THE DARK ARTS OF WOMANNESS (and Grimes)
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.