Even though I know it’s not true in most cases, I sometimes default to the mindset that pop is formulaic and engineered by already wealthy money-driven minds and armies of songwriters looking for nothing more than the catchiest hook.
Ariana’s quick follow-up to Sweetener is a perfect example of how this isn’t true. In most ways.
The first thing that came to mind when I realized Ari had released another album so soon after her last was that smaller(/poorer) artists wouldn’t have been able to do this. Even a singer/songwriter or a band that self-records and produces in bedrooms or basements would have difficulty finding the time to take aside from work and pour energy into an album. For bands that need to spend money on studio time, mixing, mastering, and (if they’re lucky/taking this route) a team of people, affording even a digital record is something to save up for.
As a broke musician swiftly approaching 30, the fact that she is financially able to make two records in such close succession does not fly under my radar. But that doesn’t outweigh the fact that this album is a litmus test in honesty in the pop music industry.
The whole Ariana and Pete thing left a weird sour flavor in my mouth when it was happening, and Sweetener tasted just the same. It was literally like a packet of Splenda — it felt forced and sugar-coated, at least emotionally. Musically I have no qualms, but the whole thing reminds me of my high school boyfriend who wouldn’t let me even talk to my male friends and thought we were going to spend the rest of our lives together; idealized, nauseatingly saccharine, kind of embarrassing to look back upon. Again, the album deserves all the positive recognition it received, but with the sheen of hindsight, you can feel that she was living on a whole different planet of denial when she created it.
It seems like that’s exactly what Ariana felt when she looked back at that album. What I really admire is that she took it upon herself to rectify that injustice to her truth and her current feelings. It’s an honesty that you see more and more in pop music lately. Ariana isn’t alone in this feat, with the likes of Troye Sivan, Harry Styles, and Sigrid bearing their souls in their music. Artists such as these bring a much needed and incredibly welcomed sincerity to the genre, which can often feel canned and impersonal.
thank u, next is a manifestation of real reflection. It shows her urgency and integrity as an artist to create a body of work that is as viscerally and brutally honest as possible.
This is not to say that Sweetener was not an honest product of how she felt when she wrote it. She may have been in denial about her relationship, but that doesn’t change the fact that that was her reality at the time. That’s the beauty of any kind of memoir — it represents the speaker as they are as they write down the words. Much like music itself, memoir is a medium that can be fleeting. It’s totally temporal.
You can think of thank u, next as a re-do, but that’s not quite it, is it? It’s more of an assertion of her artistic, musical, and emotional integrity.
At the same time, this integrity is a privilege that she has as a chart-topping artist. She was able to take the time, energy, money, and support to pour herself into this project. But, it’s a privilege that we as the listener also benefit from. Her strong, honest, vulnerable female voice sets an example for all the women who listen. She’s promoting self-reflection and coming clean about the reality that something so seemingly perfect can be a literal nightmare underneath. The tone of this record is somehow sunnier and breezier than Sweetener. The chorus on “fake smile” is sung with such ease and freedom that it raises you up to listen to it. The whole album feels like air, like a huge weight being lifted from your shoulders while also being a fucking jam from top to bottom.
Honesty doesn’t have to be sentimental and well-intentioned, it can also be super devious.