Relationships

Least This Song Is a Smash

In “Thank U, Next,” Ariana Grande names names—and subtly rejects her reputation for tabloid drama.

Ariana Grande throwing up a peace sign.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for iHeartMedia.

When Ariana Grande went on a subtweet bender last week, fans instantly responded to one particular phrase: “thank u, next.” It was “a mood.” It needed to be made into merch. It was everything.

Grande had been moved to tweet because of her annoyance that ex-fiancé Pete Davidson had alluded to their breakup in promos for Saturday Night Live. “Thank u, next” was Grande’s polite-but-firm way of saying she was done talking about Davidson, that that she was moving on now. Grande is well-practiced at deleting things on Twitter (remember the tweet that started the BDE craze? It’s gone now of course) and has since removed the tweets, but it wasn’t long, seemingly, before she had an idea. “Thank u, next” was too good to be some quip she tweeted once; instead, Grande set about transforming it into higher art. By Saturday night—just a half-hour before a certain TV show airs—Grande released a new single, called, naturally, “Thank U, Next.”

Though its no-warning timing suggests a diss track, that’s not really what “Thank U, Next” is. Contrary to the phrase’s original brusqueness, the song’s primary theme is gratitude: As the foundation of the chorus goes, “I’m so fucking grateful for my ex.” At the same time, the song is still dishy in that it doesn’t shy away from naming names. In fact, it starts out by naming four:

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

Sean, Ricky, Pete, and Malcolm refer to Grande’s well-known exes: Big Sean; Ricky Alvarez, a dancer; Davidson; and rapper Mac Miller, whose death earlier this year came in the midst of Grande’s already high-profile engagement to Davidson.

Grande goes on to drop a blind item, or three of them, in the next verse: “One taught me love/ One taught me patience/ And one taught me pain.” These aren’t lurid details, and their purpose isn’t to roast anyone, as a real diss track might—though of course they also allow for a little harmless speculation: “Pain” sounds like an obvious nod to Miller, but couldn’t he have taught her love, too? How come only one taught her love? Which of those guys was “patient”? And which wasn’t worth mentioning?

If Grande has earned a reputation as a serial dater who’s always embroiled in relationship drama, these lyrics contribute to the song’s larger project of subtly reframing her current situation: It’s not “drama”; it’s a young woman’s personal journey of discovery. Grande knows her engagement and the death of her ex made her more famous than ever, which, for a woman, means she risks being swallowed by her tabloid reputation. This is the best way to regain control of that narrative. The single’s album art underscores how this is a response not just to her relationships themselves but to the media frenzies surrounding them: It features the text “thank u, next” in the style of headlines from various publications, standing in for the scores of news outlets that follow Grande’s every move—and if that reminds you of the artwork for Taylor Swift’s Reputation, that shouldn’t be a surprise.

Taylor Swift is an important touchstone for this conversation, because so much of her most recent two albums concerned her public image. “Blank Space” most directly confronts her reputation as, shall we say, someone who has had a lot of boyfriends, not incidentally the same perception Grande is fighting. In that song, her lyrics are less literal, painting a picture of a woman who’s a man-eater without naming any of the real men or discussing what she learned from their relationships; it’s more about embodying a femme fatale character. But as with “Thank U, Next,” the sly self-awareness itself deconstructs her tabloid image, pointing out that she’s not the “nightmare dressed like a daydream” that’s become her caricature.

A cynical person might question how Grande, in the span of a few days, transformed from petty, subtweeting ex to wise, reflective, highly evolved being. But her actual emotional state is impossible to assess, and it almost doesn’t matter, nor does the song’s admittedly corny climax that Grande has met someone else: herself. (“I know they say I move on too fast/ But this one gon’ last/ ‘Cause her name is Ari/ And I’m so good with that.”) For one thing, “Thank U, Next” is a fun listen, which perhaps is all it needs to be. But where fans are concerned, it also gives them a sympathetic narrative to buy into, one that stays true to their vision of Grande as a “nice” pop star who rules over her kingdom with kindness. And to the rest of the world, the meta-message of the song is that Grande won. She spun her messy life into a hit, despite everything. As one line in “Thank U, Next” goes, “God forbid something happens/ Least this song is a smash.”