Some days, things just take / way too much of my energy. The video for Ariana Grande’s “breathin,” released yesterday, begins with haze, a cerulean-tinged smoke blending into an empty bar. A half-filled tumbler — something on the rocks — sits on the left, with other glasses of amber and red liquids on the right, and Ari in the middle, head in hands. A prying observer might bypass this gesture, float past the manicured tips, spot a ring, map the tattoos, perform the sort of speculative biopsy so routine in our celebrity intake. But the camera doesn’t linger. The next shot is of Ariana again, suited and chignon’d, staring back for the first time as the haze curls around her. The air continues to close in while the star herself fades in and out of visibility. It’s a real mood — not bubblegum, but toxic. Yet, Ariana urges herself to breathe. And so she does, and so must we.
Shortly after the release of Sweetener, Ariana joined Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show for a brief listening party, playing snippets of select tracks from the album. “What is … ‘breathin,’” asked the ever effervescent Fallon. “So ‘breathin,’” Ariana responded with a sigh, “is about, uh, breathing.” Given room to elaborate, she explains in fragments how the song emerged from panic attacks marked by small, undeveloped breaths in the confines of the recording studio. “It’s about anxiety,” she says. “You know when you feel like you can’t get a full breath, it’s like the worst feeling in the whole world.” This seriousness aside, “breathin” is “a fun song,” Fallon insists. “Yeah, we made a pop song,” says Ariana, neither confirming nor denying that assessment.
Were it not for the title and chorus, the mechanics of breathing would seem scarce here. There’s no raspy exhale sequences, few vocal flourishes, no bellows (a là Michelle Branch). Sonically, we must cling to Ariana’s small inhales, periodic preparatory sighs in reverse that only yield the next phase, only keep us moving with the music. But an inhale is no small thing, not in this world. These movements, like other bits of “respiratory drama,” per English professor Jean-Thomas Tremblay, “has a density, a grain, a warmth.” Breathing “pose[s] practical and existential questions regarding if and how one can or should keep living in the wake of great loss.” And Ariana, like all of us, has lost a lot — love, friends, a sense of herself and the planet as it once was. Just keep breathin’ and breathin’ and breathin’ and breathin’ / I know I gotta keep, keep on breathin’.
Directed by Hannah Lux Davis, the video fills out the song’s premise, adding a temporal dimension that intensifies the yawning transition between a moment — like a panic attack — a state of dizzying dread stretching, stretching, stretching until it is almost too much to bear. Ariana moves through scenes like a spirit, languid yet walking around at the perceived normal pace while everyone around her travels through life at warp speed. Their swirling bodies make for an animated enclosure, not unlike the clouds of smoke or the more literal cloud burying the top half of her face. The video takes place at a bus station that Lux Davis renders both aspirational and mundane for the contrast between Ariana’s embodied glamor and the visual noise of other people bustling to-and-fro in jeans, faux leather, and infinity scarves. At the head of the waiting room, the list of departures flips through gibberish locales, save for three legible destinations: NEEDY (leaving at 11:56 p.m. on bus #84 from gate 2), REMEMBER (11:11 p.m., #144, 7), and IMAGINE (10:46 p.m., #29, 1). If our traveler intends to visit any of these places it is surely too soon to tell.
In times of trouble, breath becomes an anchor. During a panic attack, when death feels nigh, one is told to breathe slow and deep. The instruction is, at least in part, about finding control. Feel my blood runnin’ / swear the sky’s fallin’ / How do I know if this shit’s fabricated? We cannot sap the pain from our own chest or turn the room right-side up, but we can alter the rhythm of our own breath. So much follows from respiration — sensation, growth, life. Yoga and meditation advocate attention to breath, in antecedent and continuing South Asian practices and, via appropriation, in the American cottage industry called “mindfulness.” In the latter case, breath becomes the means to make more efficient humans along with all manner of physiological biohacking. The most popular free app in the Health & Fitness section of the App Store is Calm, which uses the tagline, “Take a deep breath.” Calm wants to “make the world happier and healthier” with its hours of relaxation content (paid subscribers only), Calm Masterclasses (paid subscribers only), book (list price $19.99), and scented pillow spray ($19.99 for 28mL). This is Breathing™, fake and lethally aspirational and as much a part of the noise as anything else a white male entrepreneurial duo has come up with. By contrast, on “breathin,” Ariana doesn’t want to be like, so down to Earth; she wants to be on the move, vertically speaking.
Breathing on “breathin’” propels rather than empowers. It sends Ari up into the heavens, in the clouds, the place we’re told one should not go lest we succumb to those enemies of economy and the state — whimsy and wool-gathering. She’s not a deity this time, but small and in the atmosphere. The air remains toxic — metaphorically, biochemically. My, my air / My, my air. But she has to breathe, and again, so do we. There’s no other way up, or out.