Grimes's Claire Boucher is the indie heroine of the year, which makes it all the more interesting that she's using her newfound celebrity to subtly challenge what we expect of women in the entertainment industry.
It’s been a good year for Claire Boucher, the Montreal-via-Vancouver songstress whose breakout LP, Visions, finds the heretofore undiscovered middle ground between Mariah Carey and Cocteau Twins. At 24, Boucher—who makes music as Grimes—finds herself the toast of not only Blogtown, but the rusting, creaking capital cities of the Old Guard.
The New York Times hails Visions "one of the most impressive albums of the year", while the hard-hitting trendsetters at Entertainment Weekly call the record positively "dreamy", likely right up there with other dreamy entities like Channing Tatum and the piece of interchangeable, anonymous manmeat who recently played Captain America in those films. Of course, Pitchfork and its indie ilk got to Grimes first, with the ‘Fork awarding Visions its potentially game-changing Best New Music tag, with the AV Club, Filter, Cokemachineglow, Gorilla Vs Bear, XLR8R and—right—PopMatters giving Visions more digital and print fuel for the buzz fire.
And rightfully so. Visions is a bewitching, shapeshifting record of surprising heft and emotional weight, given all this talk of dreams and Boucher’s airy, adolescent voice. The album manages to be both immediately gratifying in the best tradition of pop music and a challenging, viscous blend of elliptical structures and bursts of serious, almost malevolent darkness. Visions is weird, beautiful, and always captivating, the work of a young artist hitting her stride and joyfully sharing the results with the rest of us.
Grimes’s crossover from indie of-the-moment heroine to mainstream critical darling sees Boucher following the path previously trodden by Sufjan Stevens, Panda Bear and Animal Collective, and—most recently—Bon Iver. This isn’t to say Grimes is selling out, or even playing, venues of the size now demanded by the crowds flocking to see those artists play. Rather, it places Grimes and Boucher into the context of a zeitgeist spirit animal, to use a metaphor at once ironic and sincere enough for an artist who seems to delight equally in both attitudes.
In other words, the maelstrom of accolades churning around Boucher and Visions isn’t new as a phenomenon itself, though it’s certainly new to her. The New York Times and NPR anoint a new crossover indie savior every year. The strangeness lies, in part, in the pure weirdness of Grimes’s music, a dissonant bleep for every melodic bloop. But for my purposes, the stranger—and more exciting—element of Boucher as 2012 Poster Artist is that this rainbow of media delight, from obscure blogs to the paper of record, shines on a female artist.
True, Grimes isn’t the first female singer-songwriter to face such an intense wave of attention in the aughts or teens—think of Joanna Newsom or St. Vincent’s Annie Clark. (For that matter, it seems the handful of women who reap this level of critical praise often make more challenging and, plainly, more interesting music than their similarly celebrated male peers. I would take Clark’s gnarly guitar work over Grizzly Bear’s flaccid chamber pop or Newsom’s incredible intricacies over Sufjan’s twee exhalations any day.) What Boucher does differently than Clark or Newsom expresses itself in her irreverent public persona, the sort of exuberant silliness that could read as either a breath of fresh air or as the mothball smell of the Urban Outfitters sales rack, all hip affectation and little substance, depending on how you inhale. Whatever the case, it’s nice to imagine Bob Boilen watching the new L$D video.
In this way, does Grimes represent a new sort of female celebrity? In the indie rock world, politics of gender and sexuality are supposed to be more sophisticated than those of the broader, more "traditionally"-minded entertainment culture, right? So, what happens when an indie heroine crosses over into the hyper-(hetero)sexualized world of the mainstream entertainment machine? Joanna Newsom went for the upper crust, street style blogs. Annie Clark has made similar forays into fashion, modeling for Madewell and playing with St. Vincent at up-and-coming designer Rachel Comey’s 2009 New York Fashion Week runway show.
I don’t at all mention these two artists’ pursuits as slights against their integrity, some sort of punk holdover anti-commercialism still prevalent among many writers and fans in indie rock circles—the worlds of fashion and music are obviously both vast, complex artistic spheres, and we should find it interesting whenever there’s an instance of confluence between the two (hi, Kanye). I do, though, find it worth pointing out that, by using their increased exposure in the mainstream musical press to segue into the world of mainstream high fashion, Newsom and Clark are expressing their femininity in a very straightforward, uncontroversial manner. They are very beautiful women, and they are modeling very beautiful clothing for a wide commercial audience.
Again, no judgment there. I mention it as a matter of contrast to Claire Boucher’s experimentations with fashion culture, which is neither better nor more worthy of attention than Newsom or Clarke’s—just quite different. Grimes makes pussy rings. Supposedly for sale in the near future, these are rings made out of molded plastic designed to look like the vulva. Chanel, they are not. But a fashion statement? Most likely.
In designing the rings with Montreal artist Morgan Black, Boucher takes Newsom and Clark’s fashion forays a step further, actually helping to conceptualize and produce the item she models. The pussy rings—and that name should clue you in, if you weren’t clued in already—are of course intended to be provocative in a way Margiela and Madewell are not. Yes, Boucher does wear Givenchy on a recent magazine cover, but she wears it in her nose. Boucher, then, seems willing to take the piss a bit, to do the requisite fashionista dabbling but to do it with tongue planted firmly in cheek. That Hipster Runoff, the often hilarious and always inscrutable (half?) parodic website that turns indie celebrity into the tabloid fodder of mainstream celebrity, has made Boucher a veritable poster girl of late speaks both to her rising success and the notion she shares an attitude similar to Hipster Runoff’s Carles, participating in while also skewering the sexualized inanity of so many culture and style sections.
Wherever Grimes’s success takes Boucher in the future, it’s simply nice to see a young female artist having fun with the media’s idea of a young female artist. Boucher’s ebullient, stream-of-consciousness persona in interviews is anything but preachy or overly intellectualized in her discussions of music, gender, fashion, and all else—perhaps I’m taking too much of the bait here. Her music would be enough on its own. But Boucher is on her way to being a celebrity, and her facility in sculpting that celebrity to suit her own ideas—and to challenge ours—is icing on the cake.