Grimes went from industry-shaking genius to punchline in a decade. Are we treating her fairly? | CBC Arts (2024)

Arts·Point of View

With her first new music in five years, the artist born Claire Boucher is contending with a much different world than the one she shook up in the early 2010s.

After five years, she's returning to a much different world than the one she shook up in the early 2010s

Grimes went from industry-shaking genius to punchline in a decade. Are we treating her fairly? | CBC Arts (1)

Chandler Levack · CBC Arts

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Grimes went from industry-shaking genius to punchline in a decade. Are we treating her fairly? | CBC Arts (2)

Friday saw the release of Miss Anthropocene, the first record by Canadian pop artist Grimes in five years. The indelible mark she made on the 2010s with her breakthrough fourth record Visions (the soundtrack for every cool girl with a synthesizer at a Montreal loft party, wearing a neon beret) and her 2015 follow-up Art Angels (the soundtrack of every cool girl with a synthesizer who has since moved to Los Angeles, wearing a pink cowboy hat) now feels like a cultural curiosity from a bygone era; her promising career as a songwriter, producer, and a feminist icon (remember when she sold "puss* rings" as merchandise?) soon overshadowed by a high-profile relationship with Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the South African billionaire set to colonize Mars, now the father of her unborn child.

Today Grimes's career feels like the setup to a unfunny punchline in a Jimmy Fallon monologue. She's become a millennial punching bag, living on the verge of cancellation, despite her indisputable talent as an innovator of pop. After being lauded as one of the most innovative musicians and producers of her generation in the early 2010s, how different is the world she's returned to than the one she shook up a decade ago?

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As an independent songwriter and producer, the 31-year-old Grimes built a formidable legacy making art in her own image: drawing her own cover art, directing and starring in her own acclaimed music videos, the curator of a unique crust-punk-meets-Sailor Moon aesthetic that made her into a fashion icon on Tumblr. During an era that also saw artists like Taylor Swift come into their own as songwriters only to be rejected by a culture who grew weary of women making confessional art about their own experiences, it's arguable that these women walked so that the 18-year-old Billie Eilish, or the incredible Lizzo, could run in 2020. Artists like Eilish and Lizzo are now entering a cultural climate that's grown (somewhat) more respectful of women, largely due to all the female musicians forced to be sacrificial lambs before them. And of the problematic faves on my Spotify, Grimes tops my playlist every time. You might hate it when she talks, but she continues to make compelling art.

In an interview with the British publication Crack Magazine, Grimes expressed her current conundrum: "Without me doing anything, just by random association with other people, I've watched my career and my reputation get totally f*cking smashed. I worked my whole f*cking life for this and now everyone thinks I'm so stupid. I was just sitting there incredulous watching my life's work go down the drain."

Miss Anthropocene sees her solution: to play the villain. It's a concept album in which Grimes subsumes a Voldemort-esque identity (she actually seems more like Cara Delevingne's "Enchantress" in Suicide Squad), taking on the persona of a hateful bitch who loves climate change and seeks death and destruction for the world. "If I'm stuck being a villain, I want to pursue villainy artistically," Grimes continued in the same interview. "If there's nothing left to lose, that's actually a really fun idea to me. I think it has freed me artistically. The best part of the movie is the Joker. Everyone loves the villain. Everyone f*cking loves Thanos. Let's make some Thanos art."

Grimes went from industry-shaking genius to punchline in a decade. Are we treating her fairly? | CBC Arts (3)

Before she was Thanos, Vancouver-born Claire Boucher belonged to Canada. After attending McGill as a neuroscience and philosophy student, she began making music at Montreal DIY loft parties with her Arbutus Records labelmates Majical Cloudz and d'Eon. Her fourth record Visions was recorded on GarageBand in an apartment on Parc Avenue during a three-week period where she blacked out all the windows and effectively lost her mind, offering luscious dark-edged singles ("Oblivion," "Genesis," "Be A Body") that sounded like the internet: sad and infectious, futuristic and solipsistic, though she'd call her aesthetic "post internet" in interviews.

It was irresistible at a time when the weirdest frontwoman we'd seen recently was Karen O., better still when we saw the Emily Kai Bock-directed video for "Oblivion," featuring a spritely 25-year-old Grimes bopping along to her own song in places like a McGill football game and a dirt biking event, waving the drunken bros past the camera. Amongher many cultural legacies at the time, she embraced a K-pop influence, tried to tour with sustainable environmental practices, and also introduced an intriguing new length for bangs.

But as Grimes signed to Roc Nation and began accepting invitations to the Met Ball, her career trajectory throughout the 2010s followed the same path as her counterpart in film and television, Lena Dunham. Both women's early self-produced efforts were heralded as genius feminist masterworks. They talked openly about their experiences being talked down to in rooms of men who wanted to teach them something, and with sexual assault. But as the media scrutiny increased alongside their fame and success, they found themselves in the impossible position of having to be everything to all people at all times in a vitriolic internet landscape. Dunham and Grimes were two emotionally sensitive weirdos who became famous in their 20s, set with the daunting task of making art about their own experiences, branded as "the new hope" in two industries (film and music) on the verge of collapse. As white women of notable privilege, they did not handle it well, leading to behaviour that was questionable at best.

There were wild, regrettable, career-destroying, foot-in-mouth moments for both of them — embarrassing social media overshares, casual experiments with bindis, an Instagram story maelstrom by Azealia Banks that summoned Grimes to testify in court. Even as I write this, Grimes has posted another cryptic tweet: "Only art ever saved me, everything else has betrayed me."

Grimes has always made undeniable bangers about deeply uncomfortable subjects — her sexual assault, drug abuse, climate change, being a victim of the patriarchy — but she also presents as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. We've never been able to handle that contradiction well since Manic Pixie Dream Girls can't also be smart, join protests to blockage a Kinder Morgan pipeline in B.C. as she did in 2018, or be genius-level producers. If women like Grimes fail to produce new music within a reasonable timeline, fall in love with problematic South African billionaires, or behave inappropriately online, they risk cancellation, exile, and belittlement, as well as repeated rape and death threats. We want them to speak their mind, only so we can tell them to shut the f*ck up.

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Scapegoating flawed female artists on the internet might feel like a nice release valve for all the aggression and anxiety we live with on a daily basis in the nightmare that is Trump's America, but it also means these female artists make worse and far more self-critical art, and far less often. Given all that's on her plate as a soon-to-be new mother of Elon Musk's child and the time it's taken her to confidently make new music again, it's entirely possible that Miss Anthropocene might be her last record, which saddens me.

There is a freedom that comes with being cancelled, one supposes. If you're convinced no one wants to hear from you, maybe that empowers you to stop caring what other people think.- Chandler Levack

In terms of world-building, Grimes was always ahead of her time: constructing a universe in her music videos as dense and cinematic as any Marvel movie, and this was pre-Lemonade. Like Robyn, she understood the mechanics of how to make a song bury into your brain, how the best pop songs were about feeling nostalgic for an experience that hasn't happened, and the challenges of making art in isolation. And like Madonna, she has tried to reinvent herself and failed: changing her name at one point to c, the scientific symbol for the speed of light, to distance herself from her reputation.

The start of 2020 has seen several young pop stars come out of the woodwork about the difficulties they've faced in the public eye. Thanks to the efforts of the #MeToo movement, there has been a shift of consciousness in pop music — one that's become slightly more open to identifying women as human, but it still comes at a severe cost. Kesha's battle with her former producer Dr. Luke over allegations of rape recently ended with her being ordered to pay $375,000 to him for defamation of character, showing the fault lines in a system that continues to discredit women's stories of sexual assault — but she also released a glorious new record, High Road, that sees her earning back her freedom of expression. Demi Lovato's performance of "Anyone" at the 2020 Grammys was a soulful triumph for the pop star, who was hospitalized in 2018 after an overdose and has been candid about her past attempts with suicide and drug addiction. Also this year, Selena Gomez — who sought treatment at a mental health centre in 2016 and has been vocal about her experiences with depression and anxiety — released the masterful Rare, a selection of beautiful songs that showcase her vulnerability as a strength. Meanwhile, Swift's documentary Miss Americana saw the singer confess to an eating disorder and explain why she was afraid to rally politically against Trump for fear of death and rape threats like the ones experienced by The Dixie Chicks when they denounced George Bush in 2003.

"I'm trying to be as educated as possible on how to respect people, on how to deprogram the misogyny in my own brain," said Swift. She later describes what might be the central goal for any young female artist: "I want to work really hard while society is still tolerating me being successful."

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Miss Anthropocene is a great record, offering multiple tracks that are the grimiest Grimes has ever sounded. It delivers on the promise of the artist, less as a problematic pop star and more as an innovative producer like her hero Trent Reznor, seeing her embrace what could be seen as her id. Here, the industrial beats on "Violence" are positively oil-slicked as her ethereal vocals float above them, like oat milk on a latte. "U feed off hurting me...U wanna make me bad, and I like it like that," taunts Grimes in the song.

There is a freedom that comes with being cancelled, one supposes. If you're convinced no one wants to hear from you, maybe that empowers you to stop caring what other people think. I just hope Grimes continues to make music.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Grimes went from industry-shaking genius to punchline in a decade. Are we treating her fairly? | CBC Arts (5)

Chandler Levack

Chandler Levack is an award-winning writer, journalist and filmmaker. In 2017, her short film We Forgot to Break Up premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and SXSW. She is currently working on her first feature Anglophone.

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