Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Pop star, producer or pariah? The conflicted brilliance of Grimes | The Guardian

Grimes has always had a tortured relationship with visibility. No sooner had Claire Boucher broken beyond the Montreal warehouse scene at the turn of the 2010s than she was telling journalists that she only fronted her music because she couldn’t afford to hire someone to do it for her. She wanted to be Phil Spector – though maybe she also wanted to be Britney. “I really hate being in front of people,” she told Pitchfork in 2012. “But I’m also obsessed with being a pop star.”

That ambivalence colours Boucher’s earliest press. She could make “dumb fucking hits all day” but didn’t, because “that’s obviously not how I want Grimes to be perceived”. She once asked: “What’s the difference between Napoleon and everyone else? Napoleon had great image branding.” Given that her style and hair colour changed in every photo, Boucher disrupted the possibility of ever solidifying into the kind of stable pop silhouette connoted by either bicorne hat or cone bra. She craved a new archetype: whether she resembled a space lieutenant or racoon-eyed wraith, the one consistent would be her iconoclastic skill as the sole producer of her music.

What mattered to her was showing “that women can do technical work”. Though that presented another paradox. Boucher wanted to set an example but resented a misogynist music culture that insisted women prove their technical ability. Nor did she want to be framed as a female producer, or in terms of the related challenges. She just wanted to drill the amateurism of her early releases for her 2012 breakthrough album, Visions. “I would rather have respect among a small group of people and be considered important and innovative than be widely successful and make tons of money,” she said.

That is now ancient history. Today, Boucher is known globally as the girlfriend of billionaire Tesla founder Elon Musk, and mother to their unborn child. When she describes her pregnancy skincare routine to Vogue, her comments on rosacea are aggregated on websites that will never cover her music. The preview singles for her frequently delayed fifth album – Miss Anthropocene, released this Friday – have received the most underwhelming responses of her lauded career, while her headstrong nature has made her a regular online punchline. There is a sense that certain elements of the media and tired fans want the album to bomb as a tidy conclusion to a story that has apparently gone off the rails.

But Boucher never stood a chance at setting the terms of her fandom. Like most highly visible young female innovators, she was fetishised, belittled and pushed to defend her work so often that defiance became baked into her work and persona. Seldom a stable motivation, it has steered the highs and lows of her career.

One of Grimes’s earliest media sticking points was her description of her work as “post-internet”. The term was known in art criticism, but not music, beyond Wire-reading circles. Born in 1988, Boucher pointed out that she came from the first generation that had web access as children. Older music fans were “raised with genres of music. But people my age had everything all at once.” Boucher loved Enya, Mariah Carey, Gangnam Style and Beyoncé; Al Green, Aphex Twin and Tool. She revered the medieval nun Hildegard of Bingen and once recounted a “glorious life-changing experience” in which she climbed a mountain while listening to Arvo Pärt and was so transported that she didn’t notice she was frozen, soaking and bloodied. (She had a lot of stories like this.)

She became so bored with explaining the post-internet idea that she tried to retract it on Twitter. It didn’t work – not least because Boucher’s philosophy radiated through her rushing, incantatory synth-pop, spliced with acid and bubblegum, club boldness and whispered intimacy. Its gleeful reception seemed to herald a new dawn of ambition in low-stakes indie music culture. (MIA was one obvious forebear, though she was more interested in smashing global boundaries than high/lowbrow binaries, and her breakthrough predated the social media wave that fuelled Grimes’s rise.) While Boucher disregarded any distinction between mainstream and alternative, indie music media saw Grimes’s pop-star potential as the genre’s ultimate validation. So it started treating her like a pop star, reporting on her activity with the fervour of Perez Hilton trailing Britney Spears in 2007.

There was no shortage of material. Boucher frequently posted Tumblr missives calling out music industry misogyny, discussing her environmentally friendly touring practices and sharing updates on work in progress. When every update was repurposed as news, these became concrete biography – against Boucher’s insistence that her words should not be taken out of context. On 6 February 2013, after Pitchfork reported on Boucher’s latest post, she deleted almost her entire Tumblr feed. Pitchfork updated the post with the news.

The inescapable attention frustrated Boucher, though in a sense she was her own worst enemy. In a field defined by meekness, she was Starman. Grizzly Bear had not recorded their album on a three-week speed bender. Real Estate did not enrage Boiler Room nerds by playing Justin Bieber and Vengaboys at the self-regarding club. Disclosure never sold “pussy rings” as merch. While Kanye and Beyoncé incarnated more outlandish forms of iconography, they ignored independent media, which had ignored them until doing so became bad for business. Where their fame insulated them from the clamour, Boucher’s mid-level renown left her exposed and scrambling to get a grip on her narrative.

In that regard, it’s depressing to recall that Visions is a record about reclaiming control after a physical violation. Its lead single, the celestial, lurching Oblivion, detailed a violent street attack sustained by Boucher. Post-assault and in an increasingly digital world, she sang about reconnecting with physicality on the intimate Be a Body. Her obsessive work ethic offered transcendence: on Symphonia IX (My Wait Is U), she declared her “need to be the best before the need to rest”.

It was the last time Boucher would be able to make music unencumbered by the Grimes persona from which she felt increasingly alienated. For a while, she thought about embracing a behind-the-scenes role, and submitted a song, the EDM track Go, for Rihanna’s consideration. It got turned down, so she released it herself. Fans accused her of “pandering to the radio”. Grimes was deified like a pop star, and there was a triumph-of-the-weird will to see her become one (even the New Yorker based a profile around the possibility), yet she was maligned for interfacing with the mainstream. Even after those cultural binaries supposedly lay in ruins and the concept of selling out was dead, there were still, apparently, unacceptable ways for an artist to pursue her ambition.

These toxic conflicts between exposure and expectation seethed through Grimes’s vivid 2015 album, Art Angels, filled with songs about betrayal, commodification, sacrifice and disconnection from her persona. It would have been a classic post-fame record – except that most post-fame records are terrible, and Art Angels was anything but. Standout track California united country and trance, and found Boucher surveying the gulf between her identity and her reputation: “The things they see in me, I cannot see myself,” she sang bittersweetly. It was her rebuke to a media that she said had “fucked my narrative”.

That wouldn’t change: the stubbornly fantastic Art Angels made Grimes a bigger star, increasing the currency of her image. As much as she hated her press treatment, she never changed how she engaged online, beyond the occasional retreat from social media. She frequently discussed possible new directions, often to retract her remarks days later. Sometimes industry interference was to blame for such switches; or they were just fast-evolving creative whims documented generously in real time. In the absence of new music, Boucher’s new persona – flaky, defensive, a victim – ballooned into the space.

Roughly the worst thing that could happen to a medium-level celebrity with a conflicted relationship to the media is to fall in love with a notorious tech billionaire. Unfortunately for Boucher, she did: in May 2018, she accompanied Elon Musk to the Met Ball. At first the memes about them dating were fun, and the new couple joined in. But then fans noticed that Boucher had removed “anti-imperialist” from her Twitter bio, blaming her affiliation with the union-busting, Trump-advising Musk. They demanded she dump him.

Boucher explained that she had changed her bio months before, and defended Musk – explaining that donating to the Republican party was “the cost of doing business”, advocating for his environmental philanthropy and claiming that she had tried to get Tesla workers to unionise but that they hadn’t wanted to. This only hurt her reputation, suffering the sexist double standard of being refracted through Musk’s actions.

In possibly the second worst thing that could befall a medium-level celebrity with a conflicted relationship to the media, Boucher allegedly invited Azealia Banks to Musk’s house for a collaboration then stood her up, leaving Banks to witness Musk unsuccessfully scrambling to avoid legal action after tweeting about taking Tesla public, a situation that saw Banks and Boucher subpoenaed to preserve all relevant communications, an evidently bananas situation that drove the press wild.

More mockery followed a smattering of interviews in early 2019 when Boucher explained: “I thought people understood that I ultimately probably believe in an AI dictatorship.” (Maybe it’s understandable that someone who always says the wrong thing might find comfort in absolutism.) A new single, We Appreciate Power, was inspired by North Korea’s all-female military band Moranbong and “written from the perspective of a pro-AI girl group propaganda machine who use song, dance, sex and fashion to spread goodwill towards artificial intelligence”. Ignoring the clear (if risky) concept, critics accused her of glorifying fascism.

Boucher is an acquired taste who is perfectly capable of stupidity. (Her first ever appearance in the press, pre-Grimes, was an ill-fated attempt to sail a houseboat laden with chickens and potatoes down the Mississippi.) But now she was adjacent to real power, her words and actions were received with bad-faith fervour that cast her as dangerous or ridiculous. She was derided for renaming herself c – italics included, as in the measurement of the speed of light – even though she said it was a sign of her deep self-loathing based on what Grimes and Boucher had come to represent. “Without me doing anything, just by random association with other people, I’ve watched my career and my reputation get totally fucking smashed,” she said (accurately, if forgoing some small share of personal responsibility).

Boucher would blame the media for portraying Art Angels as her shot at the pop mainstream instead of a display of her talents as a producer. There is some gendered truth in that – her male peers tapping into bubblegum and K-pop songcraft are seldom interpreted that way. But while musicians have more control over their message today, a character-hungry media and fan culture means they may have less power over its interpretation. Yet one element of her reputation remained bulletproof. “For most artists, if you’re not cool for 20 minutes then you can’t get in a room with a good producer and your career is fucking over,” she said. “I never want to be in that situation. I want to be in a situation like I am now where my reputation is at an all-time low and I can still make sick-ass fucking music because I don’t rely on anybody.”

Boucher has recently seemed at a loss to regain control over her career, and naive about her role in its dissolution. But Miss Anthropocene reveals an astute understanding – evidently well honed – of humanity’s worst impulses and how to appeal to them.

She conceived the titular character – the name a play on misanthropy, Miss America and the current geological epoch, in which humankind has been the dominant global influence – as a vengeful goddess who revels in the climate crisis, which she hoped might alert fans to the urgency of the situation. “People don’t care about it because we’re being guilted,” she explained. “I see the polar bear and want to kill myself. No one wants to look at it, you know? I want to make a reason to look at it. I want to make it beautiful.”

Lots of artists have found potential in the “difficult woman”. But Boucher goes a step further: drawing on a decade of conflict over her own visibility, she smartly taps the cultural power of the reviled woman – the fate of almost every female pop icon – and the can’t-look-away spectacle of vilification: “I’ll just be a villain now, and that’s cool,” she said. “I’ll find a way to make that useful to society.”

Her goddess represents humanity’s justification for its self-destruction, which goes beyond the death wish of the climate crisis to dwell uncomfortably in more intimate forms of self-annihilation: addiction, self-loathing and the internet. It is a profoundly bleak record. It shares some DNA with Soundcloud rap, the murky, malevolent sound of depression and dashed hopes, laced with sweet melodic hooks. Spiritually, too: in Delete Forever, a song about the opioid crisis written the night Lil Peep died, Boucher seems to describe the reality of beating her own addictions and having to face life unmediated: “Always down when I’m not up / Guess it’s just my rotten luck.”

Whether or not Boucher – or Grimes, or c – is in character as she sings about suicidal ideation and self-destruction, it’s impossible not to think about how she has coped with the assault on her public persona over the past decade, to the degree that her recent – admittedly outré – pregnancy announcement was mined for gags. Love and art, by the sound of it, making Miss Anthropocene an unlikely sibling to Taylor Swift’s Reputation. It’s bookended by So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth, about her relationship, and Idoru, a flush of brightness and birdsong that follows the storm and cherishes how “unrequited love has reassembled me”. It might be sung to Musk, though it seems more likely aimed inwards – to herself, and to art. “You cannot be sad,” she sings, “because you made my all-time favourite music.”

Against all odds, Miss Anthropocene is a beautiful and emotionally complex album: Boucher’s continuing personal testament to creativity as resistance against destruction, and an unlikely optimistic gesture that still believes art can be a powerful force for social good. It also finally finds Boucher reconciled to her relationship with the public. On Miss Anthropocene, she is a mirror, inviting us to examine the source of our bad faith.


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