These are strange days. There are riots in the United States, Cuba is planning to host the Pope, and Alberta just elected a NDP government. With a flick of the wrist, a little piece of glass we hold in our palm can tell us anything we need to know; at the same time, the gap between poor and wealth has never been as high in the United States.
Everything is cross-pollinated, with influence and appropriation almost blending into an unrecognizable mess on the musical landscape. Iggy Azalea is arguably the biggest rapper on the planet and she’s a white woman from Australia. It’s easier than ever to hear music from other cultures, be it on blogs like Awesome Tapes from Africa or via specialty labels like Luaka Bop or Analog Africa. At the same time, it’s as hard as ever for those artists to get paid.
As Donald Glover once said, it’s because the internet. Because it’s here, because it connects us, and because it’s such a sensory overload that it’s impossible to take in more than a glimpse at a time without feeling overwhelmed. It can give you a dash of this, a taste of that, and a sprinkle of something else, all with a couple swipes and taps. We live in a strange world and, the more I think about it, the more Grimes seems like the artist for our times.
Musically, Grimes exists in a neitherworld that has never existed in a physical sense. The music draws on everything from Japanese pop to Destiny’s Child to Daft Punk. The performance is minimal: the artist on stage with a keyboard and a laptop, playing music that sounds a little like a lot of things, but a lot like nothing else. A voice changes, the look mutates between colours, and costumes, the beat moves and shifts and nothing is static for very long. More than anyone else right now, Grimes is the artist for our times, at once everything and nothing, a musician who has vanished entirely into the music, a music that draws on a bit of about everything.
The thing about Grimes and her music are the characters, the way she vanishes into her music and the way it swallows up whatever person Claire Boucher may or may not be. It’s there on her earlier records, it’s there on “REALiTi” but more than anywhere, it’s all over Visions, as complete a statement as there is in her music.
Over thirteen songs, Grimes music shifts between forms and the voice shifts pitch. Over a pulsating electro beat, she chants “I am with you, if you want me to,” over and over until the listener realizes that yes, Grimes will be with you. It’s her record, after all.
Elsewhere, Grimes is unsettling and unflinching. “Oblivion” is stark in it’s minimalist beat – a simple keyboard pattern and a drum machine – as Grimes’ voice shifts into a high register, reminding you “someone could break your neck, coming up right behind you and you’d never have a clue.” As if to hammer the whole point home, in the video she wears oversized headphones, grooving while a football game goes on behind her.
The juxtaposition is the point; her music, which can seem like unassuming dance, hits with the power of a train. Once she gets into a disjointed piano solo, with her voice booming and swirling all around, she promises to see you on a dark night, almost smiling.
Elsewhere, her voice changes shape and form; Grimes howls, shouts, shrieks and sings, each time with a voice that sounds unique and different. But it’s from the same person.
Kate Bornstein once wrote that gender is bullshit and as I turn 29, I find myself understanding that line in different ways each day. It’s so obvious, but it’s the kind of thing it’s hard to really explain in words. Like, what is a dress but a different cut of the same cloth? But putting one on and going out in public, that’s making a radical statement. So people are killed over it every day.
So it goes with Grimes and her music. Just the other day, I read a column where she was included with a bunch of other artists who are making some kind of genderqueer statement. As someone who spends way too much time thinking and reading about this kind of thing, it seemed like an interesting take: is Grimes coming out against a bullshit social construct?
Maybe? As I understood her words, Grimes talking about “vibing in a gender neutral station” is more about the ongoing sexism in the music business, particularly in it’s male-dominated criticism end. She’s compared to other female artists; Grimes is just another female artist, not simply just an artist. More than a bit of the criticism of Grimes, even the positive stuff, focuses on how she’s a lady; no wonder she chafes at how everything about her music spends so much time on her gender.
Which, if you think about it, is also bullshit. When was the last time you saw someone talking about gender in a review for The National? When was the last time an Action Bronson review included a nasty remark about his weight? Meanwhile, musicians like St. Vincent, Lowell, and Grimes are held to another standard, one that includes everything from appearance to attitude.
For example, when Robert Christgau, the self-styled dean of rock criticism, recently wrote about Merrill Garbus, he casually threw in a reference to her weight even as he complimented her. Cuz, you know, when a lady drops some weight, it really makes their music so much better, right? I guess that’s why Action Bronson’s music is misanthropic garbage; lose the weight and maybe he’ll have a hit!
It’s a double standard that goes deeper than just Grimes or other rock musicians. For example, country music is going through a minor scandal called Saladgate after a radio consultant compared women to tomatoes in a salad: a nice accent, but not as important as the men’s music or lettuce. Of course it’s bullshit: between Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, and even Taylor Swift, all the best country music has been performed by women. It’s the men who’ve generally fallen into bro-country clichés in recent years.
But if there’s a double standard in the way women are covered by the music press, there’s also a gap in who’s doing the covering. For years, the big names in music criticism were all men: Lester Bangs, Christgau, Nick Kent, Greil Marcus, among others; there’s a reason Jessica Hopper’s new book of criticism is titled The First Collection of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic.
And the coverage takes different forms, especially with Grimes, thanks to her active accounts on both Tumblr and Twitter. It sometimes feels like whenever she makes a post, it makes the news. She posts a few lines about sexism in music, it’s on the front page of Exclaim. She tells a fan there might be a new album in the fall, it’s leading on Pitchfork. In both articles, she wasn’t interviewed directly. So it goes.
Maybe some find it hard to write about her music since she isn’t really like too many other musicians out there. She plays a bunch of instruments, but her live sets have her at a bank of keyboards and drum machines, flipping dials and hitting buttons as she alters her voice and controls the rhythm.
It’s stylized, highly individualistic and unmistakably unique. Like I said, we live in weird times but the more I listen, the more I find her music unique and important. And more than ever, I’m finding myself cueing up Visions or “REALiTi.”
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.