grimes art angels

Grimes’ Art Angels at the end of the underground

How Claire Boucher soundtracked the digital highway that destroyed the underground.

- Nov 12, 2015

In the years between Claire Boucher playing my living room and Claire Boucher playing Molson Amphitheatre, I’ve been checked out of Grimes-land. I haven’t written about Grimes since 2010’s Halfaxa until this past summer, when I semi-reluctantly buried my witch broom and watched her open for Lana Del Rey. I’ve still never heard Visions, though I was around to watch it all happen: #Grimescontent is regularly in my timelines, and I’m nosy if nothing else.

In 2010, Grimes was a Montrealer with two arty photos on Myspace, making short, spooky electronic oddities perfect for dropping at avant-dance nights alongside whatever lo-fi rhinestones were hiding on, FMA, Livejournal, and Tumblr. “Witch house” was just about to get stuck with, and buried by, the name.

On tour, Boucher was an awkward and talented musician who shyly chatted about preferring White Ring to Salem and rocked a baggy Depeche Mode t-shirt. She was thankful when I pulled out my sketchy cardboard box of extra blankets for her and the band she was touring with as opener (I’d gotten away with billing her first on the poster), and when I mentioned I wanted to play live wearing a christening veil, she advised me to go for it.

Before Boucher, I’d never known anyone who would go on to belong to the world.

I’m not Grimes’ biggest fan now (though “Kill V. Maim” is a song I will cherish indefinitely), but in the days of Geidi Primes I was one of them.

In Grimes, as in Drake, young listeners see figures like themselves maneuvering, and achieving, in a mainstream that often seemed unreachable.

In simple songs that were often built around Boucher trying to reach her coveted Mariah Carey’s vocal ranges, I found music that walked the line between the familiar and the strange: the murky lo-fi world I loved joining the produced, electronic pop realm I was gravitating toward (and had emerged from, post tween years).

So, unlike some, I guess, it wasn’t Grimes’ move into clearer pop production that made me disengage from her work for all those years. As an emotional being with few female pals in music, I just checked out because she disappeared from my life and my Facebook chat. But when I watched her play that sunlit stadium in June, any remaining weirdness subsided. I grasped the frantic energy that accompanies the kind of rise to international success that offers a 2015-Lana-Del-Rey opening slot, and I started regularly jamming out to the “REALiTi” video.

Successful pop is about being such a skilled mimic that you look like you’re the trendsetter; ask any celebrity stylist. Good pop, or art, happens when a mimic transcends their own body of influences to birth something new. Grimes exploded into semi-mainstream consciousness for the same reasons her early experimentations were so endearing: a familiar voice, but impossible to place. A cadence drawn from such wide breadths that it could only be her one voice.

A half decade ago in the Megaupload age, or the blessed time, artists like Grimes and How to Dress Well were crafting pop music that sounded like it was blasting in the neighbour’s apartment, wafting through multiple graveyards, or layered, accidentally, off multiple, glitched-out browser windows. Yet both artists claimed they just wanted to make good pop music.

Grimes - REALiTi

Thanks to the internet, lines between avant-garde distortions of/commentary on pop, and sincere devotion to surface culture, were blurring, both laying a path for a weirder mainstream future (a feedback loop that currently seems to peak with Kanye and Rihanna) while guiding hungry genre-pastichers like Boucher and How To Dress Well’s Tom Krell toward the light.

This was a time when even as .zip file sharing peaked, online streaming was taking hold, and listeners gained unprecedented all-hours access to mega-budget pop and all its “guilty pleasures,” from old Destiny’s Child hits to Beyoncé’s latest blockbuster. The idea of the guilty pleasure itself, previously a tolerated eccentricity at most in DIY communities, was becoming obsolete. “Toxic” was a good song — maybe a great song.

The confluence of mainstream and DIY music was a new idea for a generation raised on indie rock, whose ethos maintained a strict church and state divide between the two. But at the turn of the decade, for many key factions of base communities, the underground became so boring that cynical stoicism buckled and curiosity piqued: Lady Gaga had major label backing, but she could sing, and her weird shtick was more captivating than whatever samey-ness the New Pornos were doing.

As Canada’s “indie” labels drowned in grant money and stagnant sounds, young artists saw more relevance in trying recreate the success and swagger of a guy named Drake (who, like Grimes, owes success to both the internet and American recognition).

In Boucher, as in Aubrey Graham, young listeners saw figures like themselves maneuvering, and achieving, in a mainstream that often seemed unreachable. The pursuit of toiling thanklessly for functioning community gave way to salivating for success. Grimes epitomized, and held a torch for, the death of underground’s belief in itself as the recession crept on and former generations’ dreams of counterculture appeared increasingly flimsy compared with the immediate demands of skyrocketing rent and school tuition.

After the fall of the Megaupload era, music bloggers hopped from private URLs to corporate-owned websites (sup), and artists claimed DIY mystique while sitting front seat at luxury runway shows. The pursuit of integrity through old divides looked increasingly classist, and a new, egalitarian code began to emerge. An exercise in our own progression as much as Boucher’s, Art Angels soundtracks this above-ground environ: fast tempoed, nostalgic, angry, forward thinking post-cloud music echoing in the void.

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