There’s always that one fucking girl. You hate this woman; you love hating her, almost. It’s not like hating a man, which tends to be done cautiously and in private, or else loud and cartoonishly. It’s different to be a woman and hate a woman. We are expected to hate each other. So nobody is surprised when we do. Pop star, author, actress, neighbor–it doesn’t matter; it’s almost encouraged. We are born into an unfriendly plane that warms to us a bit only if we’re very beautiful (but not too much) or very talented (but definitely not too much). We’re taught to voraciously compete for the limited resources, space, and attention that women receive. If someone else outstrips us, it’s easier to hate them than better ourselves. It’s so easy to begin hating, and you rarely question yourself about it beyond a surface level distaste. So somewhere along the way I had begun to hate Grimes.
My dislike of Grimes didn’t really have much to do with her music. Her last album, Visions didn’t connect with me beyond “Oblivion,” which I still believe is one of the most beautiful, unaffected pop songs on the planet. I was moved by how nakedly she portrayed feminine vulnerability, matching that weakness to these baby-soft vocals that coursed with quiet confidence; and “Oblivion” foreshadows her new album Art Angels in a lot of ways. But my problem wasn’t with her music; instead I was irked by some personal failings I’d judged in Claire Boucher herself.
Initially, my distaste was kicked off by the tantrum she threw over Claire Lobenfeld’s gentle yet forceful rebuke of Boucher’s boyfriend James Brooks when he assumed the Andrea Dworkin-inspired moniker Dead Girlfriends (dude?) and issued “On Fraternity,” a mansplainy reduction of the threat, fear, and trauma that define a victim’s relationship to sexual assault. It felt like such a hypocritical thing to me, that instead of listening to the critiques and supporting women who were communicating about how this song hurt them, she just defended him whole-cloth. Even if she disagreed, I thought, she still should’ve listened. She should’ve protected another woman’s voice, held it as equally valuable to a man’s–even if that man was her boyfriend.
I felt let down. This was also personal, not just political. Lobenfeld is my friend, but more so, I thought she was right. I thought she was brave for taking an unpopular stance. This is one of the casualties of working in the music industry, you lose your ability to be just a fan. It becomes impossible to focus solely on the music when a writer you like and respect is getting hateful comments because a celebrity used her platform to clap back at a critique.
My other problem with Grimes is related more directly to the way my job functions, and the constant double standard she holds for journalists who disseminate her personal writings. She often uses her platform on Tumblr for impassioned screeds, which are moving and important and so, so needed. Yet, when the websites that cover her as an artist share her words, she berates them as tabloidy monsters, rather than seeing that many of the bloggers who share her words are fans of the message, and want to spread it so her words reach even more readers who desperately need to hear them.
When Grimes decried this practice, I felt like she was betraying some of her biggest supporters. Few care more about Grimes and what she’s saying than the underpaid music writer. Many of them believe in her words so deeply that they want to share them with their entire audience. Grimes has argued that her words are taken out of context when they’re reblogged, but never really clarifies or explains when and where that has happened. This constant badmouthing of journalists bothered me! I held it against her. I judged her for it.
Sometimes, I wondered if Grimes was only praised as an oddball female pop star because there’s such a dearth of independent female producers. I wondered if we fawned over her because she was such a rarity, and because she clung to weirdness so fiercely. Last week I tweeted as much: “I don’t dislike Grimes, but I think she often uses being weird in place of being interesting.” I didn’t examine this thought then, even as I spouted it off. A few people agreed with me. Most said nothing. It is not unexpected to question a woman’s talent; it is not uncommon to claim a woman is esteemed because of some secondary “other” rather than any real talent or ability. Then I heard Art Angels.
This is the kind of album that makes me want to have a daughter, so I can press it into her hands one day and say here, this will help teach you about the beautiful thing that is feminine strength. This will teach you your magnificence. This will show you how to honor yourself. This will teach you that your body is a weapon for good, even if society keeps insisting you sheath it.
The country-lush harmonies on “California” remind me of pop Irish folk group the Corrs of all things. “You only like me when you think I’m looking sad,” Grimes coos, but it’s a challenge, not just an observation. “Flesh Without Blood” revs like an enormous engine–ignited by the same energy that lit “Oblivion”–as a cloud of sugary vocal acrobatics confront the way people try to mold us into a self they think we should be.
EDM sirens are lovingly stippled throughout a new version of “Realiti” like fine needlepoint, and it packs in just as much psych-pop paradise as anything off Tame Impala’s latest album. “Kill V. Maim” sounds like the anthem of a cheerleader vampire Stephen King wrote as a sequel to Carrie, and its mockery of male essentialism and the double standards that govern female behavior make it a barbed antidote to pop’s “good girl” poison. My favorite of them all is “The Belly of the Beat,” a song that explains in no uncertain terms how music has swallowed me up, kept me safe when death and fear threatened to knock me out. On this track, she explains how music will protect our hearts, until this song, too, becomes my armor.
It wasn’t until I listened to the album that I began to question why I hated Grimes, to trace back the path that led me to that easy pothole. I was forced to do it, because of how much I fucking loved Art Angels when I didn’t even want to. I wanted to feel the smug rightness of doubting an artist everyone praises. But I was wrong. There is power in questioning your own hatred, in digging deep to the root of it. I realized that while I was questioning Grimes using weirdness as a shield for lack of talent, I unequivocally considered Ariel Pink to be a genius. And there’s real proof that he’s a sexist asshole. Multiple sources confirm.
Why am I so concerned with judging Grimes for her perceived failings that mostly stem from my personal experience and ignoring his massive, public ones that affect multiple women? Why am I holding her to such an impossible standard? Internalized misogyny isn’t something I like to think about, but the sheer force of Art Angels forced me to confront it in myself. It feels like being behind enemy lines. To notice how quickly and easily I decided to hate Grimes unsettles me. It’s the same way music created for and by teen girls is written off as meaningless. It’s the same way Lana del Rey is cast as beautiful but mindless, when in reality, she has a background in philosophy and a degree in metaphysics.
I came to feminism fairly late, when I moved to New York in my early twenties. When I discovered this way of seeing the world, it felt like the first gulp of air after being stuck underwater for two decades. I was the “not like other girls” girl who loved sports, didn’t like pop music and thought makeup and shopping were shallow. I hated myself first, so I projected it out toward the elements that were most indicative of femininity. When I began to love my whole self I saw through the flimsy fear behind those judgements. That same fear fueled my dislike for Grimes. She is unabashedly, eagerly feminine, and she wields that power like a blade, thrusting back at a world that prickles at her authority. Many people hear anger on Art Angels. Though there’s aggression here, what comes through strongest for me is Grimes answering her critics with a love letter to herself.