Shake It Off vs Thank u, next, or On The State of White Feminism in Pop Music c 2018
Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” is at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 as of this writing, and it’s been late 2018’s biggest pop song. Many people have commented on the video’s retro-90s teen girl movie pastiche. I’m interested in the way the music–the song’s composition, Grande’s vocal performance–speaks to the status of white femininity in the era of chill masculinity and popular feminism.
Like Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” “thank u, next” is a song about women’s ability to overcome the pain that comes with being a woman in the 2010s. But Grande’s song doesn’t talk about the act of shaking off or overcoming; it presents an already-resolved narrator who’s fully accepted both all her past breakups and, more importantly, herself. The lyrics shift in the second verse to talking about how the narrator has fallen in love with herself (“Ari”): “I’ve learned from the pain/I’ve turned out amazing.” As the conjugation of “learn” indicates, the pain is in the past. So it’s still important that women overcome the pain associated with being a woman, but that overcoming is like the assumed prequel to the actual song, which focuses on the pleasure and profit of having overcome.
The song’s composition makes it clear that this is not the performance of resilience (damage→ overcoming→ profit/pleasure), but the reveling in its outcome (the profit/pleasure). This is where the comparison to “Shake It Off” is especially telling. (It’s worth noting that the two videos have nearly the same premise, where the lead singer tries on and cycles through a number of different femininities.) Both songs climax in a soar and a drop, but Swift’s is WAY more pronounced than Grande’s.
In “Shake It Off,” “shake, shake, shake” is the rhythmic intensification that leads up to a quick pause, and then Swift’s vocal melisma serves as the drop.
Note also how the soar is represented by a big cheer stunt where Swift’s character launches in the air. This will be important for establishing the comparability of this song with Grande’s.
The soar in “thank u, next” is about as diminutive as Grande is were she to stand next to Swift. Here, there’s barely any intensification, just a rising melisma at the end of Grande’s phrase that leads up to something that sounds like a cymbal roll, which is definitely the drop because it coincides with both a flying cheer stunt (here’s the “Shake It Off” visual echo) and a flash of stadium lights reminiscent of the use of lights in the climax of Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You.”
If you listen, there’s basically no build, and no hard hit back on the next downbeat. In this way, the song fits with 2017/8’s chill turn, which takes the trappings of early 2010s maximalist EDM-pop and tones them way, way down.
As I explained in my above-linked Guardian article, “chill” is like the millennial version of their fathers’ and grandfathers’ “cool”: it’s a status game among white men. Chill is about maintaining the success of an already well-invested brand/person. It’s asset protection and risk management, taking xans to manage the anxiety that comes with the gig economy, student debt, the very real effects of climate change (like hurricanes and floods), and so on.
As scholars such as Michelle Murphy have shown, the re-framing of subjectivity as entrepreneurship and human capital has lead us to imagine explosive growth, or even the potential for explosive growth, as feminine. Think about it: the best way to make a massive amount of money on an investment is to buy low and sell high…and given patriarchal racial capitalism, what sorts of people are starting low because they haven’t received much previous investment? Girls, especially girls of color in the global south. According to Murphy, NGO promotional materials represent this figure of the investable girl as a snowballing cascade of compounding positive returns. For example, “the Girl is calculated as a risk pool that draws together a bloom of possibility, a bouquet of potential, a cluster of affect, applicable to any dispossessed condition anywhere, as long as it is ‘girled’” (120; emphasis mine). In this context, huge sonic climaxes are gendered feminine; the builds are possible only because we’re starting from such a low place and have a lot of room to grow. One example of this feminization of huge sonic climaxes is in the critical response to Harry Styles “Sign Of The Times,” which I discuss in that Guardian article. The song climaxes four times in under a minute, and several critics deride it as “bombastic” and hysterical, like its teen girl fans.
When the very capacity to build to a huge climax is an index of one’s low status, then chill is a way to communicate your high status. That’s what “thank u, next” is doing with its anything-but-grande soar: it’s telling us that Grande’s narrator is, indeed, amazing, that she’s already done the self-work of resilience, and is already a well-invested asset. In this sense, “thank u, next”’s soar presents Grande as the perfect subject of contemporary white feminism: she occupies the same status as the guys while also performing a perfected cis femininity (e.g., her Brittney-like kittenish vocals, her whole visual presentation).
We can hear this in the song, which takes a narrative premise traditionally associated with cishetero men protagonists and flips the gender roles. “Thank u, next” is a catalog song. Named after the aria in Mozart’s Don Giovanni where the Don runs through all the 1003 women he’s slept with, catalog songs list one’s romantic conquests. Beyonce’s “Countdown” and Lil Wayne’s “Girls Around The World” are both contemporary catalog songs. By running through all her exes, “thank u, next” positions Grande’s narrator as a sexual subject who progresses through different sorts of men. This sort of sexual subjectivity, though traditionally reserved for men, is increasingly expected of women by liberal white feminism as evidence of empowerment and equality with men. In her 2018 cover feature with Billboard, Grande explicitly states such aims with respect to status in the music industry. Unlike most big pop releases, which are carefully timed and tied to big hooks like album releases or headlining performances, “thank u, next” seemed to drop out of nowhere. Responding to a question about this, Grande says “It’s just like, ‘Bruh, I just want to fucking talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do. Why do they get to make records like that and I don’t?’ So I do and I did and I am, and I will continue to.” And it’s not just rap’s business model that she appeals to. Her vocal delivery on the song is heavily influenced by contemporary mainstream hip hop. For example, the trisyllabic groupings in the repeated “one taught me”s throughout the verses evoke Migos triplets, and the rhythm and pitch gymnastics on “I’m so/fuckin/grateful” evoke the sounds of rappers like Future. So there are a number of ways “thank u, next” positions Grande as one of the boys, as occupying the status traditionally reserved for men…that is, as a woman who is incapable of further explosive growth because she’s already more than adequately invested in.
“Thank u, next” presents Grande as the ideal subject of contemporary white liberal feminism. That’s why it sounds so chill.