Sarah Wilson

CN: Breakups, overdose

 

One of the most confusing things about going through a break-up is that it can’t be done in a cultural vacuum. In those first few desperate and lonely weeks after the event, we grasp desperately at anything we think might help – films, articles, music – to make sense of the chaos. In return, popular culture offers us a set of rules and guidelines to govern the process of “getting over” (and it’s always exactly this turn of phrase) the breakup, reeling us in with the deceptive, tempting premise that our feelings can be neatly processed and eradicated by drinking a few glasses of wine and burning our ex-partner’s stuff. More often than not, though, these songs, films and words only make us feel worse, encouraging us to measure our “progress” and chide ourselves when we don’t feel how we think we should. Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next”, is, however, a rare and refreshing exception.

For women in particular, navigating breakups is a minefield of these messages, which tell us exactly what we should be doing and feeling at any one time. Once, the prevailing logic was that women (especially those in heterosexual relationships) are the vulnerable party and thus, in the event of a breakup, the natural victims. This assumption has spawned a whole set of post-breakup rituals that largely revolve around crying and pining over the ex partner. Whether Bridget Jones was the first to kick off the eating-ice-cream-and-drinking-wine-in-your-pjs-trope or not, it’s perhaps the most obvious example, and a scene so widely replicated that thousands of women have, in real life, have performed the same ritual in the hope of some kind of healing.

 

“Grande expresses both strength and vulnerability in ‘thank u, next'”

 

In recent years, however, popular culture has veered away from this well-worn stereotype, rejecting it – quite rightly – as sexist. Instead, the tables turned entirely, and the figure of the “warrior woman” rushed to fill the gap, bringing with her a set of expectations equally as restrictive and unrealistic. Flipping the image of a hopeless damsel in distress, the warrior woman feels only anger or indifference in the wake of her breakup, bouncing back from it almost immediately. Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter”, Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” are all good examples.

Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” could easily be passed off as falling into this category. After all, it shares lyrical similarities with “Fighter” in thanking the ex partner(s) who are the subject of the song. The crucial difference, however, is that Grande expresses both strength and vulnerability in “thank u, next”, mapping more honestly the erratic, confusing and far from straightforward emotions most of us actually feel after a breakup.

In fact, in “thank u, next”, Grande does away entirely with the maxim that lies at the heart of most other breakup songs and films, where the end-goal is always to “get over” an ex partner in the strictest of terms. In calling each of her partners by their names, Grande acknowledges the part they each played in shaping her life, rather than striving to forget about them: “one taught me love / one taught me patience”.

 

“Grande acknowledges the part they each played in shaping her life, rather than striving to forget about them”

 

Instead of posing as simply resilient or utterly devastated, Grande lets in the range of emotions and thoughts that come with a breakup, including the pain “one taught me pain” and her hope for future: “one day I’ll walk down the aisle”. She doesn’t feel any one way about it, and accepting this is what’s made her “so amazing”.

It’s a credit to Grande, who has suffered the trauma of a terrorist attack at her concert, her ex-partner Mac Miller dying of a drug overdose and the breakdown of her engagement with Pete Davidson in little over a year, that she’s been able to write a song so gracious, vulnerable and strong all at once. It offers a new playbook that very few songs, articles or films have before, admitting that breakups are a confusing, erratic mess of emotions, with no singular or right way to process them.

 

Listen to the song below:

Header image: Youtube / Ariana Grande / ‘thank u, next’

 

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