Back in February of this year, Ariana Grande seemed on top of the world, or at least the music industry. With the release of an album carrying two back-to-back Billboard number one singles that were followed by another that reached number two, it seemed as if no other star in the music industry could possibly shine brighter. A critical as well as commercial success, Thank U, Next managed to significantly evolve her musical style towards more hip-hop influenced production, all less than a year after the release of Sweetener. And yet Grande hasn’t been able to touch those heights since. The two singles after the album, both collaborations, went nowhere, the third, ‘boyfriend’, barely cracked the Billboard Hot 100, and the mess that was ‘Don’t Call Me Angel’ was rightly panned and shunned from the top 10. For an artist who seemed so utterly dominant, these have been very poor commercial responses.
So, what happened? The answer, I think, can best be seen in her most successful post-Thank U, Next song, ‘boyfriend’. Listening to the song I was immediately reminded of another song, not of Grande’s but of the trio Miike Snow, more specifically their 2015 single ‘Genghis Khan’. Like ‘boyfriend’, the song deals with a speaker whose jealousy makes them want to stop a lover from seeing other people, despite their relationship still being non-committal. I will admit that perhaps my love of ‘Genghis Khan’ has led me to draw a link where others would see only wisps, but I still think we can learn a great deal about the underperformance of ‘boyfriend’ by comparison of which song does what better, if only as part of a transparent exercise to get you to add ‘Genghis Khan’ to your music library.
Certainly, on the visual style of things, ‘Genghis Khan’ has ‘boyfriend’ beat. That’s not to say ‘boyfriend’ has poor quality in its music video and cover art – in fact, the over-the-top ‘imagination’ sequences to show off the jealousy of both partners is quite entertaining and original, but it is all pulled off in the same old Hannah Lux Davis-style tongue-in-cheek shiny and somewhat silly production. It’s the same colour palette we were treated to with Thank U, Next’s videos, the same abundance of slow motion, the whole thing ends up appearing quickly prepared, and treats us to only a single location for the whole video that serves little purpose other than looking mildly interesting. Grande’ style evolved into Thank U, Next, but now appears to stagnate. Genghis Khan, on the other hand, gives us a brilliant homage to classic bond films, complete with massive laser, armies of henchmen and an extremely well-matched visual aesthetic. The video is so good, in fact, I would urge you to watch it purely on its own merits, even if you are not sold on the song.
The modern music industry may be dominated by visual style, but it certainly isn’t everything – and on the topic of the music itself ‘Genghis Khan’ has a few more things to offer as exemplary practices. In terms of vocal skill, Wyatt is nowhere near Grande, which becomes painfully obvious when watching any of Miike Snow’s live performances. Despite this, he manages to inject significant energy and feeling into ‘Genghis Khan’, which are two elements sadly lacking from ‘boyfriend’. Grande sounds a little too comfortable, a little too bored, and Social House add very little from their feature. Defenders of ‘boyfriend’ may have some recourse in the lyrical domain, however. Whilst the line “I get a little bit Genghis Khan” may be interesting and catching, the metaphor is tenuous at best and downright confusing at worst, and I must admit seems a little like shoehorning in order to give the song a more memorable hook line and title. Grande’s song may be repetitive, but uses its lyrics well to fit in with the mood and vibe of the song, and conjures up some fairly decent imagery at times. It may be a little vague to enable listeners to easily slot themselves into the narrative of the song, but such an accusation can easily be levelled at both songs as much as each other. On the production side of things, the drums roll ‘Genghis Khan’ forward with infectious energy, and though the tuned elements may be limited to a piano and bass, the whole production fits together rather excellently. ‘boyfriend’ seems to more subscribe to a modern trend of ‘chill’ music, but admittedly does this rather well. The production elements are altogether not a departure from Thank U, Next in any way, but are nicely refined and provide for a satisfying experience, especially in the chorus.
I think it inevitable that Grande will return to the top 10 of the Billboard charts. She may not have had her usual level of success from her post-Thank U, Next singles, but the album is not even a year old, and she remains an enormous presence in the industry, backed up by extremely competent producers and writers. So, whilst her most recent efforts may not have been par with her best work, at least you can enjoy the top-notch production of ‘Genghis Khan’, which may be four years old, but likely new to many. After all, it may have one to two exemplary elements to be learnt from.