| Arts & Culture
Music Listening to Ariana Grande’s “fake smile” and Holding onto My Teacher Persona
In her rejection of performing happiness, Grande invokes gratitude for the impact she’s made on others. I have to believe the same.
When I was twenty-one, I student-taught a class of high school seniors at a small public school in New Jersey. The kids, all seventeen or eighteen, were so close to me in age that the line between “student” and “teacher,” “child” and “adult” felt thin at best. I read The Metamorphosis to them from a wooden podium at the front of the classroom; hand-wrote notes for them to copy on the chalkboard; and when everyone had turned in their worksheets, we all talked about TV shows and movies until the bell rang. They put me onto Culture by Migos, and I played them the clean versions while they wrote their college essays in class.
That January, at the height of my seasonal depression, two of my students messed around with gasoline one night in their friend’s backyard and accidentally lit themselves on fire . One of the boys was burned so badly that he needed to be airlifted to the burn unit of a hospital an hour away in northern New Jersey. His injuries were so severe that he couldn’t return to school for the rest of the year. These last few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of nights looking through local newspapers, trying to find some update from that year after I graduated and moved away. Apart from the original report, I haven’t been able to find anything.
Immediately after the incident, getting to class on time felt impossible. At the time, I was already fighting a severe spell of anxiety as I looked toward the end of my final year of college. Student teaching was the first assignment I’d been given in college that I worried I’d fail to complete. I had also applied to grad school; as I awaited acceptances, I dreamed of moving to Brooklyn, Oregon, Colorado, any city with an MFA program that accepted me, and starting my career as a writer.
I had already been dreading the possibility of rejection, of staying in New Jersey for the rest of my life. When I read the news about my students in the Asbury Park Press , the “rest of my life” started to feel a lot shorter. The walls of my future started to close in on me, and I felt like a phony as I read to the students from the podium each morning, holding a beat-up Everbind The Alchemist in my left hand while I rubbed the sweat off my right palm with my khakis. I pulled every sweater I owned out of the back of the closet and gave up ties so I could get dressed faster in the morning, so I could sleep in a bit longer while I dwelled on that poor kid’s sudden undoing.
A few days after it happened, in those last few minutes before the bell rang, a few of my students came up to the podium and asked if I knew anything about the boys, if they’d be okay. I put on my best, bravest face, widened my eyes, and lied: “They don’t tell me anything around here.”
Ariana Grande’s music, I’ve learned, is all about catharsis. “Fake Smile” is the fifth song on Thank U, Next , Grande’s fifth studio album. Like most of the tracks on the album, “Fake Smile” is direct in how it describes the singer’s approaches to self-care. Thank U, Next was written quickly after three hardships in the singer’s life: the tragic terrorist bombing of her 2017 concert in Manchester; the death by accidental drug overdose of her ex-boyfriend, the rapper Mac Miller; and the end of her engagement to the actor Pete Davidson.
If her fourth studio album, Sweetener , released just six months prior, is optimism, then Thank U, Next is recovery. In “Fake Smile,” Grande sings, “I won’t say I’m feeling fine / After what I’ve been through, I can’t lie / fuck a fake smile,” over a sturdy bass line. Spectral backup vocals howl through the background, supporting her as she straddles clicks and bumps that punctuate the percussion in the chorus.
The song samples “After Laughter (Comes Tears),” a 1964 single by the soul singer Wendy Rene, itself a song that questions the worth of hiding sadness behind a mask of happiness. Rene, an incredible vocal talent, cries in the second verse, over the pomp of the keyboard that would go on to make up the bridge of “Fake Smile”: “I’ll try to hide, hide my sorrows / I wonder if can I hold them till tomorrow / Maybe I’ll hold them for a year / After laughter comes tears.”
Almost every morning, I listen to Thank U, Next in full between my car stereo and work computer. I currently teach twelfth-grade English in a different public high school in New Jersey, and I usually have about fifteen minutes to pull myself together before first period starts and my students walk in.
I spend that time making sure my hair looks good in my small plastic vanity mirror hanging on the inside of my closet door; I double-check my lesson plans and copy that day’s student objectives onto the whiteboard in the front of class with a fuchsia dry-erase marker; I run through each of my students’ desks to look for loose garbage that they left behind the day before, like empty chip bags or permission slips that will never see the inside of a backpack; I go back to the mirror to make sure my shirt isn’t too wrinkled, that the bags under my eyes aren’t too glaring.
When the kids walk in, I greet each of them by name, smile at them, say “Good morning!” as brightly as I can manage, and raise my hand for a fist bump here and there. When the bell rings and the kids file out, I exhale.
I could get to work a little later and sleep in a little longer if my pre-class ritual weren’t so important to me, but I need my time to locate and access my teacher persona. Teaching through my depression requires a separation of selves. When I’m home, I am bitterly anxious and unsure, quiet around new company, always desperate to shrink myself and locate the exits whenever in an unfamiliar place. I don’t like to dance, and I’m always worried about what everyone thinks of me.
At night, I do my best to distract myself from my sadness with podcasts and video games, often at the same time. When my depression becomes overwhelming, I try various methods of self-care: long walks around town, an attempt at being the kind of person who goes to the gym, less alcohol, earlier bedtimes, and more green vegetables in my diet. I alternate between showering at night and in the morning, convinced that I will finally arrive at stable, fulfilled adulthood when I sort out these basic rituals. Routine maintenance staves it off for a while, but it always creeps back.
When the bell rings and the kids file out, I exhale.
I need to perform happiness—if not for myself then for my students. My teacher persona wears an easy smile and isn’t afraid of holding a conversation. When I’m teaching, I raise my posture and soften the muscles around my collarbones. I fight through every impulse to avoid direct eye contact, and I look my students in the eye when we’re talking. Without thinking, I deepen my voice, project loudly, reduce my natural manic hand motions, and slow my cadence. I focus on my filler words and vocal tics, excising “like” and “you know?” as much as I can. In my classroom, I am determined to look like someone who isn’t falling apart, someone who has his shit together, a good role model.
When I leave the building and get in my car, the downpour of anxiety returns. My shoulders tense; my hands tremble on the steering wheel. Sometimes, I take the long way home, listening to a few upbeat pop songs through my car speakers loudly enough that I get nervous that the other cars can hear it when I stop at a red light. Sometimes, I drive an extra lap around the lake next to our house, or I suffer all of the red lights on Main Street in Asbury Park instead of taking the side roads because I need a second to compose myself. I don’t want to display my sadness to my partner, Jo, when I walk through the door. I do my best to dam the tidal wave and try to locate the closest path to an hour or so of afternoon bed time, my face buried in my phone.
It is surreal to watch Ariana Grande perform “Fake Smile” in fan-shot footage from her 2019 world tour . Dressed in a silver matte-leather two-piece outfit with white vinyl thigh-high boots and her signature high ponytail, Ariana is drenched in green and blue light on her stage. She looks impossibly cool as she raises her middle finger in the air and struts toward the crowd at the edge of the stage, hitting each note perfectly as she swoons through the post-chorus: “Fuck a fake smile, smile, fuck a fake smile.” Her backup dancers hit their cues perfectly.
The appeal of the pop star is aspirational. The industry requires pop stars to strive for perfection and achieve it almost every time. The vocals have to be remarkably precise, like Ariana’s, or otherwise unmistakable, like Britney’s, and the girl has to be impossibly gorgeous, a level of beauty only achieved by a salaried staff of experts working around the clock. She also needs a personality that defines her brand: the popular girl, the dancer, the theatrical performer, the girl’s girl, the down-to-earth funny girl. It is through the construction of persona that a star like Ariana Grande, with her trademark ponytail and whistle tones, reaches the masses. She has to keep it together, be the girl that everyone wants to befriend or to be.
There are a bunch of clips of Ariana performing “Fake Smile” during the Sweetener World Tour on YouTube, with her costume a little different in each—a white tutu here, silver chaps there. But every time, her hair looks perfect. Her vocals are perfect. She never misses a step of her choreography. When she looks out on the crowd during the pre-chorus, her hand extended toward the audience as if she’s speaking to one audience member directly, like she understands exactly what that person is going through, she always seems perfectly genuine . She means what she says. She doesn’t have to fake anything.
Of course, this is how we set pop stars up to fail. The expectation of perfection sets an impossible standard, and a ravenous public is there to voice their criticisms when she misses a note. Ariana Grande’s actions have caused plenty of public discourse , and while fair critique is often warranted, it’s easy to see why she has shied away from the public eye since 2019. Positions , the 2020 follow-up to Thank U, Next , shows the singer in a less vulnerable state, with lyrics that mostly recenter the subjective viewpoint outward toward a new love interest, compared to the self-examination that ties Thank U, Next together. At the end of 2021, after the Positions album cycle had ended, she deleted her Twitter account. She has mostly kept her relationship with Dalton Gomez, her husband of over a year, away from paparazzi. She didn’t attend the 2022 Grammys, despite being nominated for three awards.
I’m jealous of her. I wish I could hide from my audience. I often dread the moment when the door opens and the first student walks in, and I wonder if I’ll find the first hollow “good morning” of the day, but I always find it. I run through the lesson, I eat my lunch alone in my classroom, and I wonder if the kids know what I’m thinking.
In “Fake Smile,” Grande sings, “I read the things they write about me / Hear what they’re saying on the TV, it’s crazy / It’s getting hard for them to shock me / but every now and then / it’s shocking.”
I need to perform happiness—if not for myself then for my students.
This May, amid a particularly stressful string of deadlines, a student of mine gave me a homemade card, a folded piece of construction paper with the words “To: Mr. Bazley” in red marker and “Happy Teacher Appreciation Week” in green. Inside, she drew a cartoon of Julia Roberts and wrote the words “Pretty Women” in bubble letters, referring to a day at the start of the school year when she stayed after school to talk about the movies we both love. At the bottom, she wrote, “I appreciate talking about movies,” with a few flowers and a smiley face. I folded it inside out, Julia facing outward, and hung it on my fridge.
I don’t know why I expect myself to be perfect. I try to master my lesson plans like scripts, execute the choreography without stumbling, but I always do. Nearly every day, at least once, I stumble over my words while going over the slides in my classroom, and I worry for a moment that the entire illusion will be broken—all of those teenagers will see me for the sad, struggling man I see in myself. Sometimes, at my most depressed, I don’t fold my laundry for weeks. I beat myself up over it every morning, cursing under my breath when my button-down shirt is wrinkled as I walk into the school. But no one has ever said anything about my wrinkled shirts. When I stumble over a word, my kids usually know what I mean, or I catch myself, I apologize for misspeaking, and we move on.
The narrative turn in “Fake Smile” comes in the second verse, where Ariana sings, “I know it’s the life that I chose / But baby, I’m grateful, I want you to know.” In her rejection of performing happiness, the pop star invokes gratitude for the impact she’s made on others. When I look to Thank U, Next for catharsis in the morning, some solution or cure, I focus on that line.
It’s not easy—I have to hold it like a mantra. Now, before my first students walk into class, I think about everything I am grateful for, like every student who has ever wanted to talk to me about movies from the ’90s; every song they’ve ever showed me out of genuine belief that I’ll like it; my classroom, with its big windows that catch a healthy amount of sunlight in the morning and reduce the need for its fluorescent bulbs; the student who told me that I inspired him to pursue education as a major after taking my class; my back-to-back lunch and prep periods, which allow me to get out of the building and go out for a slice of pizza when my depression prevents me from getting a lunch ready the night before. I take a few moments, extend my gratitude, and take a deep breath. The bell rings, and I open the door.