For the past two hours, the phrase “I’m so successful” has been ricocheting around my head and, embarrassingly enough, occasionally slipping from my mouth. No, it’s not because I’m suddenly imbued with the smugness of a straight white man graduating from an Ivy League cum laude. It’s thanks to the seventh track on Ariana Grande’s new album Sweetener, entitled, you may have guessed, “successful.”
“It feels so good to be this young and having fun and be successful,” Grande sings in the chorus of “successful." Coming from the 25-year-old, these words are both a humblebrag and statement of fact. Grande is so obviously, so clearly, so successful. When you're a kid imagining what success looks like, you picture Ariana Grande: Young, rich, and selling out stadium tours.
Sure, "successful" is a brag on Grande's part — but it's also a song designed specifically for us peons to join in and brag along with her. Compared to the extraordinary belts and runs featured in other parts of the song, the delivery of "successful's" chorus is incredibly subdued. Grande erases all vocal embellishment from her voice. Even if you can’t sing like her, she seems to imply, you can sing this one line. It's no coincidence that the next lyrics are, "girl, you too, you are so young and beautiful and so successful." You, too, can boast your own success.
Still, when we wear our success, it will probably look different than Grande's high ponytail and oversized sweaters. At some point, most of us grow up and realize that we are Normals. We’re not going to marry princes, or go platinum. Our most significant dips into the public sphere will come through an HQ win, or a particularly great tweet. That’s how it goes. You get older, and your idea of success changes from generic astronomical stardom to something more personal, shaped around the specificities of your dreams.
This is not a tragedy. After all, the concept of success isn't reserved for those who orbit in the gilded sphere of the rich and famous; it's more personal. Grande knows this: "successful" is actually song suited for all kinds of success, not just her kind. She tweeted so herself.
More importantly, "successful" is an addition to sparsely populated category of "women's success anthem." We have an ample backlog of songs with which we can express most of life's big monuments. See: falling-in-love songs, heartbreak songs, getting-ready-for-Friday-night songs, and even experimentally kissing girls songs. But there's a far more limited sonic vocabulary with which to express our ambition, or our happiness when that ambition manifests in tangible rewards.
Of course, "successful" is not the only one out there. Icons like Beyoncé and Cardi B have let us into the headspace of a super successful superstar with their personal songs. In the song "Moneybag," Cardi B takes unapologetic pride in her newfound wealth: "I park my Bentley truck on my Versace driveway / Lookin' like money bag." In "Shining," Beyoncé is invigorated by "all of this winning," AKA the vast and unfathomable magnitude of her career. She's killing it, and she's not sorry: "All of this good, I don't feel bad for it." These women refute the unspoken but widespread agreement that we should be humble where our achievements are concerned, lest we be seen as unlikable. But I find these songs make them all the more likable.
Unlike Cardi B and Beyoncé's songs, Grande's "successful" isn't rooted in any references to Grande's personal life. (There's a whole other song devoted to that. It's even called Pete Davidson.) Instead, the song is structured around a vague conversation between a woman and her lover: "I just got some news from work, boy," the song begins. Tonight, she says, she's a "baller" — and they're going to celebrate. In a way, this exchange is a picture of the ideal modern hetero relationship. She is confident her boyfriend will share in her joy, even if she out-earns or out-achieves him. We can even look to Grande's relationship with Pete Davidson, her fiancé, as an example of a relationship not tied to conventional gender expectations of who is the provider. Grande is the richer of the two: As Davidson revealed in his GQ profile, Grande bought their $16 million New York apartment.
Women are only just beginning to speak only about success without worrying if they sound "polite" or "nice" or "approachable." Earlier this year, the bestselling author Jessica Knoll published the New York Times op-ed, "I Want to Be Rich and I’m Not Sorry" on the eve of her second novel's publication. In op-ed, Knoll detailed her calculated approach to success, which in this case specifically means wealth. Knoll had no model for the kind of life she wanted.
"I have always wrestled with what has been expected of me as a woman versus what I expect of myself. The conflicting messages of millennial womanhood: to be ambitious but never bossy, strong but skinny, honest but polite, supportive of my fellow sisters’ success while the culture gets off on girl fights," she wrote.
Knoll turned to her books to create the examples she yearned to encounter in real life. "Only in fiction have I been able to create women who aggressively seek money and power the way men seek money and power," she wrote. Her novel, The Favorite Sister is populated by women entrepreneurs who would hum along to Grande's "successful" while watching their business grow.
Knoll, her characters, Cardi B, Beyoncé, and Grande all acknowledge their success, and then do something even more radical: They admit to enjoying it. While their particular brand of success might be alienating, I think the celebration in Grande's "successful" can be applied to all of life's little victories, not just to the material or professional ones. Did you work from home and manage to change out of pajamas? You're so successful. Did you go on a date after a prolonged heartbreak? You're so successful. Did you become a superstar who can buy $16 million apartments? You're so successful, too. Doesn't it feel good?