We stan two self-love queens.
Last week, heaven cracked open and gave us two generation-defining post-breakup anthems and possibly the strongest pop songs of the year: Party For One by Carly Rae Jepsen, and thank u, next by Ariana Grande. God is apparently two women.
It’s serendipity, almost a miracle, that these two self-love bops tackle the same quandary of how to move on from a breakup, and come up with similar but different answers. That these songs were released so close to each other invites us to explore their differences, and how they resonate with each other. What kind of wisdom lies behind the music that made us dance alone in our rooms and come out of them more alive?
What “EMOTION” and “Kiss” have taught us is that Carly Rae, thematically speaking, dwells in a specific emotional realm. It’s not the person you want, but the wanting itself, that rules as king of the heart. This Kiss revels in the moment of flirting culminating in contact; I Really Like You deifies the swelling confession; even Your Type, if we read it as a breakup song, mourns a squandered fantasy. Now we see Carly Rae kind of switching gears. What previously sat on the throne is the possibility of love. Now it is the possibility, the promise, of moving on. And in Party For One, this promise is visceral, sexually charged. That is to say, it bangs.
Part of what makes a breakup so painful is the feeling of having lost a part of you. That endgame, that one flesh deal, now blows in the wind. It is both an existential and corporeal loss — to long for someone’s touch can feel like having been abandoned by God. You are starved for contact with something your flesh considered divine, and without them, you are left to your body, your hands, made profane by the way they left you.
But in Party For One, masturbation (and yeah, let’s be real, it’s about masturbation) is its own sacred thing, a reclamation of one’s body as the primary site of selfhood. “I’ll be the one — if you don’t care about me — making love to myself,” you sing with Carly Rae to high heaven and for your erogenous zones, a newly reinstated agent of a desire you can call yours. I also like that this song doesn’t preach foregoing bitterness, but hints that the best vengeance is independent pleasure. This song must be an extra helping of vindication for those who’ve gotten out of sexually unfulfilling relationships. Like, you couldn’t get me off, so I’ll get myself off better than you ever could. Weird flex, but true.
Even with a non-sexual reading, the track still bops, teaching us that even after the lights have dimmed and the feeling has faded, the party doesn’t stop. When the song recapitulates the chorus into a half-time groove, it really does feel like getting back on one’s beat, a lost groove found again.
And how fucking brilliant is it, by the way, that the music video portrays this behind-locked-doors means of healing as a communal thing? People in different rooms in a sketchy motel reacquaint themselves with the numinous quality of their hands, idle now, with no lover to touch, until a blackout summons these wandering-but-not-lost souls to the lobby. Then another kind of party takes place, one in which the attendees may not know what exactly everybody else is going through, but are just happy to be among people. “I’m not over you / But I’m trying,” Carly sings, and what a noble effort it is, to be comfortable with and even delighted about being alone in your bed, and in the world.
Party For One casts the event of a post-breakup healing as something freeing, a release, a (sometimes but not always) valid justification for whirlwind revelry. I think it’s fair to read being back on one’s beat as not just a tongue-in-cheek double entendre for masturbation, but also as a return to the swing of things as a single (read: independent) person in the casual dating market. Thank u, next, however, is a different story.
Ariana’s ode to self-love contains the sort of optimistic, future-affirming insights one might gain from a sabbatical, a moment of rest and reflection before facing the world. Committed relationships, after all, can also be their own kind of whirlwind. That’s sometimes why people break up in the first place. After the storm blows over, after all the crying and blackout drinking and tubs of ice cream, you take a step back and meditate as if in prayer: what is there to gain from all this love, this patience, this pain?
This is the anthem I think for those who, after a catastrophic event, are inclined to search for a silver lining. If a breakup is a trial, then surely there must be a lesson learned, a moral to the story. Sure, it is a problematic thing to reduce a lost lover to a learning experience, a sum of lessons to harvest from in the interest of self-actualization. But I also believe there is wisdom in taking stock of a relationship that has ended, all its best and worst parts, and turning it into fuel to become better, stronger, and more whole than the person you were before the relationship. I believe that’s what Ariana did, ticking off her exes by name like a review of related literature, and reporting her learnings as a christened scholar of love and loss.
We as voyeurs of pop culture have witnessed Ariana power through trial after trial — from the Manchester Arena bombing, to Mac Miller’s death, to getting groped on national TV, to how fucking clumsily Pete Davidson handled that whole thing. And let’s zoom in on Pete for a sec – this dude was supposed to be Ariana’s rock, her anchor in the storm of everything this year has thrown at her, and he fell flat. So how victorious it feels then, in the second verse, when we listen to Ariana proclaim that she’s met someone new, and that it’s gonna last, and that “her name is Ari,” lovingly referring to herself in the third person as a source of inspiration for the amazing way she handles pain. She becomes her own rock.
Let’s not forget that the song isn’t called just thank you but thank you, next. What Ariana shows us is that a healthy relationship with the self also begets a healthy relationship with life’s trials. Here is one way of honoring the things that hurt us: we don’t dwell on them, we don’t scheme vengeance, but acknowledge that these things happen, and blow a kiss.
I can’t help but listen to these two songs and think of how 2018, at least for me, stands as one of the bloodiest breakup seasons I’ve ever lived through. Watching couples I cared about as a unit, splitting up en masse, makes the city look radioactive, where it seems impossible for love to grow. But I think about how we got these songs so damn close to each other, and how it feels like nothing short of providence. The last two stitches in a cut well on its way to healing.
The beauty of music is how a song can spring from a songwriter’s specific experience, and resonate across different lives and situations. Maybe Party For One is the song you can relate to more, as you aspire for a state of ecstasy that doesn’t depend on any person or drug. Maybe thank u, next is the song that hits you hardest, as you strive towards a sense of peace that doesn’t actively dodge drama but accept whatever life throws your way. I think both songs are correct in their own way. I am happy that we aren’t pitting these songs against each other, but considering them as twin philosophies.
But if we could synthesize these two distinct attitudes of self-love as one holy promise that propels us through the lifelong project of becoming, it’s this: you are always stronger than what wounds you. That shit’s amazing.