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New Realiti: The Delightfully Exasperating Evolution of Grimes

Retracing the avant-pop star’s career on the eve of her fifth album, ‘Miss Anthropocene’

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

No, Grimes did not name her unborn baby War Nymph. Sheesh.

On Friday, the Vancouver-born avant-pop star born Claire Elise Boucher will release her fifth full-length album, Miss Anthropocene, which she described to Crack Magazine as “an evil album about how great climate change is.” Also: “Everyone loves the villain. Everyone fucking loves Thanos. Let’s make some Thanos art.” The long-threatened record’s endless promotion cycle, as usual, has gotten a bit chaotic.

Meaning, she told The Wall Street Journal in March 2019 that she’s planning a “public execution” of the Grimes alias, and asked the interviewer to address her instead as c, italicized, lower-case.

Meaning, she confided to Lana Del Rey and Brit Marling in a joint December conversation for Interview that “what scares me is an artificial intelligence getting online, seeing everybody’s search history, and then blackmailing all of us into doing whatever it wants,” adding, “We might be some of the last human artists who aren’t completely rendered obsolete by artificial intelligence.” (Marling: “You just gave me a wave of chills.”)

Meaning, she announced her pregnancy in January via a super-NSFW Instagram post, triggering immediate (and unconfirmed) speculation that Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is the father. Their romantic relationship has been an object of intense fascination since they first appeared together at the 2018 Met Gala. (Naomi Fry in The New Yorker: “In this context, the weirdness of a union-busting billionaire with neo-colonial leanings suddenly dating a quirky Canadian musician who, until recently, had ‘anti-imperialist’ in her Twitter bio makes a certain kind of sense.” (Grimes had changed it from “anti-imperialist” to “baby wolverine”—months before meeting Musk, she angrily clarified.) (Just clarifying.)

Meaning, later in January, when she plugged @warnymph social media accounts featuring a bow-and-arrow-toting digital baby with creepy red eyes, some reacted with confusion (@filmrudd: “grimes what u be talking about ever”), while others drew a tenuous connection that resulted in some of the best website corrections of our young century. (No need to link, accidents happen, but, “The original version of this story incorrectly identified the War Nymph avatar as a digital representation of Grimes’ unborn child with Elon Musk” is an incredible sequence of words.)

Sheesh. War Nymph is more confounding album promo, you see. Thanos art, if you will. The chaos, you might say, is … inevitable. “If u follow the clues,” Grimes helpfully tweeted back to @filmrudd, “the questions will have answers.” To repeat: Miss Anthropocene. Out Friday. Many of its prerelease singles have been pretty wonderful: The melancholic and acoustic-guitar-driven “Delete Forever,” for example, might just be her “Wonderwall.” Do not confuse the signal with the noise, no matter how alluring the noise, no matter how scalding and/or intoxicating the tea. But central to the exasperating delight of the Grimes experience, now and forever, is that the answers are inevitably more confounding than the questions.

It is easy to forget that agitated blog fodder is not Grimes’s primary art form. It’s an avant-pop star occupational hazard that Grimes, then a Tumblr pioneer and ever the fretful visionary, was fretting about back in 2015. A Kelefa Sanneh New Yorker profile from that year headlined “Pop For Misfits” traced the first delirious half-decade of her career. (She was grappling with the “disquieting possibility,” Sanneh wrote, “that her online presence might be even more popular, and more influential, than her music.”)

Early Grimes—a beguiling and chaotic jumble of goth menace, new age mysticism, K-pop elation, noisy disruption, and pure pop sophistication—is indeed increasingly difficult not to view through the gossip-clouded prism of Later Grimes. “Even though she’s dating Ebay Muskrat and has begun aiding in union busting I still like this album,” noted a conflicted Bandcamp supporter of her grimy and surreal 2010 debut, the Dune-fixated Geidi Primes. “We’re living in a very strange timeline :/.” (The union-busting accusation, which involves a few passionate Grimes tweets amid Musk’s doomed legal battle over a California Tesla plant’s attempts to unionize, is a distracting rabbit hole best avoided. Ditto summer 2018’s baffling and hilarious Musk-Grimes–Azealia Banks fracas, a Great American Novel unto itself. By God, I am trying to simplify this.)

Sheesh. The Grimes of 2010, a Montreal underground fixture and MySpace luminary who that year generated both Geidi Primes and its extra-gothic follow-up Halfaxa, had a gift for genre-bending conceptualization, for sci-fi world-building, for what she’d one day describe to The Wall Street Journal as pop-star “lore” as crafted by the likes of Prince or Rihanna. “I feel like art in the middle ages was always addressing something beyond earthly experience, and I want to do the same,” was how she explained Halfaxa at the time. “But I wanted it to be vague as to what it is beyond earthly experience that is being addressed.” She was a deep thinker willing to risk the public-discourse calamity of thinking out loud, deeply and loudly.

Grimes thus emerged, on the eerily propulsive 2011 track “Vanessa,” as an entirely new sort of aspiring pop star, moody and disruptive but unafraid to cultivate mainstream fascination. Better yet, this was just when the Pitchfork-reading indie-music scene (whatever that means) was especially warming to pop stardom (whatever that means) as a noble goal, and first learning to embrace Mariah Carey, say, as an oracle and not an archnemesis. “I like pop stars because you can see who they are,” is how Grimes explained the attraction at the time. “Knowing who made something can make it a lot better, or a lot worse.”

Visions, her 2012 breakthrough album, cemented Grimes as an art-pop producer nonpareil, a quietly masterful storyteller more in breathy falsetto images than in words, and an absurdly charming music-video star. “Oblivion,” which Pitchfork would eventually declare the second-best song of the 2010s, is a soothing steam bath of ethereal-meets-industrial textures, and a harrowing recollection of a sexual assault she described to SPIN as “one of the most shattering experiences of my life,” and a marvel of carefree guerilla-choreography charisma. (This casual wave is my favorite dance move of the decade.)

The combination was volatile by design, and irresistible by pure force of will. Lana Del Rey also rose to power in 2012 (albeit on a much more commercial scale), and like Grimes clashed immensely with a catty and outlandishly sexist music blogosphere typified by the worst impulses of Hipster Runoff or the BrooklynVegan comment section. Suddenly, both women were, to varying degrees, stars, and therefore targets, and therefore in constant danger of the stardom eclipsing the art itself.

By that 2015 New Yorker piece, Grimes had signed with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation management company and collaborated with the producer Blood Diamonds on “Go,” a brazen EDM track they first tried to sell to Rihanna before releasing it themselves. (Fellow Pitchfork darlings like Vampire Weekend and Father John Misty would go further down the even deeper rabbit hole of writing for boldface pop stars like Beyoncé, to varying degrees of disgruntlement.) She was also preparing to release her best album yet, late 2015’s stupendous Art Angels, which minted another candidate for best song of the 2010s (the electric pop-punk epic “Flesh Without Blood”) and featured a high-concept video, usually directed by Grimes herself, for nearly every track. (The ultra-lush clip for “Venus Fly” featured Janelle Monáe, a flaming sword, and the services of a “bubbleologist.”)

The Grimes video from this era that I am currently obsessed with, however, had the tiniest budget. In late 2014 she released “Christmas Song II (Grinch),” a collaboration with her rapper stepbrother Jay Worthy that flamboyantly samples A Charlie Brown Christmas and finds her dancing on a couch while holding an ax amid the lowest-key holiday party imaginable. Chorus: “I’m the Grinch! / I’m the Grinch, motherfucker! / I’m the Grinch!” She looks absurdly happy; the effect is absurdly delightful.

Thanos art. “This is NOT a single from the upcoming album, not a serious piece of art in any capacity and not an official grimes release,” she helpfully clarified in the YouTube description, adding that she “made this song in prob less than 2 hours so please excuse my terrible production, + it is not mixed or mastered.” None of that matters, of course. It’s a goofy and bracing reminder of the awfully relatable person behind the inexhaustible thinkpiece phenomenon; it’s a shame, and its own fount of Charlie Brown–style holiday melancholia, that she felt the need to clarify the growing distance between the two.

The slow buildup to Miss Anthropocene has swung calamitously between jarring new sonic directions and, from the 2018 Met Gala forward, jarring new developments in one of the most unlikely celebrity romances of our time. “We Appreciate Power,” once touted as the lead single, is a blaring throwback to ’90s industrial rock (Orgy! Marilyn Manson! Stabbing Westward!) that came with its own here-comes-the-robot-blackmail thesis statement:

”We Appreciate Power” is written from the perspective of a Pro-AI Girl Group Propaganda machine who use song, dance, sex and fashion to spread goodwill towards Artificial Intelligence (it’s coming whether you want it or not). Simply by listening to this song, the future General AI overlords will see that you’ve supported their message and be less likely to delete your offspring.

It didn’t make the record, but the track certainly set the tone: “I feel like we’re in the end of art, human art,” she told the theoretical physicist Sean Carroll on his Mindscape podcast in November, musing about the imminent dominance of AI. But even that statement, in a post-Elon universe, triggered another brief feud: The goth-industrial singer-songwriter Zola Jesus dismissed Grimes in a series of since-deleted tweets as “the voice of silicon fascist privilege,” adding that “approaching the future of music and art with so much cynicism can only come from someone who really has nothing to lose.”

Grimes has never been a Billboard phenomenon (Art Angels peaked at no. 36) commensurate with her critical success, but her controversy-magnet visibility has never been higher, which is both a boon and a threat to Miss Anthropocene. “Without me doing anything, just by random association with other people, I’ve watched my career and my reputation get totally fucking smashed,” she lamented to Crack Magazine. (It’s big in Europe.) “I worked my whole fucking life for this and now everyone thinks I’m so stupid. I was just sitting there incredulous watching my life’s work go down the drain.”

Thus: Thanos art. Thus: The headline “Grimes is ready to play the villain.” Thus, a “pro-climate-change” album featuring a droning six-minute electro-pop power ballad called “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth” that might be about new love, or imminent maternal love, or only somewhat less-imminent apocalypse, or all of that, or none of it. (Another colossal maybe-love song, caught halfway between Nine Inch Nails and Miley Cyrus reinterpreting Nine Inch Nails, is called “Violence.”) Thus, a focus on global annihilation so intense and sincere it scans as cynicism. War Nymph, however that creepy li’l baby fits into any of this, already makes a whole lot of sense.

The unified critical theory of poptimism argued, successfully, that pop music “matters” just as much as rock music, and that the packaging—the visual art, the choreography, the fashion, and the persona—can matter just as much as the sound. Miss Anthropocene was a rich text before anyone had heard a second of it, and it’ll be a crucial test of how heavy that packaging can get before it crushes whatever’s inside. But Grimes, to her credit, may have already disproved her own thesis: Artificial intelligence may one day make better art than humans, but I’d like to see even our new killer-robot overlords try to make someone like her up.