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Alone, Together: The Rising Sound Of Self-Love In Pop

Katy Perry, Tove Lo, and more are picking up where Ariana Grande left off

Ariana Grande had fans confused.

In late 2018, mere months after the release of her sparkling fourth album, Sweetener, her life had quickly changed — her ex-boyfriend, Mac Miller, had fatally overdosed, and her engagement to Pete Davidson had crumbled — and now her music would do the same. Grande first shared the more liberated Thank U, Next album title track in early November. Then things got wild.

“I know they say I move on too fast, but this one gon' last,” she sings on the track after explicitly name-dropping four ex-beaus. Then, she subtly glides into the line that caught her fans off guard: “‘Cause her name is Ari, and I’m so good with that.” So unexpected was this hard-earned statement celebrating self-love that fans’ first impulse was to play detective to discover who the woman was that Ari loved. “Aubrey” remained the dominant misheard guess, which naturally brought Drake memes; Grande even winked at the confusion in the song’s video, released a few weeks later.

But this wasn’t a ploy, just a simple declaration that her relationship with herself had gotten to a healthy place. “When I felt myself saying, ‘’Cause her name is Ari,’ I knew it was a special line, but part of me was like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s kind of corny,’” she told Billboard. “But the other part of me was like, ‘That’s beautiful, and I need to keep it in.’ I know that once I put something into a song, then it’s real.”

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While “thank u, next” may have re-lit pop’s self-love torch, the theme has long burned bright in the genre. This past decade saw a sweeping trend toward empowerment pop, anchored by superstar team-ups like Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé’s “Feeling Myself,” noble one-offs like Sara Bareilles’s “Brave,” instantly iconic moments like Kendrick Lamar’s “i,” and gratifying hymns like Hailee Steinfeld’s “Love Myself.” But for years, no one had the game locked down quite like Katy Perry. In the early 2010s, it was the singer’s entire brand, and it ruled the Billboard Hot 100 — from the rousing “Firework” to the cathartic “Part of Me” to the battle anthem “Roar,” all of which hit No. 1. When her first single of 2019 dropped, Perry showcased a more mellowed-out turn that nevertheless brimmed with lived-in wisdom.

Enter Perry’s “Never Really Over” video, which casts the pop star at a spiritual retreat center to deal with the lingering effects of a broken heart. The song’s lyrics point to an acceptance that there might be some false endings before you can really move on, and that once you do, healing takes time: “Thought we kissed goodbye / Thought we meant this time was the last / But I guess it's never really over.” In the video, they’re rendered potently as group tugs-of-war and coordinated dances in fields of amber sunshine.

Anthems about heartache and exciting new romances will always be pop’s backbone, but championing the self has become one of pop’s biggest themes of 2019.

Director Philippa Price previously told MTV News she pondered the overarching question of the song. “How can I show what you go through in heartbreak in a very visual way?” She relied on Perry herself, who underwent real acupuncture and cupping in the clip, to embody the deeper meaning. "I think she loved the concept behind the video because she seems to be really be working on healing, and she definitely put a lot of personal experience into this world,” Price said. “I think that she really got into it because there's a lot of things that she's working on personally that she was able to channel."

Anthems about heartache and exciting new romances will always be pop’s backbone, but championing the self (especially in the wake of a breakup) has become one of pop’s biggest themes of 2019 — easily found in Lizzo’s swaggering “Truth Hurts,” a rallying ode to liberation that hit No. 1 in September. Beginning with her moment-defining lyrics — “I just took a DNA test / Turns out I’m 100% that bitch” — and flowing through the music video, which concludes with Lizzo literally marrying herself, the inward love flaunted by “Truth Hurts” has proven to be an essential foundation to its staying power. The song first dropped in 2017, after all, and only this year saw a resurgence in part thanks to its placement in Netflix rom-com Someone Great. Lizzo’s empowering message was always there. This year, we were finally ready to hear it.

You can hear a similar message emphatically broadcast on Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Party for One,” a jubilant ode to flying solo whose release predated “thank u, next” by a few days. Jepsen’s chorus even features a similar recognition of loving thyself: “I'll be the one, if you don't care about me / Making love to myself, back on my beat.” It ended up a potent tonic; while the rest of Jepsen’s album Dedicated wrestles with love’s inevitable aches of self-doubt and murky boundaries, “Party for One” stands bold as its closer — a reminder that you’re all you need.

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But if the sound of 2019 pop has been shaped by self-love and actualization, perhaps Swedish maestro Tove Lo is the one lighting a path for a new crop of emotionally benevolent music. After a rich career mining the dark depths of sex and chemical impulses, the lyricist took  an altruistic turn this year. Instead of self-care, on “Glad He’s Gone,” she’s protecting a friend after watching her endure a romance turned sour. Throughout the song, Tove addresses her friend as “my baby” and says she loves her, in some acts of simple compassion. “He never saw the pretty things in you that I do,” she sings. It’s a logical stepping stone from “thank u, next” and “Party for One,” a perspective so self-aware that it moves on to help others.

In the video, Tove lends a listening ear to her pal even as she endures her own difficult (and humorous) odyssey. She goes to prison, stages a breakout, and assumes a new identity, all the while never hanging up. Co-director Vania Heymann, who helmed the clip with Gal Muggia, drew attention to the bond between Tove and her friend, played by actress Lola Fuchs. “We can tap into not only self-empowerment but also friendship. So we wanted to extend that into the video, how powerful that friendship is and how far you would go for that friendship,” Muggia says. “It's the difference between talking about being a good friend and doing it.”

It’s a subtle but meaningful shift, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed, either; one astute YouTube commenter may have summed up what’s on the horizon already. “Ariana Grande [sings], ‘Break up with your girlfriend, I’m bored,” it reads. “Tove Lo [sings], ‘Break up with your boyfriend, I’m worried about your mental health.”

Welcome to VOL.UME: Love Now, a new series of stories chronicling how we find and experience romantic connections in the digital age. For the full experience, head to volume.mtv.com.