Being single is hard sometimes. For all the extremely great parts of it – you can, for example, go wherever you like on holiday and you don’t have to tell anyone they’re “so good, babe” at DJing – we ultimately live in a culture that lionises romantic relationships, and as such, being alone can get lonely. At its most negative, singleness can bring with it a pervasive feeling of being untethered, and occasionally – maybe late on an especially cold night – it feels like something is missing; like an ache, or a hunger, or some other physical sensation of need.
Despite those difficult aspects, however, being single is not only important, but necessary for all of us. Existing outside of exclusive romantic relationships helps us to understand ourselves much better; defining ourselves in ways other than how we’re intimately intertwined with a partner is crucial to growth. But while t-shirt slogan feminism – the least radical, and therefore most dominant strain of the belief system – preaches “self love,” the overarching message that our society espouses, in its obsession with the heterosexual family, is that to be single is to be in some way lesser, especially as a woman.
Pop music, which acts as one of many mirrors to our societal preoccupations, is also overwhelmingly concerned with relationships: don’t most pop songs refer to love or sex in some way? But while, in tandem with mainstream feminism’s fixation on “empowerment,” “self love” has also become a bigger part of the pop music conversation (just this Friday, Carly Rae Jepsen, god bless her, released “Party for One,” a euphoric single about little other than jerkin’ it), its appeals to and for such self-acceptance can often feel hollow, more about cashing in on en vogue politics than having a genuine discussion about choosing to be by yourself.
On Saturday night, that changed a little bit, when Ariana Grande – newly separated from her comedian fiancé Pete Davidson, and bereaved of another ex-boyfriend, the late musician Mac Miller – released a track called “thank u, next” (listen above). It’s a song about exes which takes the high road. Its message, as the singer tweeted, is of “no drags.... no shade..... jus love, gratitude, acceptance, honesty, forgiveness ... and growth.” With lyrics that centre on the learning experiences she’s taken from each of her relationships, “thank u, next” is a characteristically poised move from Grande, who has weathered so much trauma with a great deal of grace at a very young age.
More than dealing with Grande’s two very recent, very public losses in a constructive way, however, I think “thank u, next” is a song about making the decision to be alone. As she did on her 2018 album Sweetener, Grande symbolically provides all her own backing vocals and ad-libs (including a harmonic reading of the line “turned out amazing” which makes me feel like my soul is leaving my body whenever I hear it), and on the track’s second verse, she sings:
“I’ve met someone else,
We havin’ better discussions.
I know they say I move on too fast,
But this one gon’ last.
‘Cause her name is Ari,
And I’m so good with that.”
Because, as listeners and fans, we know that Grande’s motivation for making “thank u, next” is firmly rooted in her real life experiences, it feels real and relatable. And while we shouldn’t always look to relate to the art we consume, hearing one of pop’s brightest stars declare that she’s OK by herself for now is helpful and healing if that’s how you’re trying to feel too. In creating “thank u, next,” then, Grande offers aloneness as an attractive possibility, and in pop music and our culture at large, that’s rare.
Sometimes being single can feel like missing out. There are types of intimacy you simply do not receive; now and then it might seem to you as though you are staring in through a fogged-up window on the types of emotional communions which make living worth it. But to concentrate on those parts of not being in a relationship is to ignore everything positive that being by yourself helps you to foster, and that is what Grande importantly emphasises on this song. She makes reference to spending “more time with [her] friends” and to her relationship with her mother, and crucially, to what she has learned from herself. “She taught me love / She taught me patience / How she handles pain / That shit’s amazing,” she sings.
There’s a reason why my eyes brim with tears every time I play “thank u next,” and it’s because it makes me feel seen. Having been single by choice for the last two and a half years, I understand my own behaviour more fully than I ever have, and as a result, I have a better, more rounded relationship with myself. “thank u, next” is the first pop song I’ve heard in a long time which acknowledges, artfully, succinctly, and sincerely, the value of giving yourself time to be alone.
“thank u, next” also means that Ariana Grande is getting ready to move on to something new – the pause contained in the title’s comma feels like the act of stopping to self-examine for a moment – but it’s crucial to the song’s power that we know that that “something” doesn’t have to be another person. It’s true that being single can suck in our culture, and certainly, it’s not desirable to feel undesirable, but this song is a reminder that you don’t have to let someone else grow in your light while you’re still broadening out yourself; “next” can simply mean whatever happens now, and being open to whatever new phase of who we are is on its way. “thank u, next” is an invitation to let life in, and on a pop landscape which is full of romance and relationships, Grande’s indomitable voice resounds especially right now.
You can find Lauren on Twitter.