Grimes’ fourth LP, Art Angels, is a wonderful pop record. But after three years of speculation and Claire Boucher’s self-imposed exile and scrapped “depressing” album, that’s almost besides the point.
The expectations as to what the next Grimes LP would sound like have often seemed to drown out the actual music. But Art Angels is here; it’s poppy, and weird, and all over the place. How much of each, however — and what that means — tends to vary based on what expectations and preconceived notions you bring to the table.
To me, the new record sounds like a natural progression from Visions, but whether or not you think that’s a good thing is entirely dependent upon what it is you expected — or even just hoped — to hear from that album’s follow-up. Most press on Grimes likes to remind us that Grimes is not just a woman making music, but an “art pop project.” Again, how much importance you place upon the ‘art’ vs. the ‘pop’ has everything to do with how you approach her, and her music.
Like any ambitious young artist, Boucher has spent a good portion of the last three years honing her craft. She has always been a self-contained production, so when she wants to add new instrumentation — guitars, live drums, keyboards, ukelele, violin — she has to learn how to do it herself. She’s learned the difference between songwriting and sound design, and is working out how they inform each other. She’s added 3D atmospherics with binaural microphones. And she’s acknowledged her limitations, coming to terms with them in the process: for the first time, she’s handed off her songs to an engineer (Spike Stent) to mix for her.
In a revealing interview with Future Music magazine, she discusses the evolution of her songwriting. “When I started, I literally knew nothing about music,” she admits. “My understanding was more impressionistic. It was like, ‘Yeah I’m making music, but I don’t really understand how it works.’ But by the time I got to Visions I understood that songwriting and sound design are two different things. You can spend equal time on both and the level of sound design can make a better song.”
Working alone has always been part of Boucher’s mystique — Visions was written in drug-fueled all-night marathon sessions — and as Grimes’ profile has grown, it’s been her only recourse to dealing with the dominant sexism in electronic music: she appears to find safety in isolation. “I can usually only work by myself and never have anyone to ask about things,” she told Future Music, “as they think I’m trying to have sex with them or something.”
Boucher also recognizes how limiting that is — as someone who is constantly building sample sets and experimenting with plugins, she wishes she could diversify what she’s exposed to. But in a climate in which even a legend like Björk has to deal with her authorship being questioned when she works with male musicians, Boucher just has to make do. She’s not the best guitar player, but she plays the riffs on Art Angels with confidence, and her palpable skill as a producer/arranger makes it work. But imagine if she could collaborate with someone who is an expert at guitar, like, say Dev Hynes, or Marnie Stern, or literally anyone else? It’s profoundly fucked up that Boucher — and other women in music — feel that fear of collaboration.
All this comes back to expectations — specifically, the expectations of pop stars that come with the inherent entitlement that pop fans and critics feel. People come to Boucher’s music from different places and perspectives, but they all have their idea of what Grimes “is.” She means different things to different people: without close inspection, her lyrics, often sung in a washed-out, reverbed style, are abstract enough to make ignoring their content easy.
The super fans are fundamentalists, and will love whatever she does no matter what it sounds like. Hip scenesters who “were into her since Geidi Primes” might have been drawn to that early work because of its rawness — it had a scattered, unfinished quality, and the thrill of hearing a new artist working out her sound. These are the people who rejected “Go” as too-polished or “not weird enough” (despite the fact that she wrote it with Mike Tucker (aka Blood Diamonds) for Rihanna.
But many (most?) of her fans came to her post-Visions, drawn by her quirky take on pop. For some, Grimes might be the weirdest artist they listened to all year. So when people pay to see her DJ a hip Boiler Room set in Ibiza and get a glimpse of how much she loves pop — for those paying attention, this has never been a secret — they can’t handle it, and literally boo her. Rather than marvel at the glimpse behind the curtain of the music that informs the Grimes albums they love so much, they reject her non-conformity to their expectations. The entitlement is suffocating. Sometimes, it can even get scary.
Boucher’s vegan and feminist politics have been well-documented, but most interesting is her candid talk about people’s entitlement to her body. She’s written on her Tumblr about being tired of people feeling entitled to touch her, and even recounted an incident to the FADER about a creeper waiting in her dressing room after a show — the man attacked and forcefully kissed her, laughing about how he “kiss-raped” her afterwards.
Sadly, a lot of this comes with the territory of being as visible as Grimes is, from her highly stylized music videos to the fashion editorials and campaigns. Pop stars get stalked, have obsessive and scary fans, and require security to protect their safety. She’s been dismissed, marginalized, even physically assaulted. But in 2015, she’s in control. Boucher fought her whole career for this autonomy, and at this point, deserves it. No matter how much her music or her art means to any of us, we can never own her — we don’t get to decide what Grimes should or shouldn’t be. We just get to enjoy it, or not.