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‘In My Head’: How Ariana Grande’s New Video Spins Sadness Into Her Signature Style

“No more singles off Thank U, Next,” proclaimed Ariana Grande in June — but she said nothing about music videos. 

This week saw the release of her August Vogue cover story, shot by Annie Leibovitz — Grande’s first time fronting the magazine’s U.S. edition. Equally striking is the profile’s accompanying visual, a minimalist video for “In My Head” by former Vogue staffer-turned-director Bardia Zeinali (Shawn Mendes’ “If I Can’t Have You,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Party For One”). It gives an unexpected boost to one of the album’s moodiest, most underrated cuts — as much as you can say that about any song with 71 million Spotify streams.

The profile and video share the same premise: what does it feel like to be inside Ariana Grande’s mind? Over a dreamy yet melodic trap beat, “In My Head” interrogates Ariana’s habit of idealizing flawed men in her relationships. The clip traps her alone in an eerie fluorescent box, as if she’s been teleported back to the 1996 set of Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity.” In this surreal, disembodied setting, she gives one of her most emotionally grounded performances to date.

Unlike Ariana’s recent series of flashy Hannah Lux Davis-directed blockbusters, “In My Head” treats its backdrop as a blank canvas for her physical performance. Her movements are natural, only loosely choreographed. She’s more focused on giving face — turning her intense gaze on the camera lens, conveying the sadness of the song’s lyrics through her eyes. She’s grown tremendously as a visual artist and performer; impressive, for someone who wasn’t particularly known for her music videos until fairly recently.

Bardia Zeinali’s direction deconstructs “In My Head,” as much as it creates. The video plays with the original song’s structure — cutting some parts and extending others, letting certain lines play out a cappella. The editing is nimble, precise, playing with cuts that are only milliseconds long. “I got a habit of seeing what isn’t there,” sings Ariana — only to disappear for the blink of an eye.

As Zeinali describes his concept, “It kind of started out by just finding what makes Ariana iconic: it’s the voice, it’s the ponytail, it’s the boots, it’s the silhouette.” He isolates Ariana’s signature looks, creating disembodied shots of swaying ponytails. In the video’s defining image, Ariana sits still, surrounded by dozens of pairs of walking thigh-high boots. 

“In My Head” shows how easy it is for us to reduce a popstar to their iconography, but also, how much personality those symbols can contain. That makes it the perfect fashion video — even though Ariana, in her profile, claims to know little about designers. More than anything, “In My Head” is a three-dimensional catwalk. But she’s always the center of focus.

There are few 100% original ideas in pop, and Zeinali’s direction wears its influences on its sleeves. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, it seemed as if music video directors of all genres were obsessed with trapping artists in fluorescent, futuristic white boxes. Along with “Virtual Insanity,” and its impossible sliding furniture, there’s Michael and Janet Jackson’s combative, extravagant “Scream.” Hype Williams videos like “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” and “No Scrubs” practically trademarked shiny suits, gleaming surfaces, and fisheye lenses. Even Sugar Ray’s “Fly” and *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” utilized gravity-defying rooms, using them as one of many settings. Like magic, those videos conjured their performers into a box in our living rooms, in the last era when music videos still played on TVs that were shaped like cubes. 

It’s no coincidence that Ariana’s evoked *NSYNC multiple times this year — from interpolating “It Makes Me Ill” in “Break Up with Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” to performing “Tearin’ Up My Heart” with them at Coachella. Her Vogue profile reveals that at just three and a half years old, she could already match JC Chasez’s distinctly R&B-tinged melodies on the radio. 

They say nostalgia moves in 20-year cycles, and artists like Ariana Grande and Bardia Zeinali have now have the cultural cachet to reinterpret the formative influences of their youths. Videos like “Virtual Insanity” used largely practical, in-camera effects to spark a sense of visual ingenuity. “In My Head” does so too, using green-clad backup dancers to create its GIF-able images of boots and ponytails. But for all the video’s knowing winks, for all of Ariana’s star presence, you’re ultimately left with the song’s overwhelming sense of melancholy. Like her profile, “In My Head” plays with the idea that there’s no stability, no resolution when you’re living your whole life topsy-turvy. Through all the disorienting camerawork, Ariana remains our emotional anchor.

At the turn of the century, no one genre dominated popular culture — teen pop, hip-hop, R&B, alternative rock, and nu-metal brushed shoulders on the charts, radio, and TRL alike. In 2019, though, it feels like all the crossover pop genres of our youths have merged into one. It’s harder than ever to define “pop music” — but we can all agree that Ariana Grande embodies it. As she’s done so many times throughout her career, “In My Head” turns the past into the future once again.

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