the verse progresses, Grande mysteriously informs us, “One taught me love/ One taught me patience/ And one taught me pain,” a series of statements that spawned countless memes and not a little speculation about which ex is which. Eventually we reach the chorus: “Thank u, next/ I’m so fucking grateful for my ex.” The vibe feels gracious and mature, but am I crazy or am I sensing a mild note of condescension? The dismissive-sounding “next” plus the timing of the song’s release leaves me wondering whether this is a taunt disguised as a detente. At minimum Grande is killing Davidson with kindness and ensuring that he’ll be the villain if he deviates from the magnanimous posture he adopted on SNL this week.

She’s definitely toying with all of us in the second verse, where she lets us believe for a few seconds that she’s already moved on to a new partner — a woman, no less! — before revealing “her name is Ari, and I’m good with that.” The message of independence and empowerment is as timely as any of the subtext, metatext, or any other text surrounding “thank u, next.” And when the third verse rolls around and Grande envisions her future wedding day, she hedges her desire for a marriage that endures with the knowledge that she’s got a proper hit on her hands: “God forbid something happens/ Least this song is a smash.”

She’s right. Billboard just reported that “thank u, next” is on track to debut atop the Hot 100 next week. Remarkably, it would be Grande’s first #1 hit. “Break Free” and “Side To Side” stalled out at #4. “Bang Bang” and “No Tears Left To Cry” peaked at #3. “Problem” made it to the brink at #2. She’s come so close so many times. But for a singer who for years has been her generation’s closest thing to an old-school pop diva, the road to the top involved bringing pop stardom in step with the breakneck evolution of modern life. I’m so fucking grateful to witness it, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

CREDIT: Mark Seliger

CHART WATCH

Believe it or not, Andrea Bocelli has never had a #1 album — until this week! The operatic Italian pop singer has been popular among rich parents for my entire lifetime, but he’s just now scored his first career chart-topper with Si, his 26th album. Per Billboard, it accumulated 126,000 equivalent album units in its first week, 123,000 of them via actual sales. He’s previously peaked at #2 twice, including a five-week stint in the runner-up spot with 2009’s My Christmas. Si — which features Josh Groban, Dua Lipa, Ed Sheeran, Aida Garifullina, and Bocelli’s 21-year-old son Matteo — marks his best sales performance since then.

After the A Star Is Born soundtrack at #2 comes BALLADS 1, the debut full-length from Joji, at #3 with 57,000 units/34,000 sales. Debuting at #4 with 54,000 units but only 5,000 in sales is Tory Lanez’s Love Me Now? The rest of the top 10 comprises longstanding hit rap releases. From #5 to #10 it’s Lil Wayne, Lil Baby and Gunna, Drake, Future and Juice WRLD, Travis Scott, and Post Malone.

Over on the Hot 100, Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s “Girls Like You” claims a seventh straight week at #1, which is preposterous. According to Billboard, that makes it the longest-leading chart-topped by a group (defined as three or more people) since Maroon 5’s own “One More Night” in 2012. In at #2 again is Travis Scott and Drake’s “Sicko Mode,” and rising to a new #3 peak is Marshmello and Bastille’s “Happier,” now the biggest hit by both artists. Then comes Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams” at #4, Post Malone’s “Better Now” at #5, the Kodak Black/Travis Scott/Offset summit “Zeze” at #6, 5 Seconds Of Summer’s “Youngblood” at #7, and Lil Baby and Gunna’s “Drip Too Hard” at #8.

Halsey’s “Without Me” climbs to #9, becoming her third top 10 hit following the smash Chainsmokers collab “Closer” and the #5-peaking “Bad At Love.” And at #10 is another new top 10 entry, Harlem rapper Sheck Wes’ “Mo Bamba.” It’s his first top 10 hit and is dedicated to the Orlando Magic’s starting center, who Sheck Wes grew up with.

POP FIVE

Katy Perry – “Waving Through A Window”
I’ve never seen Dear Evan Hansen, so I don’t know the context for this song, but it’s a good chance for Perry to make that adult-contemporary pivot she was threatening circa Prism. Now, will I ever listen to this again? Certainly not.

Benny Blanco & Calvin Harris – “I Found You”
Any time you can get Tory Lanez, Lil Dicky, Francis Starlite, Halsey, Cashmere Cat, and Benny Blanco’s mom in a video together, you gotta do it. In all seriousness, though, I haven’t heard Calvin Harris on lead vocals in a while and it’s sounding not half bad in this context.

Clean Bandit – “Baby” (Feat. Luis Fonsi & Marina)
The classical-adjacent dance-pop band Clean Bandit remain one of the more low-key intriguing outfits in pop. Who else is gonna put “Despacito” star Luis Fonsi and indie-friendly UK pop singer Marina (formerly Marina And The Diamonds) on the same track? “Baby” is a winner, too — a song where the hooks launch off each other like a cheerleading squad.

Jacob Banks – “Slow Up”
Banks, whose voice is a rich and expressive baritone, has typically tended toward modern spins on traditionalist R&B. “Grace,” a song he released three years ago, reminds me of Algiers without the avant-garde noise-rock impulses stripped away but the retro soul howling intact. “Slow Up,” on the other hand, is distinctly modern. It’s produced by Frank Ocean associate Malay, and it’s one of those airy, artsy productions Ocean preferred in recent years, albeit smoothed out with that cinematic Friday Night Lights soundtrack vibe. Not that it sounds like Ocean fronting Explosions In The Sky, but… well, just listen to it. It’s good.

Imagine Dragons – “Bad Liar”
Not a Selena Gomez cover, smh.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Demi Lovato shared a photo of herself on Election Day, writing “I am so grateful to be home in time to vote!” and encouraging her fans to head to the polls. It was her first public statement since enterting rehab after a near-fatal drug overdose this summer. [Instagram]
  • Relatedly, sorry, but here’s Hozier covering Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry.” [YouTube]
  • Speaking to the crowd at a hometown show earlier this week, the Weeknd said a new album is “coming soon.” [Twitter]
  • Addressing rumors that she’s dating John Mayer, Halsey tweeted, “What if…we let female artists…have friends…without assuming that they are sleeping together?” [CNN]
  • Also, Halsey covered Juice Wrld’s “Lucid Dreams” in the Live Lounge. [YouTube]
  • Bruno Mars, Cardi B, Aerosmith, Ludacris, Migos, Lil Yachty, Lil Baby, and more will perform at the Bud Light Music Festival the night before the Super Bowl in Atlanta. [PR Newswire]
  • Lana Del Rey and Jared Leto are the new faces of Gucci Guilty fragrances. [WWD]
  • Camila Cabello won awards for best artist and best song at the MTV EMAs. [Variety]
  • Shawn Mendes and Khalid shared a video for “Youth.” [iTunes]
  • Nicki Minaj became the first female artist with 100 appearances on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. [Billboard]
  • Post Malone’s first Crocs collab sold out immediately, but don’t worry, he says there will be more. [Instagram]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME: “THANK U, NEXT” EDITION