It’s almost time to celebrate the one-year anniversary of pop culture’s wildest romance, a love that deserves a second look in light of the stratospheric success one of its participants is currently enjoying.
The short-lived coupling of Pete Davidson and Ariana Grande represented two stereotypical sides of the millennial coin, almost literally marrying the nihilistic with the superficial. That’s less a judgement than a description. Both are more than their personas, yet with nearly a year’s distance from the inception of their faded summer love—a year that turned out to be pivotal for Grande—we can see how both those personas mingled in a way that instructively reflects broader generational attitudes. (I should mention all three of us were born in 1993.) It was the perfect millennial engagement.
Grande’s recent string of smashes deliberately reinforces her image as the shamelessly indulgent brat, a role listeners can cathartically assume when her songs hit their Daily Mix. (Odd for an age cohort that’s surprisingly sympathetic to socialism.) She’s the younger half of our generation’s consummate pop diva. Now in its seventh week atop the Billboard Hot 100, “7 rings” reflects an ascendent attitude. It’s the influencer’s anthem. Like “thank u, next” I’m not sure the message is all bad, even if it’s not all great either.
From lines like “Lashes and diamonds, ATM machines, buy myself all of my favorite things” to “You like my hair? Gee thanks, just bought it” the song celebrates material indulgences as rewards earned from work. Grande’s ability to buy her luxuries is a key aspect of their enjoyment. (It’s a theme that’s been embraced by similar millennial celebrities, including the Kardashians and Jenners.) But her ethos is ultimately superficial, consciously and shamelessly so:
“Whoever said money can’t solve your problems
Must not have had enough money to solve ’em
They say, “Which one?” I say, “Nah, I want all of ’em”
Happiness is the same price as red-bottoms”
With her high-maintenance aesthetic, Grande made for an interesting other half to the grimy-but-lovable Davidson, whose comedy persona can be characterized as an apathetic millennial dirtbag. That sounds harsh, especially for a guy people generally like, but it’s an act, and the shocking resonance of his apathy is what gives Davidson’s schtick its legs. He’s the kind of dude you would expect to mock Grande, and she’s the kind of girl you would expect to mock Davidson.
But they both project a unifying indifference: stoner apathy and hot girl apathy. The latter is muddled, combining the eager pursuit of physical beauty with a strange nonchalance. Grande’s “lashes and diamonds” are casually boasted about on an album in all lowercase text, as though the diva who needs to be outfitted in red bottoms couldn’t be bothered to abide by grammatical conventions. (And what do they matter anyway?) In “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” currently sitting in the 15th slot on Billboard’s Hot 100, the narrator’s purported boredom is really an act, consciously or otherwise. The song starts with the line, “You got me some type of way, ain’t used to feelin’ this way.” Far from boredom, what she’s feeling is more of a yearning. But that’s not very cool.
While Grande is “wearing a ring, but ain’t gon’ be no Mrs.” in “7 rings,” she’s warmly imaging her future wedding in “thank u, next.” Mimicking a clean-cut Julie Andrews in “Favorite Things,” Grande sings of “breakfast at Tiffany’s and bottles of bubbles, girls with tattoos who like getting in trouble.” Combined with her assertion that “happiness is the same price as red bottoms,” it would seem Grande believes life is best spent in pursuit of material pleasures. Ironic or otherwise (and I don’t think it is), this is not the message of “thank u, next,” which is a surprisingly mature statement on love, patience, and learning from pain.
Pain is something both Grande and Davidson know too well. Each has been touched personally by the kinds of tragedies that shaped our generation—terrorism, addiction, and mental health troubles. Davidson’s father was killed in 9/11. A suicide bomber murdered 22 people at Grande’s concert in Manchester, England, two years ago. Davidson battles borderline personality disorder, and has contemplated suicide; Grande suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of the Manchester bombing, and has been in therapy since her parent’s divorce. Davidson has struggled with substance abuse; Grande’s ex-boyfriend Mac Miller died of an accidental overdose in September. Both have demonstrated respectable flashes of maturity in response to their circumstances.
They really were the perfect millennial match, avatars for the moral confusion gripping a generation whose world was turned upside down by 9/11 in our youths, who came of age during a financial crisis, who pioneered young adulthood in a post-landline world. Grande’s nonchalant diva (an oxymoron, in some sense) and Davidson’s pothead nihilist persona are two sides of the same apathetic coin, two variations on the millennial instinct to appear nonplussed in the face of upheaval, to indulge rather than engage. But they’re both better than that. Sometimes they just don’t want people to know it.
Davidson and Grande started dating last May, were engaged by June, and broken up by October, shortly after Miller passed. There was always chatter about their young ages, Davidson was 24, Grande turned 25 in June. In 1993, the year they were born, the median age for women to enter their first marriage was 24.5 (26.5 for men). In the year they got engaged, that number had spiked more than three years, to 27.8. Chalk it up to another major cultural change that’s unfolded over the course of our generation’s short lifetime.
The world is changing quickly, and that’s been the case for decades now. Still, there was something oddly representative about the splintered union of Davidson and Grande, both of whom project apathetic personas as entertainers but ultimately live more complex lives and seem to struggle with a sense of moral confusion. That’s hardly unusual for people in their twenties, but their particular confusion is rooted in a distinctly millennial set of circumstances.
In the midst of “7 rings,” her chart-topping ode to materialism, Grande sings, “Been through some bad sh-t, I should be a sad b-tch. Who woulda thought it’d turn me into a savage?” It’s a transformation that could go one way or the other, toward full-throttle nihilism or a work ethic that’s very much predicated on the value of actually working. In Grande’s case, the direction isn’t quite clear yet—and that’s what makes her worth watching.