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The Student News Site of Loyola University Maryland

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Ariana Grande challenges one-dimensional female experience through vulnerability on new hit album “thank u, next”


On Friday, Feb. 8, pop sensation Ariana Grande shocked the music industry with her second full-length album released within the same six-month period. With the explosion of the title track, “thank u, next,” which dropped as a single last November, the album was sure to be a hit. The song, which was released without any prior promotion, climbed the charts instantaneously, while its music video broke the YouTube record for most-watched music video in 24 hours with approximately 55.4 million views.

Grande’s musical success is a surprise to no one, but the record “thank u, next” exceeds many of its listeners’ expectations. Its diverse musicality, meaningful lyrics, impressive vocals, and empowering messages make for a cohesive work that tells a story: a girl who, in the face of various traumas, has found a way to grapple with the events from her past, turn inward, and find her true self in the midst of a life so heavily surveilled by the public.

Whether a famous music icon or not, every woman is constantly scrutinized for how she acts, talks, and dresses. A hint of sexuality makes her a so-called whore, while complete lack of this labels her as a Christian virgin figure. A spat with another woman warrants the label of a bitch, while being generally unproblematic is seen as being fake. No matter what script she follows, she is always pushed up against a wall and labeled with one extreme after the next.

Even in the wake of ex-boyfriend and esteemed rapper Mac Miller’s sudden death last September, Grande received extreme heat for the range of emotionality she displayed. When photographed out and about shortly after Miller’s death, the pop star was accused of not caring enough about his passing. On the other hand, when Grande posted about him on her social media accounts, she faced extreme criticism for dragging out his death for sympathy.

Grande is no stranger to this constant judgment and trying to find a middle ground between these identities proved difficult for most of her career. In her 2012 debut single, “Put Your Hearts Up,” and her 2013 album, “Yours Truly,” Grande tried her best to ease her way out of  the teeny-bopper image that was constructed by her time on the Nickelodeon show “Victorious.” Hits like “Baby I” and “The Way” were romantic in nature but left enough to the listener’s imagination that Grande was still the girl many of us had grown up watching.

As time has gone on, Grande has stepped more fully into topics of female sexuality, and the unapologetically explicit nature of her songs are proof of this. From “Bang Bang” feat. Jessie J and Nicki Minaj and “Love Me Harder” feat. The Weeknd from the 2014 album “My Everything” to “Dangerous Woman”’s “Side to Side” feat. Minaj and “Greedy,” which were released in 2016, there was no stopping the sexually-liberated and brave new Grande. She began to paint a different image of herself–one that was practically unrecognizable to the girl she was just a few years before.

What makes “thank u, next” such a refreshing listen is Grande’s ability to reconcile these different parts of herself, allowing them to coexist with one another in the same album more distinctly than ever before. Though the aforementioned sexy hits were coupled with heartfelt melodies like “My Everything” and “Thinking ‘Bout You,” the contrasts in this new album welcome us into untapped parts of Grande’s emotions that we hadn’t seen before.

While songs like “bloodline” and “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” speak to more superficial attractions and encounters, “imagine” muses on an alternate reality with a longtime beau away from the limelight. After years of hiding behind rather rigid characters, Grande has finally proven that the virgin and the whore can, in fact, be the same person.

Perhaps most importantly, Grande includes a number of songs that show critical thought regarding love and relationships, which are complete departures from her typical break-up ballads or head-over-heels-in-love bops. Grande recognizes her unhealthy desire to be needed by another person in “needy,” she explores the healthy role that both space and self-discovery play in relationships in “NASA,” and she comes to the realization that it is never her job to save someone in “in my head.”

Even empowering jams that we are used to getting from Grande in the wake of “God is a Woman” have a more internal and personal element on this record. Both “thank u, next” and “7 rings” highlight the importance of self-love and friendship in the midst of heartbreak and life in general.

After Miller’s death, fans waited with bated breath for a song commemorating her two-year lover. A one-line mention in “thank u, next” left much to be desired, but Grande delivers with “ghostin.” In it, Grande sings honestly about the grief she endured following Miller’s death and how it took a toll on her relationship at the time, giving her listeners insight into the messiness of love and death and how she grappled with it.

This inward turn and the work that Grande is putting toward her healing process may come as a surprise for some, but the depths that “thank u, next” reach feel intentional. Grande hints at her need for serious reflection and self-prioritization in the final song of her previous album “sweetener,” which dropped in August 2018 and can, in many ways, be considered a rough draft of the more substantial and raw February record.

The chorus of “get well soon” reads, “Babe, you gotta take care of your body,/ Ain’t no time to deny it, that is why we talking about it.” Grande not only demands this self-care for herself but invites others into its practice too.

Though there are a number of things about Grande that are in fact problematic (accusations of blackface, music videos that exploit the LGBTQ+ community, and other forms of cultural appropriation), the levels of vulnerability and introspection that Grande demonstrates in this new record push many conversations surrounding love and womanhood forward. Even with these shortcomings, “thank u, next” is a successful musical collection and exploration of the self that portrays the breadth of who a woman is and can be.

Feature Image: Courtesy of Consequence of Sound.

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Ariana Grande challenges one-dimensional female experience through vulnerability on new hit album “thank u, next”