Smarter Than You Think?
An Analysis of Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next Music Video
I must admit, I’ve never been much of an Ariana Grande fan. Strange statement to make since this article is about one of her music videos but it’s true. I honestly didn’t even know what she looked like until her 3rd or 4th hit single dominated the airwaves and I decided to look her up. Since then, one or two of her songs made it to my “Guilty Pleasure Pop Songs” playlist on Spotify; yes, I do have on of these and no I don’t think having one is a cliche. But, it was her most recent hit, “Thank u, Next” that really drew my attention to her. I heard the song on the radio on my way to work one day and I watched the music video at a friend’s behest. At first, I thought the video was just OK with some cheeky fun thrown on top. I mean it’s obvious that Grande is a film fan due to her reference to several romantic comedies in the video but, after a second viewing I dug a bit deeper. On the surface, the song is a bit of an ode to her ex-boyfriends, which are mentioned in the opening lyrics of the song, and thanking them for giving her the experiences she needed to realize her own self worth and that she doesn’t need a man in order to be happy or feel complete. But, her message goes much deeper than that. The whole song is about her self actualization and being thankful for the love, pain and lessons she learned from her ex’s but is visualized through the metaphor of film parodies. The first parody we see in the video is of the 2004 classic Mean Girls followed by 2000’s Bring it On, 2004’s 13 Going on 30 and then 2001’s Legally Blonde. Each of these parodies are very interesting and a bit ironic as all of them, with the exception of Mean Girls, are films that famously feature female protagonists that end up with a man at the end. Taking this into account I’ve decided to do a detailed analysis of the music video and attempt to determine whether or not the video is what it appears to be on the surface or if it’s a deep piece of sardonic comedy in which Ariana points out the unrealistic outcomes of these rom coms and how real life relationships do not work like they do in the movies.
Let’s begin this analysis with a brief synopsis of the first film parody it the music video Mean Girls. This film is not only utterly hilarious but it also broke the stereotype of cliques and high school life. The film follows Cady Herring, played by a then still marketable Lindsay Lohan. She is a teenage girl who has lived all over the world due to her anthologist parents and is now settling in a new school in the US where she makes friends with the “outcasts” of the school that convince her to befriend the popular group of girls known as “the plastics”. In an attempt to bring them down from the inside, Cady tries to take out the queen B Regina George, played by Rachel McAdams, but all of her attempts backfire. As the film goes on Cady becomes more and more enthralled with the life of the plastics that she ends up becoming one of them and representing everything she did not want to be. At the end she has a “come to Jesus” moment where she makes good with all of her friends, fixes some potentially career ending rumors she herself started and encouraged everyone to treat each other with respect and like normal people instead of jocks, freaks and geeks. This film is a very unique piece of cinema as it subverted normal teen movie expectations and really connected with young audiences to see each other as people and not predefined labels.
It is very interesting that Grande decided to start her music video with this parody as she dresses like Regina George and has photos of her ex’s she mentions at the beginning in her own version of the “burn book” from the film. Hearing her lyrics paired with this scene as well as the subsequent ones that parody the “hallway walk” and the Christmas talent show, show me that she was once a person that was so obsessed with judging others and rating her social status and own self worth based on who she was with, which is exactly what one of the main functions of the “burn book” in the film. It assigned worth to people the plastics did not even know with completely blind judgement. This is only solidified by the opening of the video where in traditional Mean Girls fashion, people speak of rumors they heard about Ariana directly to the camera. Some actors who were actually in the film are seen in during the opening. Although the main character does not end up with a man at the end of the movie, I believe making Mean Girls one of her parodies speaks volumes as the chorus says “Thank U, Next” Ariana seems to be making a statement that she’s leaving that part of herself behind.
The next film parody in the music video is Bring It On. To this day Bring It On is one of my favorite movies and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a sharp piece of high school melodrama satire with some smart writing and solid jokes. This is probably why Ariana decided to include this piece of cinematic history in her music video. Bring It On is a story about high school cheerleader Torrance Shipman, played by Kirsten Dunst, who has just become the new captain of her cheer squad but after recruiting a new cheerleader realizes that her old captain stole all of their cheers from a high school in Compton. Wanting to keep the spirit of competition alive and proving they can win on their own, Torrance works with her squad to win on their own all the while handling a cheating college boyfriend and a unique romance with her new recruits brother, Cliff, played by Jesse Bradford. Although this films deals a lot with both cheer squads and includes a really important message about working as a team, this film still has a romantic subplot that ends in Torrance dumping her college boyfriend and getting together with Cliff. Given this, what message is Ariana subtly telling us here? Be independent, value your team/friends but give the guy you would normally not be with a chance because he may actually be the one?
Once again, this parody seems to contradict the lyrics of her song. I mean, in this segment of the music video, she even included the famous scene in the movie where Torrance spends the night over new recruit Missy’s, played by Eliza Dushku, house and has a cute little tooth brushing face off with Cliff in the bathroom. I think the only thing that subverts this scene with the lyrics is the framing of Ariana in a bedroom that looks exactly like Torrance’s from the film but filled with pictures of her on the walls. If there were ever a statement to be made about “self-love” without actually saying it, this would be it. Not only this, but she also includes the scene in the film where Torrance listens to the mixtape Cliff makes for her and she rocks out to it and comes up with her team’s new routine; the tape in this music video says To: Ari From: Ari. With all of this in mind, I think Ariana is furthering her message of not needing a man, learning that although one of her ex’s seemed perfect but was anything but, and literally dancing to the beat of her own drum… or album.
The next film referenced in this music video is actually a nice back-to-back reference. The first is 2004’s 13 Going on 30 and then transitions into 2001’s Legally Blonde. 13 Going on 30 tells the story of Jenna Rink, played by Jennifer Garner, as a driven young woman who makes a wish to be older so she can grow out of her awkward teen phase, which was prompted by a very embarrassing moment on her 13th birthday. As the film goes on, she realizes the perfect “grown up life” she had planned for herself is not so perfect and she not only realizes her own self worth but also who her real friends are. Now, I would give Grande credit for adding this film to the parody lineup but there is one major problem with it; the main character ends up marrying her childhood friend which she realized was the man she wanted to be with all along. This again lays back into the idea of a woman’s main motivation being a man and that you need to be married or in a relationship in order to be happy. Although this film does try to frame Garner’s character as learning and growing and realizing that you should not rush the process of growing up, there is still the romantic subplot with her best friend Matt, played by Mark Ruffalo, and her nearly endless pursuit of him when she realizes her adult life is not all that it’s cracked up to be. I find it interesting that Grande uses the scene in the film where she, as Jenna, leaves Matt’s wedding that she was crashing in an attempt to confess her feelings to him and cries over the dollhouse she made. This dollhouse is actually very important to the plot of the film as it is the catalyst that transcends Jenna into her 30 year old self and then at the end back to her 13 year old self. In this moment, Jenna has learned quite a bit about what it means to be an adult and when she goes back to being 13, she vows to do everything right.
Grande could be making some kind of statement about starting over and reevaluating her life as this scene of her crying over the dollhouse transitions into her pulling up to Harvard University in a porsche (obvious parody of legally blonde) with a license plate that reads “7RINGS”, which is an omage of sorts to her hit song of the same name. In this parody, Grande plays Elle, a sorority girl who follows her boyfriend to Harvard when he gets accepted into law school. In the film, Elle, played by Reese Witherspoon, gets accepted to Harvard in order to be closer to her boyfriend only to find out that, once she gets there, he is cheating on her and openly admits that he doesn’t think she is smart. Hurt but determined to prove him wrong, Elle excels in school by using her natural intelligence and sense of style. In addition to this, she makes new friends, procures a new career and, surprise…gets a new man! I’m not going to lie, I actually really love this movie and it does have a really good message but, once again, the lead female ends up with a man at the end. This may not be too much of a problem as the main is pretty independent and relies on her own skills the minute she finds out her boyfriend never really took her seriously but it is a bit dissonant in that she is supposed to be a strong, independent woman but a man was her driving force to change and another man aided in her self actualization; this would be Emmett played by Luke Wilson.
Although Grande’s part in this parody features scenes in which she, as Elle, is thriving and using her specific skill set to make it on her own, she is framed in a way really only shows her aesthetics and not her unique intelligence. Just to be clear, I understand that this is a music video filled with parodies and there is really no time to display her intelligence like in the movie but there is a real dissonance in framing when Grande’s lyrics are saying one thing but the camera is showing us nothing but her body dressed in scantily clad clothing and doing pretty stereotypical female centric things, i.e. sunbathing in the quad, working out on a stair master and getting her nails done in a salon. I know all of these things were done in the film but this all plays out while the lyrics are saying “Thank you next, I’m so fucking grateful for my ex,” which implies she has learned, changed and moved on.
So, with all of this being said, what is my final conclusion? Well, I have to say that this music video is a fine piece of satire that, when separating the lyrics from the visuals really puts things into perspective. Grande’s lyrics really are about moving on and her journey to self-actualization and, contrasted with the goofy nature of the parodies, display just how ridiculous it is for women to expect that real relationships will be like the movies and just how unrealistic the endings to these Rom-Coms are. Let’s be honest, it is very rare that you meet the love of your life immediately after you go through a terrible relationship or a traumatic event. I’m not saying this never happens but it is extraordinarily rare. I believe the goofy nature of the parodies were intentional in order to show this unrealistic nature. To further illustrate this point, the dream-like rhythm of the song’s melody seems like a fantasy lullaby. It’s as if the song is trying to say “These Romantic Comedy troupes are a complete fantasy”. On the opposite side of this, the music video begins and ends with the Mean Girls parody. As explained before, Mean Girls is a teen movie famous for the lead not ending up with a man in the end in the more “traditional” sense. I believe this was a strategically placed parody that is almost saying “This is reality and its ok to just have platonic relationships”. I could be reaching here but that is my interpretation. To wrap things up, the conclusion I have come to is this: “Thank You, Next” is indeed a very smart music video that has a much deeper meaning masked in a vapid, cute, parody filled wrapping. The real message is there in plain sight but you must be attentive enough to decode it through the shiny and distracting visuals.