1. Go to YouTube. Watch video for “Delete Forever.” Grimes’ multihued but definitely orange-ish hair is parted in the middle, with huge balls of pigtails on either side. Consider these globes to be planets. When in doubt, consider any shape in a Grimes video a planet: Earth or elsewhere, as we are surely not alone in the universe. The “Delete Forever” music is engaging and smells like tomorrow: heavy beats, acoustic guitar, even what sounds like mandolin. This is not the Montreal rave scene she started her career with in 2011, but it does feel like an organic evolution.
2. Read Pitchfork review of Miss Anthropocene in which writer Anupa Mistry describes it as “her first album as a bona fide pop star.” Discuss this notion with your class of Writing About Music students and ask if anyone thought of Grimes as any kind of pop star. No hands go up, although a few were slightly familiar with the name. None confused her with the UK grime music, electronic dance music with hip-hop, though there is probable cause to detect some alliance between Claire Boucher, the artist known as Grimes, and the musical style. Not much, but some.
3. That would seem to be a recurring non-motif in the music of Grimes, which is that there are many points of inflection but no commitment to any one style. People who live in boxes find this troubling; those who like to color outside the lines, who drew purple cows in grade school art class and didn’t see anything wrong with that, find Grimes appealing.
4. Grimes is not without roots in a fixed time and place. Listen to or especially watch her 2012 video for “Oblivion” at the start of her career, then listen to Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” You can get here from there.
5. She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, and she looks to the future, though surviving to live in any kind of future is a serious concern. The title “Miss Anthropocene” names her as a woman, perhaps The Woman, of her time: We are living in the Anthropocene age, “the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.” Underlying her approach to art is the sensible notion that unlike the environmentally aware musicians of a previous generation, who gave benefit concerts for whales, African famine, against nuclear power and for farmers, the species under direct attack is us. Our home planet has too many pressure faults, and we have to fix it now. That much of the world’s leadership is in denial about this was anticipated in the 1930s, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the first Superman If you remember the plot basics, scientist Jor-El predicts doom for his imploding planet, while planet Krypton’s ruling class and science skeptic doom-deniers say nonsense. He builds a rocket to get his infant Kal-el to Earth just before Krypton explodes, as Jor-El predicted. The kid lands in Kansas and becomes Clark Kent.
6. Now watch the video to “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth.” Asteroids and huge chunks of the third stone from the Sun are flying off into space. An avatar of a woman with a sword or similar is engaged in a battle with a raptor. There’s a definite erotic charge as the woman with the sword gets close to the raptor’s mouth, parry and thrust, in and out, approach and withdraw. By the end of the six minute mini-movie you’ll wonder of there is some sort of copulation/capitulation. Are she and the raptor enemies or dueling and flirting, for sport, engaged in a friendly sex game as we await the same fate of flying dinosaurs: extinction.
7. In an interview, Grimes tells The Face that she has created an avatar called WarNymph. The avatar has allowed her to keep working through her pregnancy. Vogue magazine shows her pregnant, complete with self-written diagrams written on her bulging belly. The father is Tesla man and successful civilian rocketeer Elon Musk. Las Vegas bookmakers say that the chance of their child being named James or Jane, or John or Susan, are a bazillion kazillion Krypton dollars to one. Grimes worries that her online fan base has already mentioned a few of the unusual names that mom and dad had considered.
8. Go back and listen to some tracks from Grimes’ last album, Art Angels from 2015. The cover features two animated characters: a cute anime character and a larger three-eyed creature, conventionally “alien,” with tears of blood coming through the eyes. Whoever she is, she has her eyes on the prize. It’s a really impressive album of sophisticated synth pop, though strangely, Grimes now regrets it. In April 2019, she told Stereogum, which had named it its No. 1 album of 2015, “a piece of crap...a stain.” What she meant was, it was a pop record, which I think means she was experimenting with pop, and it came off more pop than experiment: “a genre exercise,” as she puts it. Note that “genre exercise” is a phrase used almost exclusively by rock and pop critics, when a band explores a singular style, or reverts to an earlier one: the Rolling Stones blues album Blue and Lonesome could be “a genre exercise”; the Byrds’ country album Sweetheart of the Rodeo was not a genre exercise, since it solidified a new genre: country-rock. I nevertheless see Art Angels as a “seminal album” (Quotes or air quotes mine to indicate that this too is a pop critic cliché best avoided). What I want to say is that it is a transitional album, still anchored in dance pop but displaying her powerful multi-octave range, contrasts not often heard in clubs: check out “California” with heavy bass and drums and ethereality, and a sort of rebellious vision, as if Mariah Carey had Laurie Anderson’s irony and IQ. But maybe calling a song “California” is too obvious for Grimes. And “Kill v. Maim” has a relentless intensity that may be, in retrospect, a genre-exercise in 1990s Madonna. The video, as always, is great, created by Grimes and her talented brother Mac Boucher. It takes place in the ruins of an abandoned or just filthy subway station, with plenty of women menacing women wearing fishnet everywhere. (Grimes is wearing a VERSACE sweatshirt). Our current pandemic fears are anticipated by many wearing protective medical masks, and at the end of this otherwise typical zombie apocalypse are the words: YOU DIED.
9. Back to the new album. Among other necessary songs are “My Name is Dark,” an electro-rocking “Sympathy for the Devil” featuring computer swooshes rather than electric guitars, and “4 AEM,” an elegant hymn to loneliness and desire.
10. To the degree that the “Delete Forever” video reminds you of Katy Perry, be aware that Grimes is conscious of the thin line between imitation and the sui generis for which she strives. She is in on the joke.
11. There are two video versions of “Idoru,” the “slightly longer version” (almost seven minutes) and the “slightly shorter version” at 5 minutes 19 seconds. The videos have an Asian motif long loved by Grimes (see “Realiti” from 2015). “Idoru” is a Japanese word that resembles “idol,” but it refers to a specifically Japanese kind of teen idol. According to the Rice University neologisms database, an Idoru is a “young pampered female Japanese pop icon,” especially a manufactured one. In other words, an idoru is sort of like a solo woman artist version of the boy bands so popular in Japan and Korea, although young girl and mixed groups are becoming increasingly popular in K-pop. It is also noteworthy that Idoru is also the name of the second book of novelist William Gibson’s cyberpunk trilogy “Bridge Trilogy.”
12. All resemblances to Gibson’s book are intentional. In the video (maybe just the shorter version) Grimes is seen holding a copy, that is dedicated to her (“Claire”). One of the characters in Gibson’s book is a virtual reality superstar idolized in Japan named Rei Toei. Oh, and both Gibson and Grimes live in Vancouver.
13. In the “Idoru” video flower petals (cherry blossoms? Or giant pollen clusters) drift down. Grimes is wearing a vintage wedding dress, wielding a sword with a white flag attached. Her plentiful make up is applied asymmetrically: big ball of rouge on one cheek, smaller, off-color rouge on the other. Her fingernails are like talons. The pigtails she wears are rooted so high on her head that she is essentially bald at the top of her head. During the video, according to the online webzine Fact, there are also scenes from a 1990s anime Revolutionary Girl Utena, as well as references to a futuristic dystopian videogame, NieR: Automata.
14. The melody is gorgeous; the lyrics, sincerely moving. The singing, magnificent. She has a warmth that is lacking in say, Bjork, whose art pop is a natural point of reference. (Except those who find Bjork tedious might revel in Grimes.) Her musical ambitions and abilities are more Lady Gaga than Lana Del Rey, more cyberpunk Streisand than android Mariah Carey. With her musical, video and VR skills, and a limitless budget for her imagination, there’s no stopping her. My old school fortune teller sees her headlining the Super Bowl halftime show in 2025, if not sooner, in person, in 3D, or as her own hologram that will appear directly in your living room.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Caitlyn Ridenour.