In my head, I’m trying to figure out what separates potential with missteps from shitty persons who are not worth it. Do I have more patience with Azealia because she sticks up for cis-black girls, even as she shits on trans* folk in her lyrics? What does that say about me, even as I am critical of her as I listen to her music? Do you see something “feminist” in the production of Grimes’ albums or her interviews? Is that why you’re not about to write her off yet? Is our willingness to wait and give them a chance due to them having the potential (and actually becoming) really big things? Do we think that they will listen to us as they are smaller, so we can influence them as they get bigger?
I’m not so sure. Is potential what saves these two from being written off?
okay you’re right she does have three albums, but i suppose i’m pointing more to the fact that she’s only been releasing music for two years (versus madonna 1983, gwen stefani 1992, etc).
i think those are really good questions, and i wish i had more answers. an example of the “smaller” band: earlier this year i started listening to a band from new brunswick who sing in franglais/shiac, loved them, and then a few months later came across a poster of the three white girls in the band wearing “war paint” and feathers. i decided i was done. i emailed them, messaged them, they responded defensively - i.e. the “i’m sorry you were offended” non-apology - but the photo is no longer on their facebook page or website. and at least i told them why they were losing a fan.
in the case of grimes, maybe it’s partially because i’ve met claire, have been to her shows, have interviewed her. she’s not an unattainable rock star (yet). i like what she has to say in response to male journalists who have described her as “intentionally cutesy” because she’s a small woman with a lisp and a high-pitched voice. i like how she brings up gender in a smart and frank way, as opposed to a marketing ploy à la “girl power!” as an empty shell. as someone who has been alienated/pissed off in music scenes (as a concert-goer, as a music journalist, in punk & indie rock scenes) it is refreshing to see someone whose music i enjoy also discuss these things frankly.
and maybe that’s why i expect more of her, because i know she is smart. because i feel like if she heard these concerns, she might seriously take them into consideration. maybe it’s because i am waiting to fully be able to be call myself a “fan” of people who make things i enjoy, by people i want to be friends with. maybe you and i are looking for people who remind us of ourselves? i know it’s unrealistic to expect per but it is so so endlessly frustrating to constantly be disappointed by people a) doing shitty things and b) responding to criticisms about those shitty things in defensive ways.
On first view, “Genesis,” the latest video by the Canadian artist Grimes, might seem like a strange, post-apocalyptic, manga-influenced landscape conjured in the image of films like Mad Max , Blade Runner , and The Fifth Element. In it, Grimes (aka Claire Boucher), a diminuitive white woman who has recently been profiled in the New York Times and Vogue, dances with a mace like it’s a hula hoop in a barren desert or plain, and rides in a car wearing a disconnectedly dainty white poof of a blouse, while fondling a large python the same shade of yellow as her blonde extensions. The song is wispy and lithe as her music tends to be—a puff of soprano wafting over synth arpeggios, cotton-candy light.
Watch longer, though, and the romantic images of “Genesis” reveal problems. Grimes is no longer the star of a video when a dancer, dressed in a silver Aeon Flux suit with bodystocking, custom platform Nikes, and a three-foot cascade of baby-pink cornrows, appears. Compared to the rest of the quirkily-dressed people in the video, who register as white, the Aeon Flux dancer—played by Los Angeles rapper/model/stripper Brooke Candy—is white but made up to be somewhat of an ethnic other, particularly with her alien contact lenses and the aforementioned weave of rows. Her dances are flushed down to slow-mo, placing special emphasis on the strength and agility of her body, as she executes dance moves pulled from the playbooks of both Beyonce and voguing—and where she strikes a powerful, graceful presence, her positioning as “alien” next to Grimes’ coy, traditionally blonde girlishness ends up making Candy’s badassness seem “other.”
As narrative goes, the visuals are purely aesthetic, a laundry list of representational “art” looks popularized by Tumblr, offering nothing more than skewed prettiness; which is why the presence of Candy’s Aeon Flux dancer is so much more problematic. The video is Grimes playing primitivism, using a lens of a vague “future” as a way to execute notions of… well, future primitive. Some of the same critiques of James Cameron’s Avatar—that it continues the tradition of exoticising and idealizing the “advanced” and “pure” primitive other—apply here. Worst of all, the video begins with Grimes singing a refrain that is not on her album: wailing in her airy voice, she seems to mimic the vocal runs of Middle Eastern music, but without offering any context whatsoever. Presumably, it’s her depoliticized sonic interpretation of what is “weird,” “edgy,” or “other,” without any visible evidence that she has any knowledge of global music—unlike, say, MIA, who herself is complicated but travels the world to mine its variant sounds , or even white art-pop band Gang Gang Dance, whose polyglot vocalist Lizzi Bougatsos flips bhangra and traditional Chinese and Arabic singing with the precision of someone who’s studied it.
Grimes is not the first person attaching vague ethnic allusions to coolness without context—nor is she the first person to do so in four-inch “Club Kid” platform shoes. Pop music has long been a palette for white musicians interloping, borrowing, and assuming “other” racial identities, to varying critique or effect. In honor (or indictment) of Grimes and “Genesis,” here are a few of my favorites, in a manner of speaking.
1. Gwen Stefani, “Luxurious” No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani went to high school in heavily Latino Anaheim, California, where residents have been embroiled in protest against racialized police brutality as of late . So it makes sense that she would have been influenced at least somewhat by chola culture, having presumably been surrounded by it in the 1980s and 1990s. But in her 2004 video for “Luxurious,” she takes the association a bit too far, selectively appearing in “chola-face,” with heavy lip-liner, hair-sprayed bangs, getting her nails did, showing up at a Latino BBQ and being the only white woman all the while, her platinum blonde hair sparkling in the SoCal sun. Those parts were complicated but somewhat amusing, and some Latinos were grateful to see that end of our culture painted in a positive light, which happens almost never.
The real crime here, however: Gwen Stefani writhing atop a pile of colorful confetti with her hair pulled up in a Frida Kahlo ‘do… while wearing a t-shirt depicting La Virgen de Guadalupe cropped and spliced in half, slicing the blessed madre right down the middle. I will never forget the appalled squeal emitted by my mother, an extremely devout Mexican Catholic, when she came home one day to find me watching that video, La Virgen’s image desecrated for the sake of fashion and sexualizing this white girl. It’s proof that no matter how much you think you might be honoring a culture, you might never know if you’re shitting on it unless you, you know, ask. (A mistake Stefani blunders upon quite often; recall her late-’90s embracing of fashion bindis.) Nevertheless, I remain suspended in a love-SMDH relationship with La Gwen. (I.e.: her music is wonderful, she is full of spunk! I.e.: What the hell is up with the Harujuku Girls, her entourage of Japanese background dancers instructed never to talk?!) At the very least, she inspired this great, loving skewering by Mexican-American poet Reyes Cardenas. As La Bloga contributor Gina MariSol Ruiz said at the time , “Tonta of the year award goes to la Gwen Stefani… I think the Virgencita is going to smite that girl with a very thorny nopal.”
2. Madonna, “Frozen” Oh, Madge. For the sake of brevity, this will be the only entry on Madonna—not because it’s the most egregious, but because her career is so notoriously defined by co-option and appropriation that several books could be written on the matter. ( I already wrote a good 2000 words just on her Superbowl appearance.) But this one is so instructive.
The year was 1998, and Madonna had just helped kick off the decentralized popularity of mehndi, the South Asian and Middle Eastern practice of henna skin-painting that had never before been mainstream in white America. Mehndi is used as decoration within religious ceremony, but not exclusively so, so at least Madonna had “not totally insulting another religion” on her side this time. (Plus, she had just started getting into Kabbalah, so it all might have been slightly confusing.) But it was her half-assed use of bhangra-style, traditionally Indian dancing in her “Frozen” video, plus the ahistorical bursts of vaguely “Middle Eastern-sounding” strings atop William Orbit’s lite trip-hop production, that reminded us that Madonna was still the same-old co-opter we’d always known—and that video kicked off a South Asian culture-appropriation extravaganza that included the aforementioned Stefani fashion bindis and, ugh god, Madonna showing up at the 1998 MTV VMAs wearing full Brahmin priest make-up . With the latest resurgence for all things ’90s (see: above Grimes video), the fashion bindi and the like have returned. Here is a word of advice, ladies and gentlemen: just, don’t.
3. Kate Nash, “Under-Estimate the Girl” Oh, whoops! Spoke too soon: last month Kate Nash, the punky British singer who is paradoxically signed to Island Def Jam Motown Ireland, dropped a new video for “Under-Estimate the Girl,” a great song in theory about being an empowered woman and jilting the expectations of dudes. It’s technically post-riot grrrl, but could easily have dropped in ‘92 for all its growling vitriol and guitar riff pedestalizing. However, like old school riot grrrls, someone really needs to talk to Kate Nash about intersectionality, because the video features not one fashion bindi, but five, in different hues to match her sweaters and lipstick. (In the interest of being thorough, it should be noted that Grimes, above, is also a prime purveyor of the fashion bindi.)
Luckily, where Tumblr was one place that perpetuated the fashion bindi, so it is the place the fashion bindi will go to die. People all over the platform are up in arms about Nash’s video, including one fan called canndo, who writes , “Kate Nash has done some ace stuff for women in music recently, and the song is fine (if not a little mediocre), it’s just a shame that she’s trying to challenge patriarchy while wearing a bindi. Given her foray into feminist politics, some reflexivity when it comes to cultural appropriation wouldn’t have gone amiss.” Another fan, its-stella-bitch: “I can’t even look at her face without being mad. How can someone so socially aware do something so dumb? Why does every white musician I like have a shoddy past or end up doing something stupid like this? ” Well Stella… because white privilege.
4. Florence & the Machine, “No Light, No Light”
The redheaded Brit with the powerful voice is the toast of the fashion world for her sophisticated style and palatable music, but with the video “No Light,” she had us singing “hell no.” This is more just straight-up racism than appropriation (unless Florence doesn’t happen to be Catholic), but it’s so extreme it’s important to rehash. Stylistically perched in the evil epicenter between yuppie break-up film (think Flannel Pajamas) and mid-level demonic possession chiller, this video draws a very distinct line between the good—the pristine, all-white boy’s choir in the cathedral; angelic pale-faced Florence perched in the bell tower—and the chaotic: anonymous “Black” man (in Blackface!) wearing somewhat cryptic mask and doing frenzied dances. If that weren’t astonishing enough, the dancer is shown scarily chasing her up church stairs and across city streets—depicted as a terrifying, probably netherworldly specter—not to mention actually pricking a voodoo doll of Florence, as her body writhes with each shot of pin hitting cloth. Anonymous Blackface man is clearly cast as some kind of demon—he couldn’t be her stalker lover, after all, since the song lyrics extol said spurned lover’s “bright blue eyes.” Spoiler alert: Florence is saved from certain death by a pack of small, white hands. The Black demon writhes in agony as Florence goes back to her white lover. Racialicious compared it to “Birth of a Nation.”
As with some of the above, it’s impossible to imagine how these clips even get made, as they presumably go through a wide variety of people to be approved, from the videomaker writing the treatment to Florence’s “people”—managers, marketers, label heads and the like—right on up to Florence herself. Particularly since it’s a big-budget, cinematic video that must go through the labyrinthine bureaucracy of a major label? Not one person had any reservations, or an inkling that making this video is in essence reinforcing racist European tropes of “savages,” and of mythologizing said “savages”’ religion? Apparently not, and it’s fucking mind-blowing. The moral of this story is: no matter who you are, you probably need to check yourself.
it’s quite surreal, not to mention a bit overwhelming to find myself challenged by an article i am cited in?
as much as i am totally on board for the overall critique presented in this article, i’m taking a look at why this analysis unsettles me. it comes down to the fact that i really do love grimes music, i’ve got a lot of respect for claire boucher, but i also really dislike white girls wearing bindis.
yet, as much as i disliked the video for genesis (which i watched once and feel is adequately summarized here) i would hardly put grimes in the same category as gwen stefani (whose laundry list of fuckery dates back like two decades now) or florence and the machine (who has had three shitty racist music videos now) quite yet. she has one album out, i’m not sure if i would categorize her as a “prime purveyor of the fashion bindi” (especially if we’re talking about her performances as an artist.)
perhaps i’m naïve in feeling this way, but i can’t help but hope that an artist i am a fan of who is still in the very early stages of her career might acknowledge these missteps at some point. it’s not entirely disimilar from my discomfort of being a big azealia banks fan, but hating some of transphobic lyrics and shit she has said… but she’s still so young and new!
all of this to say: here’s hoping critical interviews, letters from fans, and discussions like these ones will at least push forward change.
It felt very exciting to open the plastic-wrapped bits of the Guardian today to find a pink-haired Grimes on the cover of one supplement, and Nicki Minaj sporting an aquatic ‘do on the front of the other.
One quote from Grimes’ interview in the Guardian Guide really stuck out:
“Branding” is a word Claire mentions often, with an enthusiasm that might offend preceding indie generations. “I used to think that focusing on the visual aspect was really vapid and ridiculous too,” she admits, “but I’ve come to realise it’s actually one of the most powerful tools I have to work with. The way that you present yourself visually totally dictates your audience and everything that anyone thinks about you. What’s the difference between Napoleon and everyone else? Napoleon had great image branding. When people think of Napoleon they’re not thinking of the Egyptian campaign or whatever, they’re thinking of his fucking hat and his fucking hand in his waistcoat.”
Just after Christmas, I was driving over to my auntie’s house with my 13-year old brother, William. He hates my music taste, but I gave him my iPod to put something on the car stereo. Putting Captain Beefheart on a cassette for him when he was about nine really didn’t work (in fact, it may have done the opposite, as he now claims only to listen to chart music— and yes, I am horrible), so I wasn’t particularly surprised that he put Lana Del Rey on. After making an unfathomably innocent and beautiful comment about how her music made him feel (I’ll spare him the embarrassment), he asked whether Del Rey was similar to Lady Gaga. William has no idea of all the debate that had gone on around her image or authenticity, or that LDR isn’t even her real name (what a dreamy state of being), so I tried to explain to him that she wasn’t really: Lady Gaga could keep making terrible Euro-pop until the end of time, but she’ll be able to sustain interest by changing her image every week and making news out of it. Del Rey could change her sound and look between every album, but because she started off with such a fixed and consistent aesthetic, there’ll always be people ready to quibble with the credibility of any change she implements.
Claire Boucher’s comment about branding is intriguing, as I find one of the most enticing non-musical aspects of her aesthetic is how it’s rarely the same— her form of “branding” lies in her total inconsistency: in the Guardian Guide feature, she looks like a soft R&B cartoon in zebra print and Christopher Kane celestials (at least, it looks like the latter— no matter how many designers purportedly want to dress her, the clothes never wear her). On the cover of this month’s The Fly, she’s a soldier in Death Grips’ command, sporting a black military blazer and baring gold grills. On a recent Dazed cover, she “[dripped] with Givenchy jewellery”, as the Guide puts it, wearing tribal nose-rings made out of million pound gems. Type her name into Google Images and she’s Final Fantasy warrior, army escapist, punk, grebo, hippy, mutated Spice Girl. What she says directly (brilliant Napoleon comment aside) about how “the way you present yourself visually totally dictates your audience” gets back to a comment she’s often made about not distinguishing between musical genres because she “grew up with everything” thanks to the internet; perhaps because of that, Boucher seems to see no reason why a hip-hop fan, punk, or video games fan might not be into her music, which probably shouldn’t feel as refreshing as it does.
In her excellent review of Visions on Pitchfork, Lindsay Zoladz picked up on a comment Boucher made about why she’s so open to change: “I’m really impressionable and have no sense of consistency in anything I do.” Where Lady Gaga’s constant changes of image are always conceived as talking points, Boucher’s un-signposted, unexplained metamorphoses (calling her “chameleonic” is inappropriate, as she’d never blend in) feel like evidence of her wanting to leave no aesthetic trace, not being beholden to one look in particular. In Carrie Battan’s interview with Boucher for Pitchfork, she says, “I like the idea of a culture of pure aesthetics, it feels like a video game.” The Final Fantasy image and sound element to her artistry has been pointed out a number of times; I like to think of Claire exploiting this music lark as a kind of video game, pushing through to the next level and taking the opportunity to remake herself again and again, a kind of, “How do you like me now, using these weapons that I’ve newly acquired?” approach. It feels like evidence of her power, something Stereogum woefully overlooked in their Deconstructing feature on the Montreal electro-pop artist. There, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote:
Grimes has a host of recent-vintage contemporaries who approach their music with a similar concept, like Lykke Li and Fever Ray and Bat For Lashes and even fellow blog star Charli XCX, all of whom do similarly conceptualized music but tap into their womanhood and sexuality as a source of power, some might say THE DARK ARTS OF WOMANNESS.
Aside from that last comment being an absurdity hardly worth dignifying with a response, her negation— “but tap into their womanhood and sexuality as a source of power”— seems so unfounded, both with relation to some of her given examples and implying that Grimes doesn’t use her feminine power (as if she should? as if she should offer something to identify with or aspire to, that most heinous, hateful of assumptions about art made by women?). (And Lykke Li mixing ickle girliness with a black caped swimming costume and singing “sadness is my boyfriend”— if that’s tapping into your sexuality as a source of power, then…) In Carrie’s interview, Boucher talks about how it “wasn’t okay for guys to like girly-sounding music”, acknowledging that she could potentially have (had) a hand in changing that. In this Guide interview, she talks about how Visions allows her to confront some serious past trauma:
“Visions was an extremely cathartic album to make. I went through a period a few years back when I was really addicted to drugs. Two of my best friends died, I had this really fucked up assault experience and I was constantly in and out of terrible relationships. I never really dealt with all that, but I eventually realised that by making songs, I could work through these things that had been plaguing me for years.”
Back to Carrie’s interview, there Boucher talks about how she produces herself as if she’s Phil Spector bossing a group of pop artists around, except she’s playing both roles. Grimes’ ideas of power are arguably twisted, but she’s always the one doing the twisting. It’s interesting that the week’s biggest talking point about Boucher, beyond her appearing on Jools Holland or the cover of the Guide or The Fly magazines, was the line of “pussy rings” she’s creating with Montreal jeweller Morgan Black. The author of that Stereogum piece argues that Grimes is “infantilised” and seems to complain that she doesn’t make use of her “DARK ARTS OF WOMANNESS”. Those rings are candied vaginas worn like knuckledusters; childhood sweets, hip-hop toughs, alien lifeforms, symbols of a certain kind of consistent, loyal bond between men and women, men and men, and women and women. If this is a game of aesthetics, then Grimes’ rings are loaded guns.
great read (found via beautravail, reblogging from author for legibility)
i wanted to tweet back (but you know how much i hate being succinct and limiting myself to 140 characters) but basically what i wanted to address was how i will always hate prescriptive “liking,” especially in purportedly alternative/”sub”cultures. then i debated reblogging something like “well i guess we have to revoke my 90s feminist card because i don’t like ani difranco.” i wish i had learned that earlier, when i was a teenager. fuck prescriptive music taste. listen to whatever tickles your fancy, who the fuck cares if it doesn’t fit with the rest of your music catalogue and/or your style.
personally i’ve been quite surprised to see how meteoric grimes’ rise has been, but then again when it comes to guessing who will and won’t get famous in the canadian music scene i tend to end up disappointed and jaded. i count myself among her fans, largely because i enjoy the music she makes, but i am really drawn in by laura snapes’ arguments here about how she chooses to present herself/how she is visually marketed (i should note i could do without the description of her “tribal” Givenchy nose-ring but that’s a quote and that’s slightly off-topic).
An unofficial music video for the song “Circumambient,” by Grimes (Claire Boucher). Track is from the album “Visions.” (Artubus/4AD) Footage is from the 1968 film “La Prisonniére,” by Henri-George Clouzot.
i LOVE this. it also vaguely reminds me of one of my all time favourite music videos.
things i'm into/post about: art, fashion, "politics," feminism, consent, social justice, queerness, identity politics, and generally speaking, badass empowering shit. my real blog is alagarconniere.wordpress.com.
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