Ariana Grande, ‘thank u, next’, and the Comfort of Nostalgia
Since premiering on YouTube last Friday, the music video for Ariana Grande’s latest song, thank u, next has racked up close to 89 million views, as of the writing of this piece. These numbers can be added to the 44 million views the video of the audio itself received, and that doesn’t count the minor Grande ecosystem that has sprung up on the site, from reaction videos to parodies to cover versions. The video itself, directed by Hannah Lux Davis, is a veritable meme machine as well as a carefully manicured nostalgia trip through the rom-coms of the late 1990s and early 2000s that have long since secured their status as genre favourites. Following its release, the video broke the record for most-watched video in YouTube within 24 hours, officially achieving over 50.3 million views. That’s a solid 5 million more than K-Pop idols BTS and Taylor Swift’s persona-mocking juggernaut Look What You Made Me Do. If Grande’s megastar status was ever in doubt before, it’s been confirmed now in the most undisputable terms possible.
Grande has had a very busy year. For someone who has been in the public eye since she was a teenager, it seems that she’s never been more visible than she was over the past several months. Her album, Sweetener, was released to strong sales and reviews. It features some of her best pop work, including the truly gorgeous number No Tears Left To Cry, but it would be naive to assume she was big in 2018 on music alone. Following the devastating terrorist attack that happened at one of her concerts in Manchester, Grande emerged as a fierce advocate for the victims of the bombing and mounted a fundraising concert that saw her take centre stage as both an idol and a representative of communal pain. Even if you weren’t a fan of Grande’s music or the acts that performed at One Love Manchester, it was tough not to be emotionally won over by the experience. As a former child star who has faced incredible tragedy and remained a punching bag for misogynist creeps everywhere, it’s so very easy to root for Grande, especially as she has matured over the years and revealed herself to be a charismatic figure with immense industry savvy.
When Grande’s personal life came to the forefront this Summer, from the flash-in-the-pain engagement to Pete Davidson to the death of her former boyfriend Mac Miller, the emotional attachment many suddenly felt to Grande only increased. Sure, the romance with Davidson had seemed so very extra in the most millennial way possible, but it still enthralled plenty of us. It was a public spectacle that couldn’t have been more 2018 if it tried: The tattoos! The Instagram comments! Pete Davidson saying their engagement was ‘f—cking lit’ on Jimmy Fallon! All that and she named a song after him (one that’s pretty good too). We all knew it would end badly but the ride itself was enough and you still not so secretly hoped it would work out.
Both Davidson and Grande are aware that when you had a romance that public, one that deliberately appealed to the press, it’s hard to go back to privacy once it ends. Davidson has mocked it seemingly every week on SNL since the split, but Grande took it to a whole new level with thank u, next.
Smartly, thank u, next is not a typical break-up song. It’s melancholy but ultimately ‘fuckin’ grateful’ to the men who Grande has had her most defining romances with (Miller is not mentioned for obvious reasons). It’s a growth song, one with longing but nothing that you’d want to wail into a pillow while nursing your red wine. Crucially, it’s a song about nostalgia, so of course its video needed to play to that.
In a year where the rom-com finally got its dues thanks to films like Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve loved Before, Grande making a giddy ode to the genre and the films millennial women love so much was a cherry on top of the glowing pink cake. Grande plays Regina George in a Mean Girls homage, is the head cheerleader for Bring It On, has her heartbreak moment as Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30, then heads off to Harvard Elle Woods style with Legally Blonde. There are minor celebrity cameos, including some of the stars of the original movies like Jennifer Coolidge, but the attention is all on Grande. She is the stand-in for every rom-com heroine who had her heart broken, picked herself up and got on with her life as a much stronger woman. Rom-coms are frequently talked about in reductive terms, with some critics claiming the genre is just cheap self-insert fantasy fodder for young women. Even if they were all made for that explicit purpose, that’s not a bad thing, and Grande owns it. Who can deny the allure of looking gorgeous, dressing well and have the jagged emotions of your psyche be packaged in easy to swallow little pills? All that and you get to do the bend and snap? What’s not to love? Crucially, the video does not end with Grande being swept off her feet by a new beau. This is primarily a woman-centric video for a reason.
Nostalgia is a tricky thing to parse. Professor Svetlana Boym wrote of the two main kinds of nostalgia: Restorative and reflective. As described by Boym, ‘Restorative nostalgia stresses nóstos (home) and attempts a transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home. Reflective nostalgia thrives in álgos, the longing itself, and delays the homecoming—wistfully, ironically, desperately.’ In other words, restorative nostalgia is the kind of thing that yearns for ‘the good old days’, regardless of their veracity, while reflective nostalgia offers a little more scrutiny. Think of the ways that Green Book has been written about and how they seem to hunger for the past when, as seen through the eyes of white people, racism was ‘simpler’ (thanks, David Edelstein). Boyn notes further how reflective nostalgia doesn’t take itself as seriously as restorative nostalgia. It can poke fun at itself and note its inherently ludicrous nature.
thank u, next presents an interesting mix of reflective and restorative. It’s all clearly too silly to be taken with a straight face, but there’s little in the video that could be considered truly transformative of the material. These are recreations, and pretty spot-on ones at that, but not much else. It’s cosplay with a serious budget. What does it offer beyond that? Is it even supposed to do more than just remind you that Legally Blonde is a great movie?
It’s not a statement: It’s a meme, and that’s the point. Grande is shrewd. She’s a celebrity of the social media generation, one whose fans are typically younger women who are well versed in the vernacular of the internet that leaves the rest of us feeling oh so very old. How many times did you see the ‘one taught me love, one taught me patience, one taught me pain’ meme play out on Twitter this past month? The same thing is already happening with the video: From Kris Jenner in Cool Mom mode to the re-invented Bend and Snap to Grande’s Burn Book. You’ll be seeing meme material from this video for a long time. Tumblr will never let you escape.
In that sense, Grande’s objective is complete. She made a public reinvention after immense tragedy, played the celebrity game with her dramatic romance, then brought the focus back to the music with something so showy and comforting that was impossible to ignore. Grande has placed herself in a celebrity narrative that is both utterly of its time and harkening back to a ‘simpler’ era of pop culture.
So what’s next?
Header Image Source: YouTube