Break-up songs rarely make it to the fifth stage of grief. Our recovery processes live in the stages of denial and anger, while our greatest art simmers in the space between anger and bargaining. If art is therapy, and acceptance is the stage that indicates the therapy has been successful, then that explains why so few break-up ballads ever really make it that far. If you make it far enough to accept, the pained ballads and unhinged cries of being broken have done their job already.
But here’s Ariana Grande, mere months after releasing the already excellent album Sweetener. Since the LP’s August release, she’s dealt with the painful death of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller and the end of her quick, whirlwind, very public-facing engagement to Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson. She has reportedly already finished recording another album in that time, with the new “Thank U, Next” being purported as its first single.
Given the timing of its release (a day after dragging Davidson on Twitter for “proposing” to musical guest Maggie Rogers in a SNL promo trailer and a half hour before the episode aired this weekend), “Thank U, Next” felt like it would be your run-of-the-mill break-up diss. The title feels like the basis for a fairly scorching relationship post-mortem. Instead, it is surprisingly gracious, especially for a song where the first verse lists her exes by name.
“Thought I’d end up with Sean/But it wasn’t a match/Wrote some songs about Ricky/Now I listen and laugh/Even almost got married/And for Pete, I’m so thankful/Wish I could say ‘Thank you’ to Malcolm/’Cause he was an angel”
From there, Grande delivers one of the very few pop songs to actually promote real, true self-love. It’s the kind of self-love that truly comes from within as opposed to the kind that wallows in the failures and sadness of others. It’s a self-love that must be earned on your own, from accepting pain, heartbreaks, and regret as part of the journey while also owning your history as a fact, not a choice (she even references the pain caused by her dad towards her mom, without giving much detail). Grande doesn’t need to scream “I love myself” from the rooftops; instead, she opts for whispering it to herself, alone in her room during the darkest time of night, when anxieties run most rampant.
“Thank U, Next” is a balm and a sticky note reminder on the heart that sometimes it’s not about life getting better; it’s about wanting to better yourself.