The arrival of Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next video was an eagerly anticipated internet event, complete with teaser trailers and alarm clocks set in various time zones. When it premiered, 450,000 people were already watching the countdown to the video on YouTube – but it was the commentary that came afterwards that cemented its status as potential video of the year. The way we consume content online has made the post-drop analysis of a music video from fans integral to the viewing experience. In the hours after they land, it is now custom to sit back and wait for “stan Twitter” to decode the entire thing, via threads and Tumblr posts, because you probably missed it the first time.
With pre-internet music videos, you pretty much had to keep your eyes peeled to ensure you didn’t miss secret messages. When Justin Timberlake released the video to his own highly anticipated break-up song, Cry Me A River, in 2002, he did so to viewers without a TV pause function or the ability to screenshot. His shade, therefore, was far less subtle, complete with an actor cos-playing as Spears in her iconic flat cap, as well as a gratuitous slow-mo close-up on an upside-down photo of a Britney lookalike cuddling up to a mystery man.
Over two decades later, easter eggs in music videos are more sophisticated. And, as Grande’s video has shown, they are increasingly being deployed as a means of communication. With Thank U, Next, Grande truly revealed herself a product of her generation – not just because of her love for mid-noughties chick flicks or having the foresight to bring the Kris Jenner "you're doing amazing sweetie" meme full circle, but because of her awareness of millennials tendency to dissect and decipher celebrity music videos online.
And she didn’t disappoint; Grande said more about her high-profile split with Pete Davidson in her visuals than to the press. Soon, stills flooded our timelines showing that her ex-fiancé’s page in her Burn Book read "I love u always" and "HUUUUUUUGE", confirming his rumoured Big Dick Energy. "Srry I dipped", she scribbled at the top of the page, appearing to clarify that it was her who ended their engagement. She also informed fans that her "cute" and "sweet" ex Big Sean can "still get it", sending viewers into a carefully constructed frenzy. Grande is notorious for her intimate relationship with her fans and her video is as much an ode to old rom-coms as it is them; Australian pop star Troye Sivan mentions that he’s heard Grande is dating a woman named “Aubrey”, a comment lost on a casual Arianator, but it's a nod to fans who misheard the lyrics (she refers to a relationship with herself, “Ari”) after the song came out. Their nickname for her – baby girl – appears throughout, too.
In Thank U, Next Grande can be seen reading a textbook called Immigration and Refugee Law and Policy, taking aim at Trump’s widely reported immigration policies that included the separation of families at the US-Mexico border
Increasingly, female artists in particular appear to be utilising music videos to communicate on their own terms. Famously tight-lipped in interviews, Taylor Swift has addressed various scandals through hers. One example is her reappropriation of snakes, seen in her video for Ready For It, which included the “Year of the Snake” in Chinese calligraphy, as well as her inclusion of a huge CGI snake in her video for Look What You Made Me Do. In 2016, Swift was referred to as a snake by commentators, after Kim Kardashian leaked damning audio from Swift's phone call with Kanye West regarding her being referenced in his song Famous. "I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative," Swift says mockingly in Look What You Made Me Do, referencing her now-infamous response to the backlash. In hindsight, it is clear it was less about her wanting to be excluded from the narrative, and more about her wanting to control it, as she’s been able to by addressing her critics and fans alike through her videos. It worked well, too – even her detractors seemed to admire her self-awareness.
Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade, is another good example. Formation, in particular, gave us more insight into a notoriously private Beyoncé’s political views than we had throughout most of her career – she still tends to say more in her visuals than in interviews. The video referenced the Black Lives Matter movement and Hurricane Katrina – in a similar vein, in Thank U, Next, Grande can be seen reading a textbook called Immigration and Refugee Law and Policy, taking aim at Trump’s widely reported immigration policies that included the separation of families at the US-Mexico border.
It’s worth noting that, despite its political commentary, multiple layers and critical acclaim, the Formation video was never quite lauded in the same way as the offerings from Beyoncé’s male contemporaries. When Kanye West released his video for Famous, inspired by painter Vincent Desiderio and featuring lookalikes of naked celebrities, music blogs spent days pouring over the possible meaning. Donald Glover’s This is America and Summertime saw him hailed a genius for the video’s symbolism, some likely offering interpretations that Glover hadn’t even intended, with the fervor of a desperate student in GSCE English. Still, the message sent via videos like Thank U, Next and the like is loud and clear: female pop stars are putting out some of the smartest and most engaging music videos we’ve seen in a long time – we just need to pay attention.