Within the first 24 hours that Ariana Grande’s music video for “thank u, next,” went live in late November, it broke the internet. Well, sort of. YouTube reported that comments on the video, an extended homage to rom-coms like Mean Girls, Legally Blonde, Bring It On, and 13 Going on 30, were delayed from posting—likely due to the record-setting 55.4 million views Grande garnered as she bopped from one re-enactment to the next. Grande’s response, though, wasn’t elation or even concern: it was a practiced online apathy so palpable you could almost see the eye roll.
The dispassionate tone continued over the next day. “true love might exist i was just hungry,” she tweeted at one point. No caps, no comma, no period. Barely a whiff of Emotional Sincerity, that deceptive fragrance sprayed by pop stars (and publicists) to dial online cacophony down to a mere murmur. What excitement she did express forced its way out through the proper social-media idioms: When Mark Hamill praised the video, she responded, “thanks, luke skywalker. i’m gonna go sob in a corner and watch all your movies again now. have a good one.”
But what did you expect? In 2018, the first generation of digitally native pop stars truly came of age—maneuvering across social platforms as comfortably as they do musical scales. Hayley Kiyoko shares a picture of her feet before trying to goose her video for “Girls Like Girls” over 100 million views. latest video. Singer Halsey calls herself “sad little bitch™,” then criticizes the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show for the company chairman’s recent comments about trans inclusion. And Grande’s semiotics are perfectly calibrated to match her followers’, from emoji to punctuation (or lack thereof). This is the online identity of a new class of female artists: savvy without being sentimental, sensitive but decidedly still cynical.
Someone at a party once told me that tweets are like texts you send to your best friend, only made public. They’re snippets that require little explanation, context, or—much to our own detriment—research. They don’t even need to be grammatically correct; punctuation is reserved for distant acquaintances and extended family.
Grande seizes on this, sprinkling her captions with deadpan language and using capitalization sparingly. All the song titles on her 2018 album Sweetener are lowercase. She spells “you” phonetically, hence “thank u, next,” which is either Grande pandering to our nostalgia for early 2000s SMS-based text or inviting us in—or maybe it’s both.
The effect is humorous, even warm. When Grande tells us she “sobs” over a praising tweet from 13 Going on 30 co-star Mark Ruffalo, it’s the online behavior of a real person versus yet another celebrity with a promotional agenda. (Even if it’s really kinda both.) For contrast, look at the way Taylor Swift or Blake Lively wiped their Instagram accounts clean, replacing their personal photos with posts foreshadowing their latest projects. Swift posted videos of a snake, a harbinger of the serpentine imagery in to her video for “Look What You Made Me Do.” The intent was to make something eerie and exciting, something fans and conspiracy theorists alike could wade in for hours (which they did). But mostly it fell flat, the silver penny in the background gleaming a bit too brightly.
In many ways, Grande is no different, teasing her followers with hazy countdowns to each new video. But it feels less like the work of a public-relations campaign than the excitement of a person who just wants people to see what she’s been working on. That spills over into her appearances on shows like Saturday Night Live or The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, where she wrings laughs from her spot-on singing impersonations of Britney Spears’ nasal tone or Celine Dion’s soprano.
Or, most recently, the “thank u, next” video, an empowering bit of pastiche. Its genius isn’t just the movies Grande selects to reenact—the lot of which appeal to multiple generations of rom-com fans—but the moments within them. There’s the toothbrush exchange from Bring It On, Legally Blonde’s “bend and snap,” and the jingle bell rock performance in Mean Girls. In articulating the moments of camp and casting herself as the protagonist, Grande weaponizes them, effectively making herself the only heroine we’ll ever need. It’s Grande-ganda, subtly working in her own agenda within the context of something familiar.
But even beyond the self-anointment by homage, the video acts as an exercise in subliminal messaging. There’s the Immigration and Refugee Law and Politics textbook Grande’s version of Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods reads on the Harvard lawn. The “Needy” t-shirt she wears as Mean Girls’ Regina George, which fans believe to be a clue for the title of Grande’s next album. The note to her ex-fiance, Pete Davidson, that Grande scrawls across a faux burn book (“sry i dipped”). These glimpses keep us watching more closely, desiring to better understand Grande The Enigma who somehow looks good in the myriad of personas she tries on (activist, ex-girlfriend, comedian, businesswoman), each one looking a bit like us.
Are we mistaking marketing for authenticity? Maybe. Grande is made that much more potent in her ability to sound just like her followers. She and her cohort have relinquished the role of the editor, passing their thoughts unfettered into the world with the same vulnerability that we might send a text to an ex without running it by a friend first.
That’s not to say an editor wouldn’t come in handy sometimes. Last week, Kanye West reignited his simmering feud with Canadian rapper Drake via prodigious tweetstorm. Ever the keen observer, Grande flipped the moment to tout her latest music–as well as a new song from friend and fellow superstar Miley Cyrus—by couching it as a reclamation of spotlight. “guys, i know there are grown men arguing online rn,” she wrote in her now-deleted tweet, “but miley and i [sic] dropping our beautiful, new songs tonight so if y’all could please jus behave for just like a few hours so the girls can shine that’d be so sick thank u.” Kanye accused Grande of taking advantage of his mental health to promote her single (a sentiment Davidson echoed, much to the chaos of the internet). The singer apologized for her initial tweet but denied any opportunism, tweeting, “regardless of how i feel about a situation, i can also care about their mental health.”
Grande is skilled in the art of the tactful apology, recognizing those mistakes that are actually hers—like a 2015 incident in which she licked a doughnut in a shop and said “I hate America”—and identifying those larger concerns that are often projected onto her as a public figure. Her delicate sidestepping shows that Grande is actually listening to what we’re saying. And, at the end of the day, whether on Twitter or IRL, don’t we just want to be heard?