Ariana Grande "Thank U, Next"
Songs That Defined the Decade

Songs That Defined the Decade: Ariana Grande's 'Thank U, Next'

"She's able to narrate her own story through music."

Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators, label folks and industry insiders involved. 

From a gentle keyboard riff that exists in the rosy pink ether between nursery rhyme and Madonna's "Borderline" to the playful, declarative "ee!" at the end, Ariana Grande's "Thank U, Next" arrived as the apotheosis of downtempo pop boppage in late 2018. 

As radio became friendlier to gently insistent grooves vs. voice-to-the-rafters dance-pop that had taken her from Nickelodeon TV sidekick to legit pop princess, Ariana adjusted course on 2018's Sweetener and perfected the formula with immediate follow-up Thank U, Next, an album whose title track and lead single may go down in history as the most gracious breakup song ever written.

"If anybody were to do a nice breakup song, it's Ariana Grande," says co-writer (and IRL Ariana pal) Victoria Monet. "She doesn't have a bad bone. She's considerate of others even when they're at their worst."

Of course, being nice doesn't catapult you to No. 1 – not does it inspire countless memes. But introducing a new phrase into the popular lexicon? Now we're getting warmer.  

"That phrase is really what made the song special," Monet opines. "We started humming melodies [during the songwriting session], and I know that Ariana says 'thank you, next' so much, and those words fit perfectly with that melody. That phrase is very her: It's direct, and like, 'I'm grateful for things that have happened, but I'm gonna move on and not deal with the bulls--t.'"

And B.S. inspired a bit of the song's candor. While Monet acknowledges there was some hesitation about the vulnerability of calling out her exes by name (including recent ex-fiancé Pete Davidson and the late Mac Miller), she says Grande eventually realized people were going to talk about her life no matter what. "With this, she's able to narrate her own story through music," she explains. “It was a great time -- just sipping champagne and really just celebrating."  

With no official announcement, "Thank U, Next" arrived out of nowhere on Nov. 3, not even three months after Grande had dropped an entirely different album. Traditional industry logic would label that “market oversaturation,” but the pop star demonstrated that she knew the game was changing. Thanks to the headline-grabbing lyrics, the relatability of the message and its quietly inescapable vocal hooks, "Thank U, Next," was propelled to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming her first chart leader. When the Thank U, Next album arrived to near-unanimous acclaim and record first-week numbers in early 2019, her status as the premier pop trailblazer of the late 2010s was ratified.

And while there was a sense that Ariana was taking a hip-hop-inspired approach to releasing music on "next" -- just hitting the studio and uploading it shortly thereafter without a big promo push -- its rollout was hardly without strategy. After all, there was a blockbuster, star-studded video on the way.

"It started with Ariana having the idea of doing a Burn Book [like in Mean Girls], but a positive, gratitude Burn Book," remembers "Next" video director Hannah Lux Davis, who began plotting the video with Ariana when they were shooting the "Breathin'" clip in New York. "Through the conversation of memory lane and nostalgia we started talking about other movies from that time period, the early '00s, with female characters we loved: Legally Blonde, 13 Going on 30, and Bring It On."

They decided to recreate iconic scenes from those four films, but through a distinctly Ariana visual language. In that same session, they came up with the idea of tapping a few of the original actors – such as Mean Girls' Jonathan Bennett and Legally Blonde's Jennifer Coolidge – to reprise their roles. The rest of the cast was filled out with celebs like Kris Jenner, occasional duet partner Troye Sivan and former Victorious co-stars Elizabeth Gillies, Daniella Monet and Matt Bennett. Her real-life friends, who portray the Plastics-inspired crew dubbed 'The Lovers,' even got in on the action.

As a result, positive vibes drenched the shoot. "Every extra felt like they were part of something special. I've never felt that on a video before," Davis beams. "It was a nice moment to see Ariana with her real friends – she was really happy."

Preceded by 10 days of Twitter teases from Grande and her video co-stars that fueled (correct) speculation about the video paying homage to a variety of beloved flicks, the world was watching when the video dropped on Nov. 30. It was the first 'YouTube Premiere' video to boast a countdown clock, and it went on to shatter the platform's record for most views in 24 hours. 

"When people started seeing what it was with the different movies, it opened up her audience ever more and brought older fans into the mix," Davis opines of the rabid interest that preceded the clip. "It became a cultural event. People tell me, 'I remember I was in my office with my coworkers huddling around a computer' [when it came out]. It didn't come out around midnight and people watched it in bed -- it was an event during the day."

Of course, had the video been cheap, random nostalgia shout-outs, its shelf-life would've been brief. But like the song, it speaks to something simple, authentic and relatable.

"There was a through-line we picked up on," Davis says of the movies they tipped to. "All these characters are going through some sort of trauma or moment in their lives when there's a fork in the road or they're going through a breakup or they have to make a tough decision -- and they all come out of it a better person, finding their passion on the other side. It's similar to the theme of the song. A bad thing can become something good if you're grateful for the lesson it taught you."

Songs That Defined The Decade