Exploring popular media through the feminist lens

Ariana Grande is no stranger to change. Evolution is the name of the game in music and in life. Each experience builds upon the last, and the art that follows is a diary of the drama of living. The accidental philosophy art births can teach a range of lessons. Grande taught us how to embrace burgeoning womanhood with strength and grace in “God is a woman.” She showed us the power of perseverance and the positivity that follows, the rainbow after the rain, in “no tears left to cry.” But “7 rings” is by far the most intricate work produced by the young artist. If Sweetener served to highlight the things that make life sugary sweet, the third single off Thank U, Next is about the things that make life spicy. Money, power and rebellion color the track with a delicious mischief.

However, even the most ardent fans must acknowledge a few of the flaws presented in “7 rings”. While the track is a testament to women’s potential in capturing wild success, its message has some blind spots where women of color are concerned. Is it an ambitious and exciting composition? Yes. Is it universally empowering? Somewhat. Is it relatable? Only for the 1%. Regardless of its shortcomings, the glittering new addition to this chapter of Grande’s musical career presents a lot of material worth discussing.

The title “7 rings” is a reference to the matching rings Grande purchased for her six closest friends. The very same rings make their way into the lyrics when Grande proclaims she “won’t be no Mrs.” implying the rings mark a deep commitment to her friendships. She implores us to question the undying loyalty we expect from women with respect to their male partners. By prioritizing her platonic friendships over her romantic ones, we are asked to consider the importance of female friendship. Romance is fleeting. Friendships often have better longevity than romantic relationships in early adulthood, so perhaps pals deserve as much devotion as partners. Perhaps the companionate love between friends deserve rings because they too participate in a powerful union.

Unlike the everchanging girl-squad of artists like Taylor Swift, for whom friendship is more of an aesthetic, the tone of “7 rings” honors the friendships that have survived the ravages of time. Groups of women cannot be reduced to the catfights presented in popular media, and Grande works to illustrate their complexity and depth. Women are not petty creatures, and their word is not shallow, thus rings are a tangible representation of profound commitment.

Where “7 rings” makes its mistakes is in its cultural appropriation. Many artists accidentally appropriate traditional icons because they perceive their actions to be appreciation and not appropriation.  For example, the Japanese lettering in the beginning of the music video appears to have no deeper meaning in the context of the song. While the singer recently commissioned a tattoo of similar lettering reading “let’s sing”, the significance of the tattoo being specifically Japanese is also absent. Although it’s obvious whence the characters came, the song and video fail to acknowledge their cultural richness. They are no more than exotic ornaments on a dazzling pink and purple drenched oeuvre.

Diving into the lyrics, Grande fumbles again at the line between appropriation and appreciation. Weave and wigs are famously a part of black culture. The history around black hair is extensive and laden with racial tension. The United States has a legacy of demanding assimilation from black women. We have asked them to do everything in their power to imitate whiteness. From skin bleaching creams to hair products meant to straighten and beat their hair into submission; we expected black women to assimilate in looks and values with their white contemporaries. Weave and wigs were the answer to these demands and everywhere you turn, black celebrities refer to this tradition in songs, movies and tv shows. Although all women are entitled to incorporate whatever makes them feel beautiful into their beauty regimen, we lambast black women for being “ghetto” or “ratchet” when they discuss weaves. We cannot in good faith then uplift a white woman for weaves when we condemn black women for it in the same breath. Grande should enjoy the hair she “just bought,” but the audience and artist must acknowledge the culture and history of the accessory. Wigs are not a prop for an artist’s new era, they are a longstanding tradition with a complex history. Grande did not invent wigs, and this lyric, when in the context of a fun but arrogant composition, does not read well for her.

While the song is ultimately Ariana Grande’s love letter to herself and a testament to female success, it does seem to come at a steep cost to women of color. “7 rings” is an intriguing prelude to Thank U, Next and given its complicated entanglement of messages, I expect the album to be just as intricate as its singles. If anything could be said about “7 rings,” it would be that it is a symptom of the society in which it was created. Women are moving up in the world, but intersectional issues prevent women from moving forward at the same pace. Grande’s newest single is one for the books, just not for everyone.

– Simone Shadd