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Let’s Chat: Loving and Losing with Ariana Grande

Arts & Culture | December 10, 2018

Rosy Fitzgerald is a copy editor for the Tufts Observer and has been an Arianator since 2014. She currently runs the popular Instagram fan account @arianaswidelegpants. Wilson Wong is an Opinion Editor for the Observer, and he has been an Arianator since 2015, when Ariana Grande licked a donut that she didn’t pay for right after proclaiming, “I hate America!”

Rosy Fitzgerald: I think we need to start with “thank u, next.” It’s set more than a few records, including Ari’s first number one single on Billboard. Honestly, what she’s doing is ingenious. She knows exactly how to play into pop meme culture.

Wilson Wong: Agreed. Let’s outline the message of “thank u, next” for a second.

RF: Right. Lyrically, Ariana walks us through her most publicized relationships as an adult pop star, including with rapper Big Sean back in 2014; one of her backup dancers, Ricky Alvarez, in 2015; rapper Mac Miller from 2016-2018; and SNL cast member Pete Davidson, to whom she was engaged for a short time until reportedly breaking things off this October.

WW: And she does all of this in about 15 seconds, in the first verse, with a perfectly mulled tone of ease and self-awareness.

RF: The rest of the song is a masterful mixture of humility and gratefulness for the growth and experience of each past relationship, while simultaneously moving right along and welcoming whatever new experiences the universe has in store.

WW: I’m not a music scholar, but I think it’s kind of novel for a woman to speak so vulnerably and openly about a recent breakup in such a positive light. Like, yes, I am grateful to be single and to be in a relationship with myself, but I am also grateful for my exes that have challenged me and helped me grow and have been with me, particularly in times when I needed them.

RF: Also, the music video? Breaking YouTube records for most views in 24 hours? Kris Jenner self-referencing with the “Kim, you’re doing amazing, sweetie” meme? And a love letter to our favorite 2000s movies: Legally Blonde, Mean Girls, 13 Going On 30, and Bring it On?

WW: If you loved those movies when you were younger, you’re gay now.

RF: [Laughs] For our audience: Wilson and I are both queer and love all of those movies. Although, something I want to talk about that has been bothering me since the song’s release is this comparison between Ari and Taylor Swift that always seems to be made, basically following this sentiment of “Ariana did what Taylor couldn’t.”

WW: I agree. I think that’s a prime example of how misogyny and sexism operate in our consumption of pop culture. I’m not defending Taylor, but the distinction I want to make here is that women, and people in general, can react however they want from breakups, whether that’s being thankful, sad, or angry.

RF: And nobody’s even talking about how much more graceful either of these women are than, for instance, Justin Timberlake, a man, who constantly trashed his ex, Britney Spears, throughout his entire career. He was willingly dredging up her past mistakes, while simultaneously profiting off her struggles while she was still going through them. And he continues to trash her because he’s a man and that entitles him to those feelings.

WW: That double standard is exactly what Ariana has tweeted about countless times! Also, she’s gone through so much in the past two years. In 2017, the Manchester terrorist attack at her concert led to her PTSD, plus Mac Miller recently passed due to a drug overdose. She’s loved and she’s lost, and she’s still mourning, but now more than ever, she’s prioritizing what’s important to her. And, she’s [expletive] over it.

RF: That same mentality goes along with her fearlessness about being political. That’s why Taylor Swift, for example, wasn’t saying anything at all until only recently with the midterm elections. Maybe, at the very least, like putting the H with the arrow or whatever for Hillary on Instagram in 2016. Maybe.

WW: [Laughs] Maybe begrudgingly. Not to pit them against each other—a lot of the comparisons between these two pop stars are definitely gendered.

RF: But separate from her womanhood, I specifically don’t like Swift because she’s always had a huge platform and has always remained silent about her politics, whereas Grande has always been outspoken and vocal about hers. Remaining silent on real issues out of the fear of losing fans or losing an audience—Ariana has never shown that fear.

WW: Right, and Swift only gave her support for the Democratic nominees in Tennessee when it was more favorable to be outspoken about politics than it was to be silent about it.

RF: Remember when Ari faced so much backlash from donut-gate when she screamed, “I hate America!” after licking that donut? It did bother me that she then apologized and was like, “Sorry, I’m still learning.” Like, no, Ari, you had it right, we do hate America!

WW: And then she blamed it on obesity? Like, weird flex, but ok.

RF: Also, how old was she when that happened? She was like 21, our age.

WW: And we’re 21, sitting on a couch right now, like how could she not be more thoughtful?

RF: But in my opinion it doesn’t discount her vocal acknowledgement of the propaganda of American exceptionalism. I think she was scrambling to get out of a bad press moment, but over the years she has continued to criticize this country.

WW: Celebrities are often inconsistent with their politics because their careers are on the line, and sometimes they face pressure to appease their fans, despite their own feelings. Even though Ariana, compared to others, tends to be more vocal, she’s obviously not perfect.

RF: Ariana, “Better Left Unsaid” was my third favorite ballad off Yours Truly, but sometimes things… better get said.

WW: Uh… Anyways, don’t get me wrong, I stan Ariana Grande, but a White woman with a huge platform advocating for basic human rights is really doing the bare minimum here. And, because of it, there’s this running joke on Twitter claiming that Ari is a woman of color, queer, or both.

RF: Okay, yeah. To be clear, Ariana Grande is a White woman, and straight. Sorry to break it to the people who just discovered that from reading this.

WW: There’s certainly a racialized component that exists for people of color literally grasping at straws to see ourselves represented in mainstream media. Some of my closest friends were literally shocked when they found out Ariana Grande was Italian-American and not a Latina woman. Ari certainly doesn’t hide her Italian-ness, but she is racially ambiguous. Perhaps, as fans, we’re so willing to consider Ari a woman of color or a queer woman, despite us knowing she’s not either, because there’s something especially shiny and appealing about her aesthetic that elevates her above actual artists of color and queer artists¬¬––that something is her Whiteness, which we’re simultaneously worshipping and pretending not to see.

RF: She’s absolutely benefiting from our consumption of her aesthetic as a person of color, and she must know that.

WW: She gets the best of both worlds¬¬––not you, Miley––like, both the status, respect, and privilege of being a White woman plus the very same optics of racial ambiguity that people of color are shamed and ostracized for. We don’t see that same kind of popularity and support for Janelle Monáe or Hayley Kiyoko, who are both actual women of color and queer.

RF: That makes me think of the video for “God is a woman.” There’s a short voiceover moment around 2:24 with a bible quote meant to represent the voice of God, and it’s actually the voice of Madonna. In behind-the-scenes footage from the set of the video, director Dave Meyers explains how “Madonna carried the struggle on her shoulders to put out what Ari’s able to put out now, and so [for] that baton pass to happen on this video is like… so big.”

WW: Oh… yikes!

RF: Ariana, a straight White woman, gets celebrated as some rad, queer pop icon. And then to say Madonna of all people paved the way? That’s simply a massive mistake and a dismissal of history. At the height of her career Madonna was certainly pushing boundaries, but she was also partaking in an enormous theft of drag culture. Madonna was raking in tons of money and success, claiming ownership of and appropriating drag culture in her music and image, while queens of color continued to face discrimination, harassment, and violence with absolutely none of the credit that was owed to them.

WW: This pattern of deriving aesthetics, profit, and even a sense of moral superiority from marginalized populations is not an isolated or ahistorical event. I think we both can agree that this doesn’t mean that we suddenly “cancel” Ariana Grande, but we want to hold artists accountable, particularly someone like Ari, who has demonstrated a history of expressing remorse and has shown potential by addressing and growing from her mistakes.

RF: There’s no point in us making a list of all of the problematic things that people like Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus have done, because they are pretty much innumerable, and both have shown a major aversion to accepting fault and learning from their mistakes. We all saw you trying to capitalize on a phony sense of self-awareness with Reputation, Taylor, and you’re still a snake! Sorry!

WW: Not sorry! (Lovato 2017)

RF: Also, to take a cue from Ari, I think there’s a way we, as everyday, non-celebrity consumers of pop culture can be thankful for the mistakes made by celebrities, which get broadcast with ear-splitting volume and near-immediacy.

WW: I agree; we get to have our own embarrassing missteps without a fanbase and audience of billions, and also learn a lot from unpacking our idols.

RF: And on that note, @ArianaGrande, if you’re reading this, we love you more than life itself. Please read my letters and follow my fan account @arianaswidelegpants. Also, please give us soundcheck and meet & greet passes to the Sweetener tour because those ticket prices are not reasonable at all! Ok love you, bye! [cloud emoji]