The single’s chart-topping success is the culmination of years of resilience in the face of tragedy and heartbreak.
As if Saturday Night Live hadn’t already been sucking up enough oxygen since President Donald Trump took office, 2018 may go down as the year the NBC institution set the agenda for the pop charts, too. For the second time this year, a new stand-alone single, untethered to an album and dropped with little warning late on a Saturday night—seemingly timed intentionally to coincide with a new episode of SNL—has debuted one week later at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
In the spring, Donald Glover launched “This Is America,” his alter ego Childish Gambino’s shocking, oddly catchy Afrobeat-rap polemic on race, guns, and minstrelsy, the same night he hosted the comedy showcase. The video’s multilayered imagery overtook the cultural conversation, and “America” became only the 31st song in Hot 100 history to debut at the chart summit.
This week, the 32nd song in history to debut on top of the chart—Ariana Grande’s sunny-and-shady kiss-off “Thank U, Next”—does so in similarly culture-blanketing fashion. Grande’s first-week numbers are, more or less, Glover-size: Billboard reports its streams at about 55 million, somewhat lower than Gambino’s, and dollar downloads a smidge higher than his at 81,000. As for radio, what both songs had in common was airplay too small to make the Radio Songs chart at first, but “America” eventually became a minor Top 40 radio hit, and Billboard reports “Next” is off to a faster start: 11.3 million in audience out of the gate, about 2 million higher than “America,” making Grande’s trip to No. 1 even easier than Glover’s. (Grande’s penthouse predecessor—Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You” with Cardi B, a radio-chart dominator—was weakened enough after seven weeks at No. 1 that Ariana had no trouble dispensing with it.) And much the way Glover/Gambino’s “America” was meme-ified (sometimes grotesquely) within days of its release, Grande’s ode to self-worth quickly spawned its own spate of viral gimcrackery virtually on impact.
The difference? While Grande must have had Saturday Night Live in mind when she timed her latest release, she did so not in collusion with the show but in seeming opposition. Well … opposition not to SNL itself but one cast member specifically: Weekend Update regular and non-acting actor Pete Davidson, Grande’s former fiancé.
Two weeks after the launch of “Thank U, Next,” I probably don’t have to recap for you what it’s about: the head-spinning 2018 courtship, engagement, breakup, and social media sparring (complete with deleted tweets) of the couple formerly known as Grandson. Here at Slate alone, we have already dissected “Thank U, Next” more than once. As my colleague Matthew Dessem pointed out in his day-after insta-review, “They say the best revenge is living well, but ‘they’ never had the chance to release a new single just a few minutes before their ex was on live national television.” And in our own Heather Schwedel’s fine-grained evaluation of Grande and Davidson’s media skirmish and how “Thank U, Next” flips the script, she summarizes the deft trick Grande pulled off: “Though its no-warning timing suggests a dis track … the song’s primary theme is gratitude: As the foundation of the chorus goes, ‘I’m so fucking grateful for my ex.’ At the same time, the song is still dishy in that it doesn’t shy away from naming names. In fact, it starts out by naming four.”
As a pop-chart analyst, what interests me about “Thank U, Next,” now that it goes down in Hot 100 history as a No. 1 single, is that it is—amazingly—Ariana Grande’s first, which is rather bizarre. It’s tempting to view this as a fluke, not unlike Donald Glover’s anomalous chart-topper. (Not incidentally, when Billboard rewired the charts three years ago so that each data-tracking week began on Friday, it made Saturday one of the best days to begin a run at No. 1.)
Among artists at this level of multihyphenate fame, only Drake, dominator of the 2010s musical conversation, waited longer than Grande for a chart-topper: It took him seven years before finally scoring his anticlimactic No. 1 in 2016 with “One Dance.” Grande began scoring hits in early 2013—so not quite as far back as Drake, whose major-label recording career dates to 2009—but 5½ years for her is still a sizable wait. As with Drake, who came cruelly, tantalizingly close in 2015 with the No. 2 “Hotline Bling,” some of Ariana’s lack of a chart-topper has just been timing and luck: In the summer of 2014, she made it to No. 2 with the enormous, Max Martin– and Shellback–produced “Problem,” featuring rapper Iggy Azalea, and would surely have hit the top had Azalea herself not been planted there with that year’s Song of the Summer, “Fancy.” And on the album chart, Grande has been no slouch, scoring three No. 1 albums—almost everything she has released this decade, up to and including this year’s Sweetener. (Only the third of her four albums, 2016’s Dangerous Woman, failed to reach the summit, peaking at No. 2 behind, appropriately enough, Drake’s Views.)
One wonders not only what took Grande so long to land a No. 1 song to go with all her No. 1 albums, but: Why now? Why did this song finally take Grande the last mile on the Hot 100?
It doesn’t hurt that “Thank U, Next” is not only well-crafted but sonically rich, not at all what you’d expect from something supposedly tossed off. Much of Sweetener was the handiwork of veteran producers Pharrell Williams and Max Martin, but for this standalone single, Grande turned to a tighter inner circle: longtime producer Tommy Brown plus friends and artist-producers Tayla Parx and Victoria Monét McCants. “Next” is remarkably polished for a quickie single. That’s probably because it’s the culmination of everything the singer has been doing for the past half-decade: Through the mid-’10s, Grande has served as our de facto melisma-forward pop-and-B mini-diva, in a decade that has had no other new Mariah Careys or Christina Aguileras. (Pre-’10s singers Adele and Beyoncé don’t count.) Comparisons of Ariana to Mariah started as far back as 2013, and at other times Grande has recalled the sweeter but smaller-voiced, more pop-friendly stylings of Janet Jackson. “Thank U, Next” draws on all of these antecedents but comes out someplace all its own.
A slice of fluttery pop-soul reminiscent of classic early-’80s, synth-based R&B, “Thank U, Next” plays as a lilting musical daydream (if you can ignore Grande dropping radio-unfriendly F-bombs), and the music reflects Grande’s above-it-all attitude. As analyzers of the song’s lyrics have all pointed out vis-à-vis the four exes Ariana name-checks—rapper Big Sean, dancer Ricky Alvarez, comedian Davidson, and rapper Mac Miller—Grande has apparently moved past spite toward her former paramours and sings instead from a place of wistful gratitude. The scale-descending verses and gently chanting chorus reflect that wistfulness: If the song were about 20 percent slower, it’d be Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You”—another Hot 100 chart-topper that read as a love song but was actually about something else (in Riperton’s case, a newborn baby). If you heard “Thank U, Next” on the radio knowing nothing about Grande’s romantic history, it would simply read as a quietly feisty self-love anthem, which it is.
But at this point, the general public does know a thing or two about Grande, and the narrative matters—and helps. While not quite being Beyoncé megafamous, Grande is now known for a handful of things, and other than the petulant licking of a doughnut in a camera-equipped bakery, the small stuff is largely positive. On television, she has proved charmingly game: In 2016, she hosted SNL and joked about her lack of a Bieber- or Miley-like scandal, and both there and on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show couch, she has shown off her uncanny impressions of other singers. More recently and more seriously, Grande maintained poise after singing beautifully at Aretha Franklin’s memorial even as a Pentecostal preacher appeared to touch her breast.
And then there’s the tragic event in Grande’s life that generated the most headlines: the May 22, 2017, suicide bombing of dozens of her fans just after her concert in Manchester, England. In total, 22 were killed and hundreds either injured or traumatized. Fundamentally, this was an act of terrorism perpetrated on concertgoers and on the idea of freedom itself, not Grande. It is, of course, odious to view the tragedy as contributing to the arc of her career—the One Love benefit concert she organized a couple of weeks after the incident was a deservedly praised event that all involved would have preferred never existed.
Nonetheless, what was within Grande’s control was how she comported herself in the months and, now, years after Manchester. And in the bigger picture, Grande has not only borne up with dignity but adopted a sagely uplifting tone coming out of the tragedy. This seen-some-shit mindset is all over Sweetener, her first post-Manchester album. The rightfully acclaimed album is unexpectedly life-affirming and “up” where it could have been morose. Grande led off its release with the rafter-raising dance jam “No Tears Left to Cry” (a No. 3 hit in May), in which she segues from a brief gospel intro straight into a two-step–garage beat and singing about “picking it up, picking it up.” This track and its immediate follow-up, the ethereal, sensual “God Is a Woman” (No. 8 in September), affirmed that Grande had chosen not to wallow.
This brings us back to “Thank U, Next,” which takes not-wallowing up a notch—in terms of narrative arc, it’s poetic and oddly logical that Grande scores her chart-topper now. The song is the organic product of Grande’s post-tragedy embrace of life multiplied by her post-relationship I’m-moving-on persona. (Throw into the mix the composure she displayed in September when fans of rapper Mac Miller, after his death from a drug overdose, baselessly blamed former girlfriend Grande for his sad final days, and she responded with a dignified public tribute to her ex that effectively shut down the haters. It was a “thank you, next” move without a scintilla of rancor.) Named for a catchphrase Grande claims she and friend/producer Victoria Monét have been saying since before her breakup with Davidson, “Thank U, Next” would sound like a glib hashtag coming from practically any other pop star right now. But Grande’s hard-earned gravitas has positioned her differently with the public. Acknowledging that she could have neither planned for nor wished away the sad events in her life over the past two years, we seem ready to let her be carefree, and her easy No. 1 debut is the result.
Let’s give Pete Davidson a bit of credit: Before he knew for sure his engagement to Grande was doomed, he knew intuitively their relationship was destined for the pop-cultural scrap heap. When SNL came back from its summer break, Davidson joked ruefully at the Weekend Update desk about how little he brought to the relationship (literally financially, as well as in a larger sense) and implied that the worst sign of all was the song Grande placed on Sweetener titled with Davidson’s full name: Wispy and barely one minute in length, if “Pete Davidson” were on a rap album, it would be considered a skit. (File it alongside Jennifer Lopez’s 2002 deep cut “Dear Ben” in pop’s junk pile of past-their-expiration love songs.) In his Weekend Update monologue, Davidson groused about not earning any royalties from his titular song and predicted he would be listening to it on the radio while working in a Kmart someday. That’s amusingly self-deprecating, but Davidson was only half-right. “Pete Davidson” will never be on the radio. A decade from now, however, wherever he’s working, he will be listening to the other song he directly inspired, “Thank U, Next.” And that one won’t be making him rich, either.
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