‘Thank U, Next’ and Being Grateful For the Mess

Liz Taylor with a ponytail and less jewelry, seemingly overnight Ariana Grande became this generation’s celebrity survivor. In the course of less than two years, Grande has lived through a terrorist attack at one of her concerts, the death of an ex boyfriend and most recently, a very public breakup. Somehow, Grande has walked through it all with ponytail and lipgloss in tact while being armed with some of pop’s catchiest ear worms. (Please. Like I was the only who lip synced “God is a Woman” on their train to work all summer long.) But we’ve officially reached the peak of Mount Grande with the release of her latest single “Thank U, Next”.

At first glance, it’s kiss off to all her exes whom she name-checks at the top of the ditty. It could also be perceived as the pop incarnation of the hip hop diss track. However, despite it’s relatively simple production, the song is really an anthem to what Grande has come to represent: resiliency and personal growth. No anger, no blame game, Grande has turned the “eff you” track into a “thank you” track. Boldly, one-by-one, she clicks off the names the men and situations that didn’t work out. Tabloid fodder since the dawn of her career, the pop star has turned headlines into benchmarks for change. Think “Human Nature” by Madonna but with a better therapist. Like Madge, she’s not sorry. But unlike Madonna, she’s not pissed off. She’s grateful. Or that’s at least what this gay recovering addict and alcoholic has gotten out of it during an embarrassing amount of listens on Spotify.

If a song could file a restraining order against a person, surely “Thank U, Next” would have done so by now. While “Honey” by Robyn is probably happy to take a break, “Thank U Next” was an instant ear worm for me. Admittedly, I’ve long been powerless to Ariana Grande. What can I say? I love a good pop music guilty pleasure and she delivers on that front. (Please enjoy the “Side To Side” video for further proof.) What’s more is I like her sense of humor about herself, she has some bonafide vocal chops and more than a couple songs that are pure musical candy. Like the rest of the world, her ability to come out on the other side of tragedy is truly appealing to me too. Being raised on Tina Turner and Cher, I like a diva whose been through more than just a wind machine. Thus “Thank U, Next” fits perfectly in with her journey as an embattled celebrity who has held onto her sanity through some pretty shitty times. But there’s also the other layer to this little pop song that a person like me who has also been through some shit can sink their teeth into.

One of the things you hear over and over again in recovery is how the worst parts of your story can be the things that can help people the most. I used to want to gag and roll my eyes or roll my eyes so much that I gagged when I heard in AA meetings people introduce themselves as “grateful alcoholics” or “grateful addicts”. Like give me a break. What a shitty thing to be grateful for. That’s like saying I’m grateful for our current First Lady or I’m grateful for getting the clap. For the longest time, being an alcoholic felt like a curse to me. Great. I was just another drunk in a family tree that was already filled with empty bottles. I didn’t want to embrace it or be grateful for it. I wanted to hide from it.

But over the last 9 years of sobriety, I can honestly say I get it. I get being grateful for these things that felt like tragedies at the time. By writing about being an alcoholic, an addict, a person living with depression and a person living with HIV, I’ve gotten incredible gifts but the biggest one is when people say what I wrote about helped them. Crazy, right?!? I wanna barf or burst into tears when people say things like that. It’s so overwhelming. Here are these things that I was horrified and ashamed to have that now help people! Who would have thought. “Thank U, Next” taps into this idea perfectly. Grande is talking about men in her life when she sings “I’m so fucking grateful for my ex” but that could be easily be substituted for death, illness and even addiction.

In a season like we’re currently in that focuses on gratitude, “Thank U, Next” is somewhat of an unusual anthem. It doesn’t exactly fit the sigh inducing #Blessed social media posts of new cars and supermodel relationships. This kind of gratitude is of the ninja variety. This requires some insight and wisdom to look at a carwreck of your life and say, “I’m grateful that I’m still alive.” The “next” tagged on at the end is important too because it signals that she’s grateful for the lessons that came along with disappointments but is ready for the new adventures already on their way.

Beyond the possibility of helping other people, these experiences or tragedies or heartbreaks are incredible pathways to growth or at least they can be if we see them that way. This has honestly been my experience. If it wasn’t for the pain of getting sober, I wouldn’t have the life I have today. If it wasn’t for the crushing blow of my HIV diagnosis, I wouldn’t have the opportunities I have to help others today. If it wasn’t for depression, I would have never gotten connected to so many other amazing people who also have what I have. If It wasn’t for my bad toxic relationships, I wouldn’t have the amazing marriage I have today. I too am so fucking grateful. And also? Next!




Sean Paul Mahoney is a writer & recovery mentor in Portland. NOW THAT YOU'VE STOPPED DYING is his new essay collection, is available now from Zephyr Bookshelf.

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Sean Paul Mahoney

Sean Paul Mahoney

Sean Paul Mahoney is a writer & recovery mentor in Portland. NOW THAT YOU'VE STOPPED DYING is his new essay collection, is available now from Zephyr Bookshelf.

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