Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” is a sensation of such magnitude that it’s easy to feel like Ariana has always been this cultural behemoth. Yet “thank u, next” is Ariana’s first Billboard number one hit. It’s easily her best performing single. What puts this song and its music video apart is Grande’s masterful execution and understanding of the social media hype machine. Both the single and music video have managed to drum intense fervor through references to pop culture without seeming insincere.
In the video, Ariana recreates iconic scenes from “Mean Girls,” “Bring It On,” “13 Going on 30” and “Legally Blonde.” She’s the centerpiece of these recreations, but fills in the spaces with so many cultural fixtures that it’s hard to keep your eye on just her. The opening scene, taking place in the halls of Upper Darby High School, features several students voicing their intense obsession with the pop star, who is playing the role of Regina George. One of those students just happens to be Troye Sivan.
In a later scene, Kris Jenner fills in as Ariana’s irresponsible mother, videotaping the “Plastics” at their Christmas show. She holds the camera out and gleefully yells “Thank you, next, bitch!”
Moments like these are where Ariana and her team show their total understanding of how culture works today. The movie was released three years before Kim Karadashian’s sex tape, yet eerily predicted the rise of a “Plastics”-like clique in the form of the Kardashians. By conflating Kris Jenner to shameless stage-mother Mrs. George, Ariana and her team essentially skewer our culture, in which people we love to hate become paramount. Using Kris as her fill-in is a genius move of reference, where the source becomes the material.
That sort of self-awareness makes this video perfectly 2018. It’s a visual representation of the constantly referential world of Twitter, where everything is simultaneously about something else and yourself, like when we post photos of reality TV stars like Kris Jenner saying incredibly heinous things with the caption: “Me.”
In the “thank u, next” video, Ariana literally becomes pop culture, and pop culture becomes her.