Over the past six months, Ariana Grande fans have obsessively followed the pop star’s whirlwind romance with the comedian Pete Davidson. In May 2018, it became public that they were dating. By June, they were engaged. Then, as quickly their love affair began, it ended. Last month they called off their engagement.
This dramatic backdrop amplified the fanfare when Grande dropped her latest single, “thank u, next,” on Nov. 3, just minutes before Davidson went on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update to “genuinely wish her all the happiness in the world.” Almost instantly, “thank u, next” scaled the charts, breaking the global Spotify record for biggest single day for a female artist, and earning over 9.6 million streams by Nov. 9. At the time of this writing, “thank u, next” is the fastest song to reach 100 million plays in Spotify streaming history.
Of course, “thank u, next” benefits from the fire lit by Grande’s newest album, Sweetener, which debuted atop the Billboard 200 in August. The album celebrates dominant, confident female sexuality with hits such as “No Tears Left to Cry” and “God Is a Woman,” in which Grande boasts about her own sexual prowess, sings about cunnilingus, and touts her professional success. Besides Lemonade, Beyonce’s iconic 2016 feminist anthem, I’ve never seen women friends go as crazy for an album as they have for Sweetener.
But if my friends went crazy for Sweetener, they’ve lost their minds over “thank u, next.” The song is constantly streaming, at parties, hangouts, and on commutes. Despite my best efforts, I’ve succumbed to the ear worm as well, impulsively repeating the track as I run, work, and relax.
In its first refrain, “thank u, next” names several of Grande’s ex-boyfriends: “Sean” (Big Sean), “Ricky” (Ricky Alvarez), “Pete” (Pete Davidson), and “Malcolm” (Mac Miller, the rapper and producer who died of an overdose in September). Instead of throwing shade, she expresses gratitude for each man, noting the gifts and strengths he provided her, despite their relationships eventually ending.
“One taught me love/One taught me patience/And one taught me pain/Now, I’m so amazing/I’ve loved and I’ve lost/But that’s not what I see/So, look what I got/Look what you taught me,” she sings. Then comes the song’s chorus: “I’m so fuckin’ grateful for my ex.”
To the best of our knowledge, neither Grande nor Davidson cheated on or publicly shamed one another. Instead, they’ve each gone to some lengths to praise and prop the other up. This kindness should not feel so dissonant with our expectations of breakups (especially public breakups), but that it does speaks volumes about unhealthy sexual and romantic dynamics in America.
As someone who recently ended a long-term relationship with a man I genuinely love and respect, Grande’s message caught me by surprise, and exposed insecurities I’ve struggled to articulate. Women so infrequently speak openly about breaking men’s hearts, or experiencing joy and relief after ending romantic relationships. Breakups are portrayed as universally bad—and the simplistic assumption is that there must be someone to blame. That’s despite mounting psychological and neurological research that suggests breakups are deeply affecting but also, well, complicated. And not all of their effects are bad.
The song concludes with Grande saying she’s begun a new, immensely fulfilling relationship—with herself. This is an appealing, and of course not entirely new, idea. But the true magic of this track is Grande’s rejection of the binary between romantic codependence and solitude—she’s grateful for both. She dismantles the hackneyed trope of women celebrating self-sufficiency only after enduring mistreatment by the men they loved too much.
That’s not to say those aren’t great songs. Destiny Child’s 2001 “Survivor” (video), for example, is an empowering feminist hit: “Now that you’re outta my life, I’m so much better,” the women sing. “You thought that I’d be weak without ya, but I’m stronger/You thought that I’d be broke without ya, but I’m richer/You thought that I’d be sad without ya, I love harder/You thought I wouldn’t grow without ya, now I’m wiser.”
And of course, not all relationships deserve a loving commemoration. Sometimes, you need to shit-talk your ex, send text messages you’ll regret, and indulge in base impulses until you feel human again. And sometimes, your former partner simply does not deserve your respect.
That’s when we appreciate more resentful breakup tunes, such as Alanis Morissette’s timeless “You Oughta Know” (video), released in 1995: “Does she know/how you told me/You’d hold me until you died,” sings Morissette. “And I’m here/to remind you/Of the mess you left when you went away.”
These songs resonate because they speak of the bitter, rage-inducing breakups so many of us have suffered through. They’ve helped us scream into the void, consume far too much wine with sympathetic friends, and stalk new girlfriends on Facebook. They’ve done their job.
But with “thank u, next,” Grande doesn’t go there. Instead, she widens the emotional possibilities for women going through heartbreak—revealing the multiplicity of our romantic and sexual experiences.
Women are socialized to equate romance and love with happiness and fulfillment. It’s a message amplified by even more songs—from Percy Sledge’s legendary 1966 hit ”When a Man Loves a Woman,” which suggests we ought to give our partners everything we’ve got, to Taylor Swift’s 2008 “Love Story,” which suggests that a women won’t be truly happy until their Romeo gets over himself and proposes.
To be grateful for being single is to defy everything that’s expected of us. But as I listen to Grande’s new single, I find myself wondering what it would be like to live in a world where former romantic and sexual partners celebrate what they had, rather than bashing what they’ve lost. It seems pretty freaking awesome.