Art As Therapy: On Ariana Grande’s ‘Thank U, Next’
Thank U, Next fell from heaven and rose to number one on the Billboard 200 on the 8th of February 2019, just under 6 months after Ariana Grande dropped Sweetner. Not only did it match Sweetner’s Billboard 200 position, but it also set an all-time American online streaming record for both a pop album and an album by a female artist. Forever an overachiever, Grande also became the second artist of all time to occupy the top 3 spots of the Billboard Hot 100 since The Beatles in 1964. All of this considered, it’s difficult to believe the slew of broken records left in its wake isn’t the most distinctive thing about this album. According to Grande in a deeply emotional interview with Zach Sang, the album was not planned and basically materialised from a champagne infused haze as she endeavoured to heal following the tumultuous events of the past two years.
Thank U, Next was an instrument of spiritual rejuvenation which unfolded amongst a group of Grande’s closest friends in a studio across the road from her apartment. Following ex-boyfriend Mac Miller’s death on the 7th of September 2018, and Grande’s subsequent separation from Pete Davidson in October, an ensemble of Grande’s closest friends moved into her apartment to support her through her grief. Day after day they found their way across the road to the studio, and the songs began to pile up. Grande believes that the process of writing the album with her friends saved her life, stating that although she had been in talk therapy many times in her life it was insufficient to guide her through her grief. Her experience is in many ways a quintessential model of how the process of creating art can help us come to terms with deep pain.
Making music to break through loss epitomises the maxim ‘when life gives you lemonade, make lemonade’, and Grande has sweetener and musical talent to boot. It seems so intuitive that making something beautiful from the stark reality of the human condition has medicinal properties, but not everyone possesses a creative foundation to bring their story to life. Is healing through art something best reserved for the enclaves of society with established artistic capabilities or does it merit promoting creativity, irrespective of natural talent, so that we are all equipped to express ourselves when we need to? Far too often see art as primarily public facing; as an output rather than a progress.
I write shit poetry, the kind of stuff you throw in the bin immediately after writing it, but it doesn’t matter because it’s not for consumption. My poetry isn’t an output, it’s a detoxification procedure. Growing up, I wanted to make music but I was so affronted by the poor quality of what I produced that I abandoned my instruments some time in my young teens. My parents argued that I would regret not being able to play a ‘party piece’ but they never broached the idea that I would deprive myself of an emotional outlet. In art classes teachers hand out A’s, B’s, C’s, and D’s, and never once do governments and schools consider how telling children their self-expression is deficient will affect them for the rest of their lives. Art can be beautiful and ground-breaking, but it doesn’t need to be either of those things in order to be valuable.
Therapy is an outlet where people can talk through their pain in a ‘non-judgemental environment’, free from people who are bound up in biased perceptions of your circumstances. Therapists don’t tell you the answers, they create a dialogue which allows you to find them yourself. Creating art of any kind involves establishing such a dialogue internally making it an indispensable substitute to people who don’t have the option of therapy. Therapy might not have worked for Ariana Grande, but there are hundreds of thousands of people worldwide which can’t access it in the first place. Some can’t afford it, some don’t trust the psychological establishment. Without therapy, many people turn to their friends, family and partners but all-consuming pain is an ugly and alienating experience which often leave people isolated. Loss is messy, uncomfortable and difficult to be around because it leaves those around you feeling powerless and reminds them that eventually, they will feel the pain of loss themselves.
We should never have to endure the hardest times in our lives alone, but life doesn’t play by the rules and most of us will find ourselves isolated or incapable of communicating with others at times. All we can do is ensure that like Ariana Grande we have an outlet to express our pain when conversations fail us. Never feel guilty for producing mediocre art, and never shame someone else for doing so. If you are a teacher, emphasise the process and not the output. If you are a parent or a sibling, encourage your family irrespective of whether or not they have talent. Most importantly of all, remember that producing something entirely for the sake of your emotional wellbeing is a pure act of self-love.
By Richeal Ni Laoghaire – Music Writer