Writing about popular music is lousy with obnoxious words. Indeed, there are so many—jangly, crunchy, seminal—that there is a whole book of them (and shamefully, I have used my share). Making things more complicated, much of this language is also subject to a generational divide—words coined by the young are understood to be off-limits to older writers. This fortysomething has been told by his soon-to-be stepchildren, in no uncertain terms, that he is never, ever to say something is “lit.” (Roger that, kids.)
But there is one musical term that has cropped up in post-millennial parlance that, at the risk of deepening both my fuddy and my duddy, I must dissect. Because, best as I can tell, it both describes and explains America’s latest chart-topping hit. That word is bop. Let me be more specific, since on its own this word is decades, perhaps centuries, old and has been used to describe music since before rock ’n’ roll. I mean the term as preceded by the indefinite article, as in: Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” is a bop.
Look up bop on Urban Dictionary or any other site that aims to define slang and you will be informed that it’s a pithy synonym for a catchy song: Until recently, we might have simply said “a jam.” Yes, the word has been around for decades, from jazz’s bebop and hard bop to Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” (a whole other category of “bop,” by the way). But in the late ’10s, the word—really, two-word phrase—has taken on a patina of devil-may-care, F-the-haters enjoyment: A bop embraces cheesiness, is artificial and likes it, lets you be you. It might also forgive a multitude of perceived or actual sins, from crassly materialistic lyrics to thoughtless cultural appropriation. Ariana Grande has herself used “a bop” to describe her music, often in passing. But her latest smash might be—by all of the above measures—the ultimate “bop.”
There’s certainly no shortage of bopping—by the old-school definition—in the music video for “7 Rings,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein–interpolating song that last week debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Grande and her glossy girlfriends are bouncing, shimmying, and jerking throughout the clip, which may be partially responsible for the song’s instant debut atop the survey: In less than two weeks, the video already climbed past 100 million views. But Billboard reports “7 Rings” detonated pretty much everywhere it landed, across all the metrics that make up the chart. In addition to a first-week streaming total of 85.3 million, encompassing both audio streams on services like Spotify and video streams via YouTube, the song sold nearly 100,000 copies—rare nowadays, years into the dollar-download’s steep decline. And “7 Rings” is already a Top 40 airplay hit—it ranked 39th in radio audience after just days of airplay. (And climbing: In its second week on top of the big chart, Billboard reports that it’s already up to 19th in airplay.) This is far from unprecedented but still impressive, considering two prior Grande hits are still among America’s Top 10 radio songs: her fall hit “Breathin’ ” and, of course, her holiday-season smash “Thank U, Next,” which completed a seven-week run at No. 1 barely a month ago. That’s right—after waiting more than five years into her career for her first Hot 100 No. 1, Grande has scored two, virtually back to back. (A minor promotional single, “Imagine,” came in between, peaking at No. 24 just after Christmas.) And both of these chart-toppers, “Thank U, Next” and “7 Rings,” entered at No. 1—an uncommon feat she’s now performed twice in the space of a few months.
If you’ve read my entries in this series before, you probably know what I’m about to say: We’ve got ourselves an “Imperial” period, folks—like Taylor Swift at the peak of her run of mid-decade chart-toppers, or Justin Bieber circa 2016 and 2017, or Drake all of last year (and … well, most of this decade). How artists choose to use this moment in a career, when they can do virtually anything and lock down the charts, says a lot about their artistic prerogatives and the persona they’ve cultivated. As I discussed when “Thank U, Next” topped the Hot 100, Grande has used a mix of her post-Manchester gravitas and her post–Pete Davidson self-assurance to write a new narrative for herself that America, and the world, has embraced. But there was another sassier and more sharp-tongued side to “Thank U, Next”—which, by the way, will also be the title of a forthcoming album, a remarkably swift follow-up to the 5-month-old Sweetener. By the evidence of these two songs, Thank U, Next the album will be a heel turn compared with its predecessor—snarkier and flossier.
It’s a lyric about flossing (in the pre–Backpack Kid sense of the term) that gives the song its title: “Wearing a ring, but ain’t gon’ be no ‘Mrs.’/ Bought matching diamonds for six of my bitches/ I’d rather spoil all my friends with my riches.” Notwithstanding the explicit term for Ariana’s girlfriends, the titular jewelry Grande bought for her squad is meant as a pro-sisterhood gesture, and that extends to the songwriting: Four of these half-dozen besties also co-wrote “7 Rings” with Grande—including Victoria Monét and Tayla Parx, her co-writers on “Thank U, Next.” And like that predecessor single, in which Grande announced she was shifting from dating famous dudes to being with herself, “7 Rings” is meant to equate self-love with feminism. But the song’s actual raison d’etre is elevating conspicuous consumerism to feminism: “I bought a crib just for the closet”; “My receipts be lookin’ like phone numbers”; “Whoever said money can’t solve your problems/ Must not have had enough money to solve ’em.”
If the cadence of some of these lines sounds familiar, that’s because Grande delivers them to the melody of a show-tunes warhorse, The Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things.” Such melody borrowing is long established as legally protected, and so “7 Rings” has given Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, amazingly, their first No. 1 as songwriters since the Hot 100 was founded in 1958. For me, Ariana’s biting of “Favorite” is the song’s wittiest move—like Halsey’s much briefer interpolation of Justin Timberlake on the recent No. 1 “Without Me,” Grande’s allusion is meant to be dead-obvious and playful, invoking memories of a well-known pop standard and recontextualizing it for the age of Louboutins.
But Rodgers and Hammerstein are fully credited as songwriters on “7 Rings”—what about rappers Soulja Boy, 2 Chainz, and Princess Nokia? All three have complained publicly about the Ariana song stealing the triplets-with-pauses cadence of their hits—2010’s “Pretty Boy Swag,” 2011’s “Spend It,” and 2016’s “Mine,” respectively. When Grande shifts from verse to chorus, she essentially starts sing-rapping à la Beyoncé, and her “I want it/ I got it/ I want it/ I got it” directly invokes Soulja’s “Swag” flow and all but jacks the lyrics of Chainz’s chorus. (“It’s mine/ I spend it/ It’s mine/ I spend it.”) The legal protections of rhythm and lyrical cadence are perpetual gray areas in copyright—this decade, in fairly blurry scenarios, both the atmosphere of a song and the bounce of a chorus have endured legal scrutiny—but what’s more damning about Grande’s song is the combination of cadence and making-it-rain lyrical theme. (Cleverly, Team Grande has mollified at least one of these wronged parties by bringing him into the tent: 2 Chainz is on the song’s newest remix, which should also help keep the song atop the charts.) Perhaps most violated was Princess Nokia, whose “Mine” not only has its own version of the Soulja “Swag” flow but a racially specific subject that Grande bites in her lyric, “You like/ my hair?/ Gee, thanks/ Just bought it.” Nokia’s “Mine,” with its titular refrain “It’s mine—I bought it,” is entirely about the purchase of hair extensions and the efficacy of a good weave—a charged topic for black women (Nokia is a mixed-race woman of Puerto Rican descent) that Grande ticks off in her catalog of high-life acquisitions. It’s enough to make you wonder whether another “7 Rings” line, “Black card is my business card,” isn’t simply a reference to Ariana’s method of payment.
It’s been quite a decade for white pop stars fronting like black women, from the notoriously blaccented Meghan Trainor to the twerking Miley Cyrus to the very career of Iggy Azalea. Of course, the entire history of rock ’n’ roll is one of appropriation and assimilation, and in our late-2010s hip-hop–centric era, especially, where pop stars are throwing down like rappers to get over on the radio, it’s clearly tempting for white acts like Grande to make like Destiny’s Child two decades ago and infuse their big-lunged pop with hip-hop flow. On the other hand, as a pop act, Grande scores much larger sales and airplay, and stronger chart performance, than almost any of the artists of color whose moves she’s jacking.
Her “7 Rings” video even feints at Asian culture, leading off with Japanese kanji characters that stirred another wave of outrage. Grande has not handled this pushback all that well. When the pop star tried last week to get a tattoo of the song’s title in Japanese on her wrist, to match the video’s opening title, she mangled it, branding her skin with words best translated as “small charcoal grill.” (Even when she “fixed” it, it was by making the tattoo read something closer to, as Kotaku pointed out, “small charcoal grill, finger *heart*.”) Together, these controversies have given the sense that she is using the fruits of her success to go on a shopping spree through others’ cultures.
This, however, is where Grande’s bop-ness merges with her Imperialness (to say nothing of her whiteness). On last year’s Sweetener, Grande was similarly perky and proud. In fact, in interviews leading up to that universally acclaimed 2018 album, Grande nicely and perhaps inadvertently contrasted the modern idea of “a bop” with her larger goals on the album: “OK … issa bop—but issa message. Issa bop but also has chunks of my soul in it.” (The fact that Grande persists in using the common hip-hop slang “issa” is itself telling.) To Grande’s credit, on Sweetener tracks like “Successful,” her solipsism felt like self-actualization: “Yeah, it feels so good to be so young and have this fun and be successful—I’m so successful.” That song, like many on the album, was certainly boppy. But “7 Rings” is closer to a bop: unabashedly insubstantial, gaudily acquisitive, carefree.
In the two-plus weeks since the song landed and became the internet’s fetish object, even the sharpest evaluations seem to conclude that a bop serves as a cultural hall pass. Lauren Michele Jackson’s brilliant deep dive on “7 Rings” for Vulture is upbeat (“At least the song is good and fun”), but in her conclusion she cleverly deploys the phrase “appropriation bop,” a term she implies may be redundant. (“Aren’t they all?”) Jackson argues that Grande’s song is coming from a place of intimate knowledge and affection, made with a number of collaborators, many of them black. (This all sets aside the matter that her knowledge of Japanese, at least, is not so fluent.) But the song also wants the materialistic shine rappers have been flaunting for years, with Grande choosing to spend her Imperial capital by unapologetically flossing and playacting like an arriviste rapper. And because “7 Rings” is not only conspicuously covetous but “a bop,” we’re all letting Grande skate by with a piece of this narrative.
In an oft-quoted passage from a late 2018 Billboard interview, in which Grande accepted the magazine’s Woman of the Year prize, she summarized her career battle plan in a way that seemed coldly tactical but was actually fairly profound: “My dream has always been to be—obviously, not a rapper, but, like, to put out music in the way that a rapper does. I feel like there are certain standards that pop women are held to that men aren’t. … It’s just like, ‘Bruh, I just want to fucking talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do.’ ” This is a quietly stirring quote, but what it portended is not a soul-baring artistic statement but, for better and worse, “7 Rings.” It might not be inspiring, exactly, but it’s the story Ariana wanted to tell. Enjoy it—it’s a bop.