Ariana Grande’s thank u, next video makes no sense – but it’s still broken YouTube records

“One taught me love, one taught me patience, one taught me pain,” sings Ariana Grande of the loves of her life in her smash hit “thank u, next”. I must assume Grande considers these her three pillars of essential emotional knowledge, for in the process of hearing about, waiting for, and eventually watching her new video for the song, Grande taught me love, patience, and pain – in that order.

Everybody loves a throwback and every millennial loves Mean Girls (2004). Days of hysterical social media build-up for the video’s release included tweets with quotes from the film, behind-the-scenes Instagram posts and a trailer for Grande’s video which featured Mean Girls’ actual love interest Aaron Samuels (Jonathan Bennett) and the girl with “a wide-set vagina and a heavy flow”. It appeared to send up Grande’s fame, the public fascination that swirls around everything she does, and the impact she has on teen girl culture. There was also a Burn Book – in the film, a revenge Bible, filled with collages of hate and secrets; here, ostensibly a book of memories and gratitude to former lovers, as per the message of the song.

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The trailer was glossy, there were Plastic clique lookalikes, and as the week went on, further images and clips revealed that other Noughties chick flick faves would feature: cheerleading juggernaut Bring It On (2000), judicial triumph Legally Blonde (2001) and time-hopping fantasy 13 Going on 30 (2004). HOW would Grande weave them all together? Would it be parody or a recreation? Of the billion-plus views the video has amassed since its release on Friday, about a third were me, trying to make sense of it.

The song itself offers a rich storyline. “Thank u, next” is a breakup anthem for our times: it addresses rumours and obsession and it preaches self-empowerment. It is both authoritative and exposing – as well as mentioning her own ex-boyfriends by name (Sean, Malcolm, Ricky, Pete), she references her father and the way her mother “learned from that drama”. And it’s given the world a snappy and meme-able new catchphrase: I am already employing ‘thank u, next’ as my withering dismissal of choice.

Grande has cheek, and the last word, but she’s gracious too – there is no revenge, only serene acceptance

Impossibly, when we consider the emotional turmoil she must have been in when she wrote it and given its rapid release after the end of her engagement with Pete Davidson, the track is dignified and calm. Grande has cheek, and the last word, but she’s gracious too – there is no revenge, only serene acceptance. The message is, sincerely, “I’m so f***ing grateful for my ex.” If only I had possessed such poise in the face of love’s travails when I was 25.

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It is perfect sad-pop though not a party-through-your-tears belter like Robyn’s “Dancing on my Own” nor laden with the grandiose martyrdom of ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All”. Grande has done away with her usual vocal pyrotechnics and offers, instead, synthy disco in a minor key, with reverberating beats and fairground sound effects – all of which suits the bubblegum, pom-pom pomp of the teen movies pastiched in the video.

Disappointingly, there is little wit or narrative as Grande is glossily transposed into these films. Did the world not expect a segment featuring each boy in her song, or some link that would draw the films together? The only link to the song’s lyrics I can find is the recast Burn Book, into which Grande – wearing a big blonde wig (full of secrets) and pouting on a four poster bed – has written on Pete’s page the confusing (and rumour-fuelling) “sorry I dipped” and the more obvious “HUUUUUUGE” – a reference to the ‘big dick energy’ phenomenon the couple sparked last summer.

Everything here is perfectly reimagined and poppy and polished and considered, with clever slogans and detail on t-shirts and cheerleading uniforms and bedrooms. Thematically, though, not much makes sense beyond Kris Jenner in a Juicy Couture tracksuit and wielding a video camera, stepping into Amy Poehler’s role as Regina George’s mother (which is surreal in itself, but perfectly fitting).

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Why is Troye Sivan in the hallway? What does the cheerleading contribute? The recreated Legally Blonde scene with Elle Woods’ manicurist is clear – as is its reference to a boy’s “really big……..  front tooth”, but where does it fit with any narrative? And why include such a cursory dash of 13 Going on 30 at all, other than to include the aesthetically pleasing dolls’ house and Grande’s spookily accurate impression of a wistful Jennifer Garner? Is this just an indulgent opportunity for Grande to star in her favourite films?

It’s the silly, nonsensical home video you’d have loved to make with your friends at a sleepover in 2005. But in illustrating this year’s rawest chronicle of heartbreak, it feels like a disappointment.

What made each movie a classic of the high school genre is how secondary boys and romance are to their overall message of, loosely, self-growth. Each might have a central love interest, but the protagonist of each film is eventually forced to learn that pursuing one’s passions (Bring It On), striving in your education and career (Legally Blonde), or treating people properly and finding your real friends (Mean Girls and 13 Going on 30) should all come before matters of the heart – and the rewards of each are far greater. 

If “thank u, next” pays tribute to the boys who taught Grande love, patience, and pain through bitter experience, perhaps the video is her tribute to the films that showed her them first. It’s the silly, nonsensical home video you’d have loved to make with your friends at a sleepover in 2005. But in illustrating this year’s rawest chronicle of heartbreak, it feels like a disappointment.

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