by Nat Allison
Early this November, Claire Boucher, who records under the pseudonym Grimes, released her fourth album amidst a flurry of intense internet chatter, especially from fans – many of whom felt personally offended by the new direction her sound had taken. On RateYourMusic.com, the album apparently warranted an initial group rating hovering around a dismal 2.79 out of 5 (it’s now a slightly more respectable 3.38.) But why, then, is there so much animosity, especially from those once on her side?
The basic gist of the fanfolk’s complaints with Art Angels is thus: Claire Boucher used to make distant monochromatic synth pop songs to cry to and now she makes slightly more colourful and bright electropop songs that might actually make non-zombies want to dance along. That is what constitutes selling out in this case – casting off an aesthetic she held onto for three albums that she began to find ill-fitting and crafting songs that sound like they’ve actually seen some sun and heard radio pop from later than 1983 in their lives. That’s the crux of it: Grimes was always writing pop songs – on early albums they were just slightly arcane warbly pop songs that at their best exhibited a frigid, glacial beauty but existed side-by-side with tracks that seemed hastily improvised afterthoughts. Not to diminish the steps taken in the directions of coherency and accessibility on her previous album, Visions, but it really is only on Art Angels that we see Claire Boucher’s final form, which is planet-devouring pop princess.
Perhaps perversely according to some dated dinosaur logic, it’s only through letting her pop tendencies run riot and casting fears of alienating any audience, new or old, to the wind, that Grimes has come into her own. Even her most celebrated song, the undeniably hook-filled “Oblivion,” a song I’d call overrated if it didn’t feel antirevolutionary to take potshots at a piece about the songwriter’s experience with rape, feels in retrospect like a dry-run for Art Angels’ first single “REALiTi,” the original version of which is counterintuitively only available on the album as a bonus track, with a far inferior rerecording taking its place in the “proper” tracklisting. The original “REALiTi” is hard to separate from its feels-inducing music video, which takes a stock 21st century pop video premise (home-video-style footage of a young woman dancing around various “foreign” locales at night) and elevates it to heights of almost unbearable poignancy through hyper-saturated colors and an alchemical big city synthesis between the neon of the lights and the strobe-lit synths.
The debate about the album still revolves around a couple of false dichotomies: the selling-out narrative, which might better be described as the “selling-out myth” at this point, and the war between the pops and not-pops – some people have their head so up the crack of rock that they can’t imagine that an artist with any level of cred or self-control (that’s self-control as in “control over their image and sound,” not “self-control” as in “oh god why did I have to eat that entire box of Nilla wafers? I have no…”) would ever willingly, without the enticement of filthy filthy lucre or incessant arm-twisting from above, pilot their sound in a more accessible direction, even to the point that the finished product bore traces of a camaraderie with actual top 40 pop, however abstracted or subverted the influences may be.
The other great war being fought is between people who may not have had a stake in the ongoing Grimes saga before this latest chapter, but who are nonetheless still utterly incensed that Catchy Electronic Pop Music (the Girly stuff even!) is being Enjoyed Sincerely by People On the Internet (White Males, even! Those who should Know Better!) (These people also really hate Bubblegum Bass/PC Music, but that’s another entry for another time…) They compare Art Angels to Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and then smugly expect those “insults” (okay, fair enough: being compared to Katy Perry is fightin’ words) to be withering enough that no further explication is warranted – the fankids (mostly fangirls and fanqueers in my experience) exacerbate this by repeatedly pointing to anti-single “Scream” and album highlight (and frenetic high point of WTFery) “Kill v. Maim” and shouting “See! That’s not top 40! It’s too weird for Katy Perry! My tween sister/soccer mom mother/vacuous fast food burger-flipper of a cousin would never listen to this!” – totally missing the point almost as widely as their rockist opposition.
First off – both of y’all – “this sounds like popular mainstream pop music” shouldn’t be an insult – principally because for all of the enforced homogeneity of the bulk of individual radio stations there’s still a wide variety of pop sounds getting play at any time even on the same station – Meghan Trainor’s retro kitsch doesn’t sound like Taylor Swift’s post-country which sounds even less like Beyonce’s futurism and none of them sound like Nicki Minaj in any of her many guises and so on. Furthermore, I think we should as a species have matured enough that everyone can appreciate the craft behind a good pop tune without 16-year-old Tool and/or Swans loving nu-atheist 4chan rockist dudebros, well, existing in any form, but certainly not pseudo-intellectualizing all over our simple pleasures. There’ve only been a handful of album better than Art Angels this year, and the best of them all so far was Carly Rae Jepsen’s E*MO*TION, an album that flirted so vigorously with mainstream radio that it actually landed multiple top forty hits.
It’s not like it’s magickally all sunshine and sherbet puppet puppies – “Pin” contains the lyrics “lighter and a safety pin, light the end, burn the skin” and other Nicole Dollengangerisms, while “Flesh Without Blood” is a succinct kiss-off that can readily double as a bird flipped to finicky ex-fans.
Strangely enough, it’s the album’s two guests who seem to want Clare to embrace her more quirktrellescent side – “Scream,” described (inaccurately, thank goddess) by Boucher in pre-release interviews as “[her] nu-metal song,” and somehow slotted as the album’s second single, consists of Cantonese rapping from Chinese MC Aristophanes and screeches, growls and meowls from both women over a rockabilly riff – it sticks out in her discography, to say the least. Not to be out-weirded, Janelle Monae, who knows a thing or two about navigating mainstream aesthetics and art kid cred, pulls out the best thing she’s done since her debut ep in’07 with “Venus Fly,” a buzzing tangle of blowed-out bass thumps, acid house synth squelches and a dollop of Grimes’ signature violin that, like “Scream,” relegates the headliner to secondary status, which is refreshing in Monae’s case after such barely-noticeable guest spots as fun.’s infamous and undeservingly epoch-defining “We Are Young” and the second track from another of this year’s best albums, Ego Death by the Internet.
Thus, one of the year’s most celebrated albums has seen a backlash like few others from the people who should the artists’ biggest supporters. But the haters have been missing out on a stunningly addictive record that represents a huge step forward for Ms. Boucher and perhaps even pop on the whole?