On her new No. 1, she goes on a shopping spree through other cultures. Some of her purchases are less thoughtful.
Writing about popular music is lousy with obnoxious words. Indeed, there are so many—jangly, crunchy, seminal—that there is a whole book of them (and shamefully, I have used my share). Making things more complicated, much of this language is also subject to a generational divide—words coined by the young are understood to be off-limits to older writers. This fortysomething has been told by his soon-to-be stepchildren, in no uncertain terms, that he is never, ever to say something is “lit.” (Roger that, kids.)
But there is one musical term that has cropped up in post-millennial parlance that, at the risk of deepening both my fuddy and my duddy, I must dissect. Because, best as I can tell, it both describes and explains America’s latest chart-topping hit. That word is bop. Let me be more specific, since on its own this word is decades, perhaps centuries, old and has been used to describe music since before rock ’n’ roll. I mean the term as preceded by the indefinite article, as in: Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” is a bop.
Look up bop on Urban Dictionary or any other site that aims to define slang and you will be informed that it’s a pithy synonym for a catchy song: Until recently, we might have simply said “a jam.” Yes, the word has been around for decades, from jazz’s bebop and hard bop to Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” (a whole other category of “bop,” by the way). But in the late ’10s, the word—really, two-word phrase—has taken on a patina of devil-may-care, F-the-haters enjoyment: A bop embraces cheesiness, is artificial and likes it, lets you be you. It might also forgive a multitude of perceived or actual sins, from crassly materialistic lyrics to thoughtless cultural appropriation. Ariana Grande has herself used “a bop” to describe her music, often in passing. But her latest smash might be—by all of the above measures—the ultimate “bop.”
It’s a lyric about flossing (in the pre–Backpack Kid sense of the term) that gives the song its title: “Wearing a ring, but ain’t gon’ be no ‘Mrs.’/ Bought matching diamonds for six of my bitches/ I’d rather spoil all my friends with my riches.” Notwithstanding the explicit term for Ariana’s girlfriends, the titular jewelry Grande bought for her squad is meant as a pro-sisterhood gesture, and that extends to the songwriting: Four of these half-dozen besties also co-wrote “7 Rings” with Grande—including Victoria Monét and Tayla Parx, her co-writers on “Thank U, Next.” And like that predecessor single, in which Grande announced she was shifting from dating famous dudes to being with herself, “7 Rings” is meant to equate self-love with feminism. But the song’s actual raison d’etre is elevating conspicuous consumerism to feminism: “I bought a crib just for the closet”; “My receipts be lookin’ like phone numbers”; “Whoever said money can’t solve your problems/ Must not have had enough money to solve ’em.”
But Rodgers and Hammerstein are fully credited as songwriters on “7 Rings”—what about rappers Soulja Boy, 2 Chainz, and Princess Nokia? All three have complained publicly about the Ariana song stealing the triplets-with-pauses cadence of their hits—2010’s “Pretty Boy Swag,” 2011’s “Spend It,” and 2016’s “Mine,” respectively. When Grande shifts from verse to chorus, she essentially starts sing-rapping à la Beyoncé, and her “I want it/ I got it/ I want it/ I got it” directly invokes Soulja’s “Swag” flow and all but jacks the lyrics of Chainz’s chorus. (“It’s mine/ I spend it/ It’s mine/ I spend it.”) The legal protections of rhythm and lyrical cadence are perpetual gray areas in copyright—this decade, in fairly blurry scenarios, both the atmosphere of a song and the bounce of a chorus have endured legal scrutiny—but what’s more damning about Grande’s song is the combination of cadence and making-it-rain lyrical theme. (Cleverly, Team Grande has mollified at least one of these wronged parties by bringing him into the tent: 2 Chainz is on the song’s newest remix, which should also help keep the song atop the charts.) Perhaps most violated was Princess Nokia, whose “Mine” not only has its own version of the Soulja “Swag” flow but a racially specific subject that Grande bites in her lyric, “You like/ my hair?/ Gee, thanks/ Just bought it.” Nokia’s “Mine,” with its titular refrain “It’s mine—I bought it,” is entirely about the purchase of hair extensions and the efficacy of a good weave—a charged topic for black women (Nokia is a mixed-race woman of Puerto Rican descent) that Grande ticks off in her catalog of high-life acquisitions. It’s enough to make you wonder whether another “7 Rings” line, “Black card is my business card,” isn’t simply a reference to Ariana’s method of payment.
Her “7 Rings” video even feints at Asian culture, leading off with Japanese kanji characters that stirred another wave of outrage. Grande has not handled this pushback all that well. When the pop star tried last week to get a tattoo of the song’s title in Japanese on her wrist, to match the video’s opening title, she mangled it, branding her skin with words best translated as “small charcoal grill.” (Even when she “fixed” it, it was by making the tattoo read something closer to, as Kotaku pointed out, “small charcoal grill, finger *heart*.”) Together, these controversies have given the sense that she is using the fruits of her success to go on a shopping spree through others’ cultures.
In the two-plus weeks since the song landed and became the internet’s fetish object, even the sharpest evaluations seem to conclude that a bop serves as a cultural hall pass. Lauren Michele Jackson’s brilliant deep dive on “7 Rings” for Vulture is upbeat (“At least the song is good and fun”), but in her conclusion she cleverly deploys the phrase “appropriation bop,” a term she implies may be redundant. (“Aren’t they all?”) Jackson argues that Grande’s song is coming from a place of intimate knowledge and affection, made with a number of collaborators, many of them black. (This all sets aside the matter that her knowledge of Japanese, at least, is not so fluent.) But the song also wants the materialistic shine rappers have been flaunting for years, with Grande choosing to spend her Imperial capital by unapologetically flossing and playacting like an arriviste rapper. And because “7 Rings” is not only conspicuously covetous but “a bop,” we’re all letting Grande skate by with a piece of this narrative.