By Ugur Dursun
Let’s all agree, pop music had an exceptionally bad year. Until Maroon 5’s mediocre single “Girls Like You” took over the Hot 100 at the end of September thanks to a hastily-written Cardi B verse and a star-studded yet terribly directed music video, the last pop artist to top the chart was Camila Cabello, whose “Havana” led the list in January with some aid from Young Thug. Granted, Young Thug is effectively a hip-hop artist, meaning that for the last number one single without any rap verse we would need to go back to when Beyoncé helped Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” ascend to the summit in December 2017. The year-long pop drought that charts suffered was seemingly unbreakable. That was, until Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” debuted atop the list on November 17 and earned the singer her first-ever chart topper.
“thank u, next” is the eponymous lead single off of Grande’s upcoming fifth studio project. Now this might come as a surprise to many, considering Grande’s fourth album “Sweetener” only came out about four months ago. While it is true that Grande’s camp is not following the traditional yearlong album cycle patterns regular pop artists use, they might be doing so for a good reason.
This year has been dominated by acts like Drake, who led the Hot 100 for 29 non-consecutive weeks this year, Post Malone, whose “Psycho” and “Better Now” saw great success and Travis Scott, whose new album “Astroworld” made strides in the latter half of the year. While pop artists opt to take long breaks in between albums to let their audience breathe, exposure and saturation seem to be the key factors that lead to the success of these hip-hop rooted artists. Ariana Grande did use a similar strategy in 2014 when she dropped her sophomore album “My Everything” less than a year after her debut “Yours Truly” and became one of the few pop artists to score two chart-topping albums in a year’s span.
Grande’s team approached the release of “Sweetener” more traditionally. After four months of unprecedented silence on all of her social media platforms, Grande kicked off her album cycle in late April with “no tears left to cry”, a mid-tempo pop track with an undeniably catchy retro R&B beat. Even though it was the brainchild of the same team of songwriters Grande’s been frequently collaborating with since her global smash “Problem”, “no tears left to cry” immediately stood out in her discography that usually leaned towards bubblegum or sexually liberated pop tracks.
Showcasing her refreshing and bright vocals in juxtaposition with her grief, the track was an instant hit and became Grande’s fourth lead single to debut inside the top ten, making her the first artist ever to achieve this feat following the successful chart runs of “The Way”, “Problem” and “Dangerous Woman,” a record she would later extend with the No. 1 entrance of “thank u, next.”
The single was the perfect comeback in the wake of the terrorist attack at Grande’s concert in May 2017 at Manchester Arena, where 22 civilians were killed and hundreds more were hospitalized and traumatized. Even though Grande returned to Manchester to put on “One Love Manchester,” a fundraising concert that featured the likes of Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Coldplay, Little Mix and The Black Eyed Peas, “no tears left to cry” was perceived as Grande’s direct response to the devastating tragedy and how she managed to find the light in the darkness. Grande was quite literally sweetening the bitter turn of events in her life in the making of her aptly titled fourth album, “Sweetener.”
The singer bounced back rapidly with the release of her second radio single, “God is a woman.” The track, accompanied by a stunning music video directed by Dave Meyers (who you may also know from his work with Kendrick Lamar), stirred up a moderate amount of controversy due to its title, though the song itself ended up being less polarizing and was received positively by many. Written by Grande, Max Martin, Ilya Salmanzadeh and Savan Kotecha, “God is a woman” proved that classic-style pop still had a place in the upper reaches of the charts when done right. The track brought together elements of synthpop and trap beats in the verses and a sultry chorus that showcases Grande’s dreamy vocals. To no one’s surprise, “God is a woman” also became a top 10 hit and the second single off of “Sweetener” to reach No. 1 on Billboard’s radio airplay chart.
“Sweetener” instantly became a massive album on all streaming platforms when the odds were stacked up against Grande. Neither pop albums nor albums by female artists tend to do well on streaming services, yet Grande managed to break that mold by obtaining one of the biggest streaming weeks of 2018, easily surpassing her peers in hip-hop like Cardi B and Nicki Minaj. The interest of the general public naturally birthed the third single off of “Sweetener,” “breathin,”which also hit the top 20 shortly after release.
Grande carried her streaming success over to “thank u, next,” which broke the record for most streams in a day on Spotify for five consecutive days following its release, tapping out at 9.6 million streams on November 9. The song later became the fastest song ever to reach 100 million global streams, passing the mark on its 11th day.
Yes, “thank u, next” interrupted the chart runs of “God is a woman” and “breathin,” but those singles were not going to reach No. 1 anyway. Streaming makes it harder for songs to stay fresh, meaning by the time a third single is pushed to the radio, chances are, it has already amassed a handsome number of streams. Luckily for Grande, she is supported tremendously by the radio, where her current singles “breathin,” “God is a woman” and “thank u, next” sit pretty at number five, eight and 20 respectively, making Grande the only artist to triple up in the upper half of the mainstream airplay chart. In a time when pop music is struggling to produce hits like it used to, Grande is thriving by adopting whatever works in 2018 into her catalog and how that catalog is rolled out, and fortunately, radio stations are cooperating.
Helping the strong debut of “thank u, next” was something as 2018 as it gets: meme culture. Upon its release, the song became a huge moment on social media, especially Twitter, due to an error in the lyrics posted alongside the track on Apple Music. When Grande sings “Her name is Ari” in the verse where she explores self-love, Apple Music suggested that Grande had a new lover called “Aubrey.” Naturally, “Aubrey” became a worldwide trending search on Twitter, though Grande confirmed the actual line on the platform the same day. The real lyrics of the song had the meme factor as well, resulting in a plethora of posts with the song’s pre-chorus, “One taught me love/ One taught me patience/ One taught me pain.” While Grande refers to her four ex-boyfriends who she name-drops in the opening verse, many people took the opportunity to compare Shrek movies and RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants.
“thank u, next” is far from just a milestone in Grande’s career. The overwhelmingly positive reception and success of the single signifies what is “next” in the always evolving pop music scene and brings an end to the hip-hop, or rather, Drake domination this year has experienced. While “Sweetener” secured major Grammy nominations for Grande, “thank u, next” might potentially be her magnum opus. Already a meme, the single will receive another push after the release of its official video. Directed by Hannah Lux Davis, the music video for the new single will feature reimagined scenes from modern silver screen classics “Mean Girls,” “Bring It On,” “13 Going on 30” and “Legally Blonde,” and is expected to be released on Friday, Nov. 30.
Contact Ugur Dursun at ugurdursun ‘at’ stanford.edu.