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Thank U, Next: How Ariana Grande and Drake Accelerated the Pop Music Life Cycle

With the #InMyFeelings challenge and the Pete Davidson saga, music’s biggest stars became more responsive and self-referential than ever

Ariana Grande Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The single was supposed to be “I’m Upset.” Released in the late-May lead-up to Drake’s fifth album, Scorpion, “I’m Upset” was the track that got the high-concept, meme-thirsty video—a Degrassi reunion! Kevin Smith?—which dropped just two weeks before the album itself. Jimmy Brooks stans were satiated, but as a song, “I’m Upset” was a dud. Critics called it “boring.” Streaming numbers didn’t pose a threat to the other Drake song still sitting atop the charts, “Nice for What.” Its petulance felt a bit like self-parody. When Pusha T released his world-stopping diss track “The Story of Adidon” a few days later, he didn’t even have to come up with a punch line to make fun of “I’m Upset.” He simply said the title of the song, and then laughed.

But Scorpion, you were hiding a single—even if it took the Instagram comedian Shiggy to figure it out. On June 29, the Friday Scorpion was released, Shiggy treated his followers to a short, exuberant video of himself dancing to “In My Feelings,” an album cut deep into the second side of the 90-minute (zzz), 25-track (zzzzz) Scorpion. The dance was goofy, literal, and above all things easy to replicate, and so with a hashtagged push from Shiggy’s famous friend Odell Beckham Jr., the #InMyFeelings challenge was born.

Within a ridiculously short amount of time, Ciara posted a video of her doing the Shiggy on her honeymoon, Will Smith employed a drone to film him doing it on top of a Budapest bridge (sure!), and, for some reason, people began risking injury by jumping out of moving cars to do the #InMyFeelings dance. (Whoever Kiki is, she is NOT worth dying for, kids!) A craze was born; millions and millions of streams followed—and so the people chose one of the biggest hits of the year. Drake happened to run into Shiggy at a club the day “In My Feelings” hit the top of the Billboard chart, not three weeks after the initial Instagram post. They commemorated the occasion with—what else?—an Instagram video. “Oh my goodness,” Drake can be heard saying. “Man got me a no. 1 record today.”

This sort of thing has happened before in the digital age: Think “Harlem Shake”; the mannequin challenge–propelled “Black Beatles”; or, if you can remember all the way back to the prehistoric year of 2013, Katy Perry’s team being savvy enough to notice that it was not the schmaltzy single “Unconditionally” that people were downloading on iTunes but the fan-favorite album cut “Dark Horse.” The difference with “In My Feelings” was how inevitable it felt, and how complicit Drake seemed in this strategy. Drake is this era’s dominant hit-maker not because the music he’s making is so much better than anybody else’s, but because he has a subtle understanding of the changing dynamic between artist and listener in the age of streaming. He needs us, but he never seems particularly panicked about it. He gave us a deluge of 25 songs and then hired the listener (pro bono of course) to become his A&R guy: “Now track 21 is the one that sounds like a hit.”

Even though Drake had a monopoly on the culture yet again this year (for 29 weeks out of the year so far; in other words, roughly half of the time a Drake song was the no. 1 song in the country), listeners used their critical masses to showcase some lesser-known artists in 2018, too. Take Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up.” Even though it had been out for a year by the time it charted, the British singer’s slick summertime hit slowly grew into a smash thanks to a modern version of word of mouth: passed around SoundCloud links and ever-increasing playlist appearances. (By November, she was the musical guest on SNL.) Sheck Wes’s explosively anarchic “Mo Bamba” traveled a similar path, propelled up the charts not by name recognition so much as contagious enthusiasm. (As with Shiggy, though, being tight with an NBA player didn’t hurt!)

In the streaming era, hit songs reflect the will of the people as much as the visions of any artist. Populism isn’t always pretty, though. One of the most-streamed songs of the year was “Sad!” by the late, troubled rapper XXXTentacion; buoyed by in-memoriam streams, it bounced to the top of the Hot 100 the week after his June 18 death. By then, the many reasons a person might choose not to listen to the rapper, born Jahseh Onfroy, were well documented. But you only had to look at the Spotify charts to see that plenty of people could look past his admissions of violence and domestic abuse and continue to stream his eclectic, brooding songs. For better and worse, the people had spoken.

One of the most ubiquitous pop lyrics floating through the ether right now comes from a collaboration between masked producer Marshmello and the British band Bastille: “I want you to be happier.” That sums up the sound of 2018 as well as anything. Anxiety, depression, and generalized malaise have gone from unspoken taboos to pop’s most centrist concerns, as songs like “Sad!” certainly attest. “I take prescriptions to make me feel A-OK,” rap-crooner Juice WRLD warbled on his gloomy mega-hit “Lucid Dreams,” while Post Malone’s tuneful but downcast vision continued its world domination. The most driving song on Ariana Grande’s Sweetener fashioned a hook out of instructions for coping with a panic attack: “Just keep breathin’ and breathin’ and breathin’ …”

Yes, there’s a lot to be anxious about simply being alive in America in 2018: A pretty comprehensive list can be found in the lyrics of the 1975’s anthemic “Love It If We Made It.” The aforementioned artists tended to focus on the havoc the world was wreaking on their minds, their personal lives, their internal experiences. Others zoomed out. Take Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” an audio-visual Molotov cocktail that briefly arrested everybody’s attention in early May. Directed by Donald Glover’s brilliant Atlanta collaborator Hiro Murai, “This Is America” is a masterfully unsettling visual statement that put a finger on the stuttering pulse of a nervous, trigger-happy nation. (It also became Childish Gambino’s first no. 1 song.) Swinging from manic energy to detached sociopathy, Glover’s performance in the video was as creepily masterful as his turn as Teddy Perkins. New Yorker critic Doreen St. Félix observed: “This is what it’s like, Glover’s video seems to say, to be black in America—at any given time, vulnerable to joy or to destruction.”

That’s an unavoidable tension in the world right now, and it manifested in music’s more experimental corners, too. The Tennessee-born artist Sean Bowie, who makes swirling and disorienting soundscapes under the name Yves Tumor, released an outstanding third album this fall called Safe in the Hands of Love. “Sister, mother, brother, father, have you looked outside?” he sang on the album’s skittish first single “Noid,” “I’m scared for my life.” The bewitching Baltimore-born musician Josiah Wise, who records as serpentwithfeet, took the raw materials of fear, rejection, and isolation and spun them into a record of signature beauty; his stirring “cherubim” is a tender hymn to queer love. And with the excellent synth-pop single “Doesn’t Matter,” the French act Christine and the Queens drew strength from struggle and, on the standout track from her excellent record Chris, tapped into queer identity as its own kind of alternative faith: “Run if you stole a shard of sunlight,” Héloïse Letissier sings, as hopeful a mantra any song offered up this year.

Such a dark backdrop made pop’s occasional outbursts of joy pop like Independence Day fireworks. For the second year in a row, Cardi B had one of the year’s defining singles, though this time she got a little help from Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny and Colombian reggaeton superstar J Balvin. “I Like It” is a four-minute block party, a trap-pop “My Favorite Things” that has no time for such simple pleasures as raindrops on roses—get this girl some Balenciagas, por favor. The only true rival to “I Like It” for Song of the Summer status was Drake’s “Nice for What,” an homage to New Orleans bounce and the irrepressible spirit of women that somehow managed to transcend pandering to, well, New Orleans bounce and the irrepressible spirit of women. I’m not sure you can say the same of Maroon 5 and Cardi’s inescapable FeMaLe EmPoWeRmEnT aNtHeM “Girls Like You,” but hey, those Balenciagas aren’t going to pay for themselves.

And then there was Ariana Grande, who made the year’s dreamiest pop record. Sweetener cut through the noise because it bottled an incredibly rare commodity in 2018: pure, unadulterated glee. When it came out in August, it had plenty of possible future hits to offer: the delectable “Sweetener,” the ethereal lullaby “R.E.M.,” and, of course, a song that was literally just called “Pete Davidson.” It was only a few months ago that the world freaked out about “Pete Davidson”—were we ever so young? But then 2018 did its 2018 thing, reminding us that bad news doesn’t stay away for long. In September, the searching and empathic rapper Mac Miller, Grande’s ex, died of an overdose. Her whirlwind engagement with Davidson then came to an end. It seemed like Grande might disappear for a little while, or that these real-life storm clouds would contradict her music’s sunshine-y hope. That’s so far from what happened.

Dropping a song like “thank u, next” is more of a Drake move than an Ariana Grande move when you think about it. Pining openly for exes by their names? (Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree—we hardly knew ye.) Tunefully getting out in front of the narrative? Realizing, wisely, that albums move much slower than information in this day and age, and thus offering us a song-as-relationship-status-update? Just call her Aubrey. (Or, don’t.)

Imagine someone telling you two years ago that Ariana Grande would become one of 2018’s last remnants of musical monoculture. And then tell me you don’t remember where you were when “thank u, next” dropped. (I was with my mom, who audibly gasped when Ari first sang “plus I met someone else” and then did the Gaga meme smile when she realized she was talking about working on her relationship with herself. Who among us did not!) “thank u, next” was a Bobby Fischer–level chess move, and it seemed single-handedly to propel Grande to a whole new level of celebrity—the kind savvy enough to wink at their public persona but powerful enough to exert invisible, ironclad control over it. And above all things, it’s great enough to become a self-fulfilling prophecy: The song is, indeed, a smash.

The video is still up for debate. When it came out last Friday, Grande had been teasing its rom-com recreation concept for days, and yet its premiere was still appointment YouTube viewing. Yes, there were loving, shot-for-shot homages to Mean Girls, Legally Blonde, and 13 Going on 30, but there were also more Easter eggs than you could shake a carrot stick at: Freeze-frame info about her exes, like a message to Pete that said “sry I dipped” or an admission that Big Sean “still could get it tho.” It was the “no, it’s Becky” of music videos: a celebrity winking knowingly at the internet and saying I (or at least several salaried people on my digital strategy team) see you. Everything was meticulously laid out for viewers to discover and excitedly screencap—right down to the “BDE” on the UPS man’s uniform. That detail in itself felt like a microcosm of 2018: a tweet coining the phrase “big dick energy” in relation to a picture of Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson, which led to an SEO-tagged deluge of “explainers” on what “BDE” was, to Grande herself closing the loop by using the phrase.

Putting it all together was the kind of sugar rush that left me with a slight bellyache. Have we blurred the line between pop art and fan service? Are people about to get incredibly sick of Ariana Grande? Are we inching toward an inevitable backlash, or is she destined to become an untouchable modern pop deity like Rihanna or Beyoncé? Those are probably all questions for next year: For now, let us take a cue from “thank u, next” and reflect with gratitude on what has come before. Ommmm …. OK … that should do it. Did I miss anything in that moment I wasn’t checking the news? Refresh the page. Thank you. Next!

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