Ariana Grande is so famous, everything she does makes headlines. When she mistakenly (?) got the words “small charcoal grill,” instead of “7 Rings,” inked on her palm in Japanese last month, the misstep was all over the news.
“Indeed, I left out 'つの指' which should have gone in between,” she wrote in a since-deleted tweet. “It hurt like fuck n still looks tight. I wouldn’t have lasted one more symbol lmao.”
The tweet was damage control—Tweets from users fluent in Japanese were already going viral. Grande tried to fix the tattoo, but it didn’t work. Now, it just reads, “Japanese BBQ finger,” according to Buzzfeed’s Eimi Yamamitsu. “RIP tiny charcoal grill. Miss u man. I actually really liked you,” she wrote on an Instagram story revealing the new meaning. Grande’s shitty tattoo wasn’t just a problem because she’s subjected to BBQ fingers for the rest of her life. Unlike other people with botched tattoos, her 200 million social media followers won’t let her forget it. She’ll always have to answer to that, whether or not an answer actually exists.
Grande’s fame has made working through her mistakes in real time nearly impossible. In recent years, we’ve watched her react to upheavals in her own life, using Tweets as a bandaid to protect her image as pop’s reigning princess. But while “small charcoal grill” is about as silly as her 2015 donut-licking escapade, it pales in comparison to Grande’s last couple of years. In 2017, a suicide bombing left 22 people dead at her Manchester show. Her very public relationship with Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller ended last May. In June she was engaged to Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson. Three weeks after the August release of her album Sweetener, Mac Miller was found dead his San Fernando home. A month later, her engagement to Davidson was called off.
2018’s Sweetener was a reimagining of the 25-year-old singer. She was more mature than the Dangerous Woman she’d incarnated in 2016, singing songs that flirted with risk, like “Bad Decisions” and “Greedy.” She deviated from the black-and-white aesthetic of her previous three albums, and lived in color for the first time. She found love again and used Sweetener’s “pete davidson” as PDA. Grande described the album to Jimmy Fallon as “bringing light to […] or sweetening the situation.” Following the Manchester attack and a fresh breakup with Miller, it seemed like the worst that could happen already had. Sweetener felt like it was made to tie up the loose ends and serve as the beginning of her happily ever after. It didn’t.
“thank u, next” arrived in November, and did what Drake’s name drops of exes never seemed to do. It celebrated the lessons she’d learned from past relationships, without assigning blame, and catapulted her to another level in pop’s stratosphere. With it, she secured her first chart-topping Billboard Hot 100 song—with no promotion other than a cryptic tweet. The video lifted scenes from iconic chick flicks with strong female leads, Mean Girls, Bring It On, 13 Going on 30, and Legally Blonde. “7 Rings,” the follow-up single, introduced us to Grande’s impression of trap—one that was a problematic adaptation of 2Chainz’s Pretty Girls Like Trap aesthetic and two years late. The new coming of Ariana Grande seemed to want to be a Mean Girl. She was newly single after ending a four-month engagement with Pete Davidson—and if “thank u, next” and “7 Rings” were any indication of how she was feeling, she didn’t seem to give a fuck. She even told journalists that she wanted to release music like a rapper.
But in many ways, thank u, next—Ariana’s impromptu new album, released just six months after Sweetener—feels a lot like “small charcoal grill.” The new album sees Grande working through her less than grand moments and trying to decide which is more important: The face she has to put on for the public, or the one she looks at in the mirror. Was she Mean Girls’ head-bitch-in-charge Regina George, or was she demure like Cady Heron? thank u, next finds Grande as the protagonist and antagonist of her own story.
The album opens with “imagine,” which details a picture-perfect relationship. “Imagine a world like that,” she sings, creeping into the song’s hook, which recalls Brandy and Whitney Houston's 1997 duet "Impossible" for Cinderella. The Disney-like quality of the song isn’t where the Cinderella comparison ends; Grande was the muse for Miller’s 2016 song “Cinderella.” On the track, she elaborates on some of the imagery he painted three years ago, including their fondness of nap time and pad thai. It’s an alternate version of her happy ending (one that isn't "toxic"), evoking Mariah Carey’s whistle tones and Brandy’s layered harmonies.
On Twitter, Grande shared what “imagine” meant to her. “A simple, beautiful love that is now (and forever) unattainable,” she tweeted to a fan in November. To another fan, she wrote: “[…] Pretending [a relationship] never ended. Denial.” Grande doesn’t say it’s directly about Miller, but fans have already connected the song’s title to a tattoo Miller had on his bicep.
Grande wrote thank u, next over three months and recorded it in just two weeks, which might explain its spontaneous feel, its reflection of the tug-and-pull of emotions. She’s “needy,” but requires “NASA” levels of space in the same breath. The conflicting messages are dizzying, but not unrelatable. “Lately I’ve been on a rollercoaster / Trying to get a hold of my emotions,” she sings on “needy”’s tinkering production led by Tommy Brown. Brown’s hands land on “make up,” a double entendre for the Fenty beauty products Grande praises and for make-up sex. “I might break up with you just to make up with you,” she sings on the track.
“This record is so good, but I hate that part of myself,” Grande said in a recent interview with Zach Sang, admitting the song is “kind of masochistic.” “But it bangs though.” The 25-year-old is taking inventory of the ways she may have contributed to her own dysfunction, even just by offering a “fake smile.” Leading with a soulful sample from Stax singer Wendy Rene’s “Laughter,” the song by that title paints a picture of the life a big pop star, one that’s not as fun as the average person believes. She sings of being tired of the parties and the endless scrutiny. Even the hook is defiant: “Fuck a fake smile.” It’s Britney’s 2007 meltdown in three minutes. “If I’m being honest, I done been through way too much,” she sings.
thank u, next fills in the gaps between the moments in Grande’s life that made national news since Sweetener. But no song packs in as many intimate details as “ghostin.” Produced by frequent collaborators ILYA and Max Martin, the ballad drips with emotion from the very first line. “I know you hear me when I cry / I try to hold it in at night,” she sings.
“ghostin” isn’t your typical song about a love triangle. Instead, it grapples with grieving the permanent loss of love even after you’ve moved on.
Grande hasn’t said much about the song publicly yet (except that it almost didn’t make the album), but judging from the timeline of events, it plays like a tribute to her relationships with Mac Miller and Pete Davidson. In the song, Grande is grateful for the patience of her new lover, even if she’s still bound to her connection to an old one. The roughest part of the song comes at the start of the second verse: “Though I wish he were here instead / Don’t want that living in your head.” The stinging realization is enough to pierce anybody’s heart.
In the interview with Sang, Grande spoke about the decision to mention names on the album’s title track. “It was a big risk and a very scary thing to do, because it is my life,” she says. “It's real shit to me. It is real life and I spent a lot of time with each of those people […] it was like scary to put in a song." The same could be said of creating a song like “ghostin.” In December, two months after their split, Pete Davidson shared what appeared to be a suicide note on his Instagram. “I really don’t want to be on this earth anymore,” he said. “I’m doing my best to stay here for you but I actually don’t know how much longer I can last. […] Just remember I told you so.” The post and Davidson’s Instagram were later deleted.
A song like “ghostin” is Grande’s version of her truth, but was putting it out into the world good idea? Pop stars in 2019 are hypervisible, which comes with a heightened feeling of access; we want to know all about them. But amidst increasingly open discussions about mental health in the music industry, is releasing a song as painfully intimate as “ghostin” a decision she may come to regret?
Davidson’s note on Instagram was a clear indication that he, like Grande, is grieving their relationship. Still, it’s not for fans to decide who gets the right to express their pain to the world. There would be no development—personal or professional—if Grande decided to internalize her failed relationships, even if expressing her truth has resulted in online abuse of the most abhorrent sort. While there are no definitive answers, the idea that one of the biggest women in pop is willing to work through them publicly—and on her own time—is inherently raising the stakes for pop’s next class of artists. thank u, next is the reality of looking at your palm and realizing you tattooed “Japanese BBQ fingers” instead of “7 Rings.” It’s rich in the permanency of mistakes and misfortune.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer at Noisey.