For weeks, Ariana Grande has been parading around in costumes that recall early-2000s touchstones like Mean Girls and Legally Blonde and posting snaps on social media, as a tease for the video for her single “Thank U, Next.” That much-hyped video is finally here, and as fun as it is to watch Grande in full Elle Woods and Regina George drag, I am sorry to report that the video is not good. I mean, it’s fine. But I had been excited to see how Grande was going to tie these different movies together and draw connections between them and her song, and it turns out the answer is: She doesn’t.
“Thank U, Next,” the song, functions as a sweet anthem about Grande’s personal growth, as well as an attempt to regain control of the tabloid narrative around her love life, and at that it’s enormously successful. The concept of the video doesn’t have much to do with the song’s message, which is OK—there’s no rule that says it has to. But there’s a strange disconnection between that meaningful, earnest personal triumph of a song and a video where Grande seems to do little more than re-create a bunch of movies and self-seriously pout at the camera. You can find parallels if you look hard: the way other characters talk about Regina George mirrors the way Grande’s name is always in the culture and has become bigger than life; Elle Woods was on a journey of discovery after a breakup, and I guess you could say Bring It On had some of that too. I’m reaching to work in 13 Going on 30 here, but the point is, after all the build-up to this video, the result is a bit of a let-down.
It doesn’t help that simulating the pop culture of 15 or 20 years ago isn’t nearly as novel as it used to be. Coming on the heels of umpteen TV reboots and the recent music video for Charli XCX and Troye Sivan’s song “1999,” “Thank U, Next” looks like more of the same, with less of an excuse to exist. The movies Grande alludes to are all popular on the internet, where Mean Girls GIFs and Legally Blonde listicles have fueled endless streams of clicks. Pop culture nostalgia is a thriving, and dependable, facet of online life, but basing a video around these movies seems like pandering to Grande’s audience, a cynical bid for virality and GIF-ability. We all love Mean Girls, but that doesn’t warrant straight-up remaking it without any added wink or commentary. Well, it didn’t used to anyway.
It’s admittedly cool that several actors from the original movies—Jonathan Bennett from Mean Girls, Jennifer Coolidge from Legally Blonde—appear in the “Thank U, Next” video. But it also underscores that Grande is now powerful enough to get anyone to appear in her videos (Troye Sivan shows up too!) and get any concept greenlit, whether it’s a good idea or not. Kris Jenner’s cameo, at least, is a welcome addition; comparing Jenner’s reputation as an overeager mom to Amy Poehler’s role in the original Mean Girls movie is actually clever and says something, sort of. The in-jokes in the Burn Book may not be quite as witty, but they’re entertaining enough to please the internet. Maybe that’s all that really matters, but I still liked it better when Grande was dry-humping the Earth and finger-banging hurricanes.
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