Feminist Musicians: Grimes

Avid readers may remember that 15 months ago I talked about tUnE-yArDs, whose music deals with a lot of social justice issues. This time, I’m talking about Grimes, or Montreal’s Claire Boucher. Unlike tUnE-yArDs, it’s hard to say exactly what Grimes’ music is about. Particularly when you have lyrics such as “I lean on walls until I stand/I touch my face with my hand”. What is particularly awesome about her, though, is that she’s outspoken about feminism in the electronic music industry (not known for its egalitarianism) and in general. In addition to this, she has enjoyed critical acclaim in both indie circles (the revered Pitchfork giving her a Best New Music label) and in more mainstream circles (being played on triple J, selling out all Australian shows), despite the very experimental nature of her act.

Going back a few steps, Grimes is a one-woman self-made artist whose music can be described as first electronic, but also pop and definitely experimental. Her sound is unique and is very much informed by the unusual nature of her whole act: sparse electronic soundscapes, samples, layered harps, and of course, her impossibly high singing voice.  You probably know this song, Oblivion (it was Pitchfork’s number 1 song of 2012, and featured highly in Triple J’s Hottest 100):

Her Outspokenness About Feminism

When asked if she’s a feminist:

“The more I’ve had to work in this industry, the more I’ve just been shocked at the way people behave.” Grimes talking to SPIN in 2012.

How do they behave? She talks about guys’ disbelief that sings and produces her own songs, or the constant push in photo shoots for her to have a sexualised image (think: leather swimsuits) when she wasn’t comfortable with this, or people treating her as “cute” for making mistakes, something that obviously wouldn’t happen to a guy

Why is this a big thing? People like Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga (who, sadly, spouts so much feminist thinking but doesn’t identify as one because she “loves men”, sigh) don’t identify as feminists. I get that the label’s not that important. But it’s something.

It’s great to see someone who’s achieved success on her own terms speaking out against the sexism in the electronic music industry. I’m a regular reader of XLR8R, one of the go-to sources for new and good electronic music. One only need give the site a cursory glance to know that the electronic music industry is absolutely male-dominated. And that’s not even getting into the prevailing attitudes and barriers to success that women ordinarily face. It’s so encouraging to see a woman (1) BE successful and (2) call out the sexism she’s experienced.

Props to her for calling it out. Things like being treated as “cute” for making mistakes are not easy to call out. They’re not as cut and dried as say, someone saying, “women aren’t as good at making music as men” (yeah, someone said that), so calling it out in interviews is all the more powerful because it sheds light on subtle sexism which informs such a huge part of the broader issues tacked by the current incarnation of feminism (e.g. rape culture – not tangible and obvious like overtly discriminatory laws!). In this way, actually it is important that prominent women identify as feminists. But that’s a discussion for another time.

In a recent post on her now-deleted Tumblr, Grimes discussed an array of interesting things, which I’ll go through because they’re awesome. First, she talked about the positive social implications of music by people like PSY and Beyoncé. For PSY, she noted that, aside from him being completely self-made, his music will teach a generation of kids that Korean Culture is as valid as Western Culture, speaking from her experiences of the racism that she observed growing up in Vancouver, with its large asian population. This is so applicable to Australia, which has an enormous asian population who, in my experience, are frequently othered (i.e. they’re seen by ‘white’ Australians as ‘asians’ and not other Australians who might have a different cultural background, i.e. maybe not singlets and thongs).

On Beyoncé, paraphrasing doesn’t do it justice really:

“She’s changing the world. She stands for people of colour and women everywhere succeeding in a stifling patriarchy without compromising her morals.”

(My weak spot: anyone who casually uses ‘patriarchy’ in a sentence.)

She also goes on to talk about Mariah Carey, which, again:

“And yet I know very few adult males who consider themselves serious ‘music guys’ who don’t laugh when I say I like Mariah Carey. Why? Because she’s beautiful and people like her. Therefore she must be selling sex, right? So obviously her music is terrible, right? Ugh.”

This is really true. In my experience, it’s like if you want to be taken seriously you can’t like any remotely ‘mainstream’ music, or if you do, it’s only in irony.

Source: Pitchfork, Joseph Mohan

Source: Pitchfork, Joseph Mohan

Her Feminine Image and Persona

Another interesting aspect of Grimes’ success is her feminine image. She sings in an otherwordly high voice, is physically small and occupies a particularly feminine persona (see for example the video for Oblivion where her femininity is contrasted with her surrounded by hulky football players). So how does this sit with her success in a male-dominated industry?

It seems fair to say that she’s encountered more pushback than a man in her position would have (see above). One really good example of this is in an interview with SPIN in late 2012 where the interviewer is talking Grimes being put into the ‘magical angel child’ rather than adult woman box. Things are going well until the interviewer asks her “then why the pussy rings?”, as if bringing out vagina-themed merchandise is the reason people can’t take her seriously. (Background: Grimes teamed up with a jewellery designed to create pussy rings – which are literally casts of a vulva on a ring). As if having vagina-themed rings and a high, wispy voice are a justification for others to infantilise her.

This is actually such a great example of the assumptions people make (how could anyone take her seriously when she put vulvas on rings and sings are acts in a very overtly feminine manner) and the fact that people seriously still have some weird thing about vaginas. I mean, come on, penises are actually everywhere. From the pen 15 club in primary school to your twentysomething male friends guffawing about the foibles of their genitalia (and beyond).

I’m going to end this on a thoroughly unacademic and unsophisticated note: it’s really cool to see someone who is actually very experimental have such good success and it warms my heart that she has used this platform to speak out about sexist and racist attitudes, especially because they’re not easily called out, not being necessarily overt. I will leave you with the video for Genesis, for which Boucher sought “hot girls who can dance & r willing to be zombie angels and blow up cars and televisions.” Huh. Keep on being yourself.

Rosie Cuppaidge


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