SlateWhy Is This Song No. 1?

America’s No. 1 Song Is a Masterclass in Turning Backlash Into Jet Fuel

“We Can’t Be Friends” is a master class in how to ride backlash all the way to No. 1.

In the summer of 1997, Swedish songwriter and producer Max Martin scored his first Top 10 hit in America with a song co-written and fronted by a fellow Swede, a teenager who performed under the mononym Robyn. For a few months, Robyn was very successful, scaling Billboard’s Hot 100 with the back-to-back Martin-co-written singles “Do You Know (What It Takes)” and “Show Me Love,” each of which peaked at No. 7. By the early 2000s, Martin had emerged as pop’s premier hitmaker, turning out even bigger hits for Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, and NSYNC. But Robyn, chafing under the Swedish hit factory’s constraints and with no hard feelings toward Martin, bought out her teen-signed contract and, in 2005, became an independent artist. In the two decades since, Robyn has emerged as one of the great indie-pop acts of the 21st century, churning out pulsating, heartrending classics like “Be Mine,” “Call Your Girlfriend,” and her consensus masterpiece, 2010’s throbbing “Dancing on My Own.”

And Martin? Over those same two decades, he just kept piling up American hits—more No. 1s after 2005, in fact, than he scored in millennial teen pop’s heyday, for the likes of Katy Perry, Pink, Taylor Swift, and the Weeknd. Now, in 2024, the man born Karl Martin Sandberg has finally beaten the chart records of two of the big guns of pop history: songwriter John Lennon and Beatles producer Sir George Martin (no relation). Max topped Sir George back in January when he scored his 24th Hot 100 No. 1 as a producer. Now, in March, he has landed his 27th as a songwriter, toppling Lennon. (Only Paul McCartney, who has penned 32 chart-toppers, stands in Max Martin’s way.)

Those two Max-penned-and-produced 2024 hits were both performed by Ariana Grande. And the one sitting at No. 1 on the Hot 100 this week sounds an awful lot like Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.”

“We Can’t Be Friends (Wait for Your Love)” is the second single from Grande’s seventh album Eternal Sunshine. (Does that title sound familiar? Film fans, hold that thought.) It’s Grande’s second consecutive single produced and co-written by her longtime collaborator Martin—the LP’s first single “Yes, And?” was released two months ahead of the album and also topped the Hot 100. In fact, both singles debuted at No. 1. Grande is uncannily good at front-loading her hits. Seven of her chart-toppers opened in the top slot, second only to Drake (who has debuted at No. 1 with nine of his hits) and more than Taylor Swift (six).

Thanks to the release of Eternal Sunshine, which debuts at No. 1 on the album chart with heavy streaming numbers, not only does “We Can’t Be Friends” shoot to No. 1, “Yes, And?” bounces back into the Hot 100’s Top 10, giving Grande two simultaneous hits in the winners’ circle. Both singles are bright, up-tempo dance-pop earworms with the sort of satisfyingly symmetrical “melodic math” for which Max Martin is famous. But the reason both songs opened big is all Grande. In the past half-decade—since she scored her first Hot 100 No. 1, “Thank U, Next,” in the closing weeks of 2018—Grande has marshaled gossipy fans’ parasocial tendencies better than almost any pop artist besides Swift. She owns, deconstructs, then weaponizes her own narrative.

Let’s focus on Grande’s current single first, even though both hits are, in a way, part of the same narrative. Musically, “We Can’t Be Friends” is what you might call a pensive bop. Its techno-pop beats burble more than slam. Grande, famously possessed of a rafter-raising “Baby Mariah” voice, uses her supple instrument to convey wistfulness and interiority rather than abandon. Indeed, if there’s a difference between this single and Robyn’s also pensive “Dancing on My Own,” it’s in delivery: Robyn’s track comes on strong, sweeping the listener up into a fists-up dancefloor anthem, while Grande’s “Friends” encourages you to lean in.

The techno-pop sheen of “Friends” underpins its vulnerable lyrics. The only question is whom those lyrics are addressing. Several lines scan as plaints to a former lover Grande is trying to move on from: “I didn’t think you’d understand me. How could you ever even try?” Or, “I don’t wanna argue, but I don’t wanna bite my tongue. Yeah, I think I’d rather die.” Given Grande’s recent divorce from her pandemic-era husband Dalton Gomez—the million-dollar split was literally finalized just this week—it makes sense she’d be in her feelings right now. The music video doubles down on this heartfelt interpretation: Making good on the new album’s title, it’s a remix of the plot of the 2004 Michel Gondry film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The Jim Carrey–Kate Winslet romantic drama offered a futuristic sci-fi solution to heartbreak: a brain-altering procedure that allows lab patients to move past a breakup by wiping all memories of the relationship. In Grande’s “We Can’t Be Friends” video, she plays a version of herself named Peaches in a chilly lab, and the clip re-creates the movie’s devastating memory-erasing scenes, as moments with Peaches’ ex-boyfriend (played by actor Evan Peters) literally go poof (including a nod to the film’s snow-angels sequence and a tabletop birthday-cake scene Grande borrows from Sixteen Candles). Set against the video, the song seems all about Grande innocently, bravely, and perhaps futilely trying to purge her most recent betrothal.

But a closer read of “We Can’t Be Friends” indicates Grande is addressing her fame and the public narrative around the split, more than her own heartbreak. And the “you” is probably … well, us: “Know that you made me—I don’t like how you paint me, yet I’m still here hanging.” She claps back at haters with, “You got me misunderstood, but at least I look this good.” The line, “You cling to your papers and pens” seems directed squarely at tabloid scribes and obsessive fans, whose fickle affections she is left pleading for in the chorus refrain, “I wait for your love.” Most pointedly, she claims: “I don’t wanna feed this monstrous fire—just wanna let this story die.”

The story Grande says she wants to let die … sigh. Do I really need to get into it? Last summer, Slate’s own Heather Schwedel did an expert job breaking down the drama, but here’s the short version: For the past year-plus, Grande has been shooting her first starring movie role as good witch Glinda in the two-part film adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical Wicked. While on the set, Grande reportedly began a romance with her co-star Ethan Slater, a theater-trained actor who previously starred as the title character of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Besides prompting online chatter over whether the conventionally attractive Grande was slumming it with the attractively goofy Slater, the hottest tea concerned the fact that Slater was, until very recently, married with a newborn child. Slater only filed for divorce last summer, after the romance allegedly began with Grande, prompting raging online speculation about infidelity, with added fuel coming from Slater’s own ex, Lilly Jay.

As a chart nerd who just wants to write about No. 1 hits, I do not relish wading into this conflama but would be derelict in my duty if I didn’t. The conflama is the subtext of “We Can’t Be Friends,” and it’s the text of “Yes, And?” For just a moment, we need to zap back to that January single, a full-blown eff-the-haters rant, slipped into the Trojan horse of a ’90s-style club jam. An homage to two No. 1 hits from the turn of the ’90s—the pop-house piano rhythm of Madonna’s 1990 classic “Vogue,” and a video directly emulating Paula Abdul’s 1989 clip “Cold Hearted,” with skeptical critics watching a horny dance-studio group grope—“Yes, And?” can’t be mistaken for anything romantic or even breakup-related. Sure, its chorus reads as a self-empowerment anthem: “Just turn on your light and be like, ‘Yes, and?’ Say that shit with your chest, and … be your own fuckin’ best friend.” But the verses are consumed with Grande’s public image in the wake of the Ethan Slater contretemps: At one point Grande even snarls, “Your business is yours and mine is mine—why do you care so much whose —— I ride?” (Grande doesn’t sing the word, despite the song’s plentiful other curse words. Some of her most vicious thoughts are too spicy even for her!) Lest you have any doubts about the theme of “Yes, And?” the music video’s framing scenes, of journalists and bloggers gossiping about her while being herded into her dance performance and being struck dumb, makes the point forehead-smackingly obvious.

Of course, the irony of not only recording these songs but making them singles is Grande is doing everything but letting these stories die. But, to give her credit for her intentionality, Grande knows such tea-spilling and flame-stoking is part of her job description as a social media–era hitmaker, an object of stan fascination, a contender for Main Pop Girl.

That said, a pot-stirring single can get you a big opening week, but it doesn’t guarantee the more casual pop listener will give a rat’s ass. I have written before in this Slate series about what I call “statement singles,” tracks like the Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice,” Britney Spears’ “Piece of Me,” or Ye’s “Runaway” that are consumed with the artist’s own controversies and blow up briefly but then recede. They are rarely lasting hits. A major example over the past decade was Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” which opened to record-breaking downloads and streams, soared to No. 1 almost instantly, then deflated at radio and YouTube rapidly as casual listeners grew tired of the song’s anti-gossipmongers and anti-Ye concept. This is basically what happened to “Yes, And?” It exploded on impact, debuting at No. 1 two months ago, then plummeted, tumbling as low as No. 31 on the Hot 100 (this week’s album-fueled streaming comeback is probably temporary), all while never really catching on at all in radio. It seems that the only people truly interested in dissing Grande’s haters were Grande stans and Grande.

However, when done right—as Grande herself did with the more universally relatable but still sassy “Thank U, Next” back in 2018—a veiled statement single can endure, and the dual-level “We Can’t Be Friends” might just pull off that trick. The “Friends” video is genuinely moving and, again, (mis)directs the viewer away from the media-fueled “Leave Ariana alone!” message and toward the heartbreak narrative, which is a legitimate way to hear the song. “Friends” opened to bigger first-week streams than “Yes, And?” did (32.6 million vs. 27.2 million, respectively), suggesting listeners not only gave “Friends” a curiosity spin but put it into their regular rotations. Reviews of the Eternal Sunshine album are uniformly strong, citing “We Can’t Be Friends” as a standout. Billboard’s own reporters and chart analysts are already declaring that, after “Yes, And?” experienced its launchpad implosion, “We Can’t Be Friends” helped Eternal Sunshine achieve liftoff, with “Friends” looking like it could have a brighter future at radio. In 2024, maybe imitation “Vogue” just isn’t as alluring as imitation “Dancing on My Own.”

Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have Max Martin in your corner. Martin and Grande have been working together off and on (mostly on) for a decade now, since her 2014 sophomore album My Everything and its summer ’14 No. 2 banger “Problem.” Grande veered away from Martin a bit on her most recent LPs—on 2019’s Thank U, Next, he had no input on the biggest singles (the title track and “7 Rings”), and on 2020’s Positions, she did not avail herself of Martin or his team at all. Martin, despite his love of American R&B, specializes in mass-appeal pop, and Grande’s turn toward rap-adjacent trap pop left less room for the Martin approach. But after a long break to shoot Wicked, Grande needed surefire collaborators—Eternal Sunshine is her first album in nearly four years, easily the longest gap of her career—and Martin and his longtime Swedish deputy Ilya Salmanzadeh, co-writers of such prior Grande hits as “Into You” and “No Tears Left to Cry” (plus Salmanzadeh co-wrote her Christmas perennial “Santa Tell Me”), must’ve felt like the ultimate insurance policy to get Grande back on the charts. The bonus for Martin: two more No. 1s to add to his shelf, putting him ahead of all those Beatle-related records.

Perhaps Martin’s most underrated skill? Despite his non-native English and his infamous disinterest in lyrical logic, he can help Main Pop Girls channel their narratives with the best of them. Famously, when Martin began working with Taylor Swift a dozen years ago, he encouraged the already prolific and self-revealing songwriter to express her snarkiest romantic feelings even more openly. The result was “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Swift’s first No. 1 on the Hot 100, and the pair soon returned to the top with “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space,” and “Bad Blood.”  Similarly, the rejoining of Ariana Grande and Max Martin would not have worked if Martin couldn’t credibly turn Grande’s own relationship woes and media snark into catchy pop. On “Yes, And?” he helped Grande get something out of her system. On “We Can’t Be Friends,” he steered her toward something just as barbed but more enduring.

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