Last week international sweetheart and overt blackfish Ariana Grande released her fifth album Thank U, Next, and with it her latest single ‘Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored’. Taste in Grande’s music aside, can we please discuss what an absolute toxic mess of a song this is?? I was under the impression we were leaving petty girl-on-girl hate in pop music behind for 2019, but I guess Ari didn’t get the memo. You may think that seems ironic given we’re critiquing her right now, but let’s get one thing clear; we’re not hating on Ariana Grande because she’s a woman, or for no good reason. We’re critiquing her for being problematic.
Okay now that’s out of the way, let’s take a look at exactly what is wrong with this song.
Why Does It Matter? It’s Just Pop Music
Pop is an influential platform, and Ariana Grande in particular has an exceptionally devoted fanbase made up largely of young women. The messages she puts out in her music, videos, social media, and as part of her image in general are, by proxy, endorsed and condoned by her.
The simple concept behind the song’s title and subject – ‘Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored’ – pits one young woman as the obstacle or enemy of another. It positions the girlfriend as an annoyance, as irritating competition for the man-prize they both want. In this scenario she actively sabotages the other girl’s relationship just for the hell of it, needlessly tearing down another woman she doesn’t even know for sport. This dynamic reinforces the idea that other women are your enemies purely by virtue of having things that you want, and by merely existing in a way which is inconsistent with your own existence, desires and ideals.
Is she trying to get at the idea of being an ‘empowered’ woman who owns her own sexuality and makes unapologetic demands of men? Possibly, but on her climb up she is tearing another woman down. In ‘Dangerous Woman’ Ariana sings “ain’t you ever seen a princess be a bad bitch?”, and it feels very much as though she is trying to lean into that ‘bad bitch’ vibe here. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of a bad bitch vibe, but not when it involves dragging other women and unnecessarily making them out to be enemies. In case you hadn’t cottoned on by now, this is incredibly, incredibly toxic. If your empowerment comes at the expense of somebody else, surprise, it’s not empowerment: it’s being a piece of shit spiteful opportunist. For somebody who holds such sway and reverence amongst young women, it’s disappointing and concerning to see Ariana Grande reduce herself to a man-stealing woman-hating homewrecking piece of internalised misogyny. Save that image for bad mid-2000s chick flicks okay?
Young women on Twitter are claiming that they feel “guided and inspired” by her daily – guided. With toxic messaging such as this, that’s concerning. Ariana indulging her “mean girl” side may seem like a frivolous piece of fun to her, but it empowers the fanbase to think and act in a similarly venomous way.
Toxic Femininity in Pop Is Nothing New
Let’s take a moment to recall that toxic femininity and internalised misogyny in pop is absolutely nothing new. There have been by women about The Other Woman, or comparing themselves to other women, since music became commercially available. In ‘Strong Enough’ in 1998, even my bae Cher sings that “I’ve been losing sleep / And you’ve been going cheap / She ain’t worth half of me it’s true / I’m telling you”, in a thinly-veiled jibe calling The Other Woman a prostitute.
In 2005 The Pussycat Dolls gave us the ephemeral “don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me”. P!nk disappointed us all in 2006 with ‘Stupid Girls’, a track brimming over with internalised misogyny as P!nk tells us how glad she is that she’ll never be one of “those girls” who “travel in packs of two or three with their itsy-bitsy doggies and their teeny-weeny tees”, even asking “where have all the smart people gone” – wow, that is low. The very next year Avril Lavigne finally sold out and gave us the track nobody asked for, shout-singing “hey hey, you you, I don’t like your girlfriend, no way no way, I think you need a new one, hey hey, you you, I could be your girlfriend” (ugh what terrible lyrics).
More recently and on a broader field, Meghan Trainor gave us the eye-rolling vomit-inducing body-shaming bad-feminist anthem ‘All About That Bass’. Also, see Taylor Swift’s ‘You Belong With Me’ in which she directly compares herself to the ‘bad girl’ and emphasises her pure innocence as superior both morally and also as ‘girlfriend material’. T-Swift has many other problematic songs of this nature, but this is perhaps the most overt. This is just a teeny tiny microscopic selection from just the past 20 years; I’m sure the full list would make you wince.
Paramore’s Hayley Williams recently retired their problematic hit ‘Misery Business’, recognising the toxicity therein. Whilst it’s great that she now recognises that lyrics she wrote when she was 17 don’t convey the best message in the world, the song has been out in the world and a firm favourite for over a decade and has already had its effect. I know – I was one of the girls who loved the shit out of it, because it validated my internalised misogyny and made me feel okay about hating other girls. As disappointing as Ariana’s dabble into internalised misogyny as a female pop artist is, it is unfortunately consistent with the genre, and that’s why nobody sees it as an issue.
Is it possible to sing about other women and encouraging break ups in a positive light? It sure is! The perfect example is Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ (name a better song. You can’t!). Has anybody ever been so nice about the Other Woman in a song? Almost definitely not. Equally, Lizzo’s ‘Good As Hell’ cites some excellent, loving and empowering reasons to legitimise and encourage a breakup; “if he don’t love you anymore then walk your fine ass out that door”, and is waiting to pick her friend up off the floor with “a bottle of tequila I’ve been saving for you”, telling her “come now, come dry your eyes, you know you’re a star, you can touch the sky”. Encouraging a breakup and empowering and lifting up her sister-friend? Goals.
Perhaps if Ariana took hints from Lizzo and sang “break up with your girlfriend cos you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship” I’d be on board, but it’s not okay to send out toxic messaging to your young impressionable fanbase. It’s not punk or edgy or cool to hate on other women just for the hell of it; it’s internalised misogyny.