You Can Go Home Again: Grimes and the Case for Reclaiming Pop
Grimes going pop isn't reason to dismiss her; it's cause to celebrate pop's new era of auteurship.
All photos by Bruno Detombes
We’re told to line up early for Grimes, like pre-doors, line-down-the-block in the unforgiving Montreal cold early, because even though we have tickets, the venue is subject to capacity, and there's no guarantee we’ll get in. The show, Grimes’ first in her sometime-hometown since releasing her fourth LP Art Angels earlier this month, has been sold out for weeks.
We get into the Metropolis with enough time to overhear opener Nicole Dollanganger wrapping her set, and to see other fans running down the street to the venue; minutes later, those too slow are stuck craning over the shoulders of crossed-arm security guards, arguing in vain to be let in. Inside, the bar and coat check are all but abandoned as the packed crowd on the floor mushrooms over into the aisles, heads tilted up towards the stage in anticipation as classical music pipes in over the PAs.
We hear Grimes before we see her. The lights cut out, and two Dayglo-painted dancers emerge to tease their star’s arrival as “Laughing and not being normal” begins. A flood of magenta light rises with her falsetto, and Grimes appears, her lanky frame exaggerated by a flared skirt, high braid, and clunky footwear. She hops up to her gear, kicking off the bass clicks of “Circumambient,” and runs back down to the front of the audience to sing, cutting a larger-than-life silhouette in the neon glow behind her. For a moment, it’s impossible to distinguish between the synths and the shrieking crowd.
“[Montreal] is where I learned how to make music,” Grimes shouts, eliciting more screams. She thanks the M for Montreal festival, host of this headlining show, noting that the ten-year-old event showcased some of her earliest gigs. It was this very community—the fans before her, the festival, the buregeoning electronic scene, and the broader local art scene—that helped send an unknown DIY musician and college dropout named Claire Boucher out into the world. She returned home a Juno winner, chart topper, fashion icon, and pop star. For those who were there, the night of Nov. 21 wasn't a concert but a victory lap, a celebration greater than the sum of its parts.
But Grimes' ascendancy doesn't always elicit the kind of unconditional love she enjoyed inside the Metropolis. Around town, in the days leading up to the set, I overheard as many, if not more, scoffs and dismissive takes about her “going pop,” selling out, and abandoning her roots as I did expressions of eager anticipation and pride.
That’s nothing new. The road from 2012's breakthrough Visions to Art Angels was paved with social media feuds, fan rejection, sexism, scrapped albums, and grating self-doubt, all in the name of her refusal to compromise. Grimes’ live set proves she has emerged better for the wear.
In a move increasingly rare for rising artists of any genre, her souped-up stage show is less about spectacle and production value than intent. The set design is minimal, but no detail of the performance is without purpose, reminiscent of the kind of meticulousness favored by the likes of Kate Bush and Björk. The choreography served as an extension of each song, with dancers wielding props that ranged from rhythmic gymnastic ribbons to daggers. Rave strobes, lasers, and Turrell-esque washes of light elevated hypnagogic tunes like “Go” and Art Angels banger “Scream” to new levels of surreal, with Grimes pulling double duty on the latter by filling in on Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes’ verses.
As for the music itself, older tracks were reworked to fit the sound and context of her new material: “Oblivion,” for example, featured a stilted, bating intro, while a remixed (or “spruced up,” as she put it) “Be a Body” added warmer synth lines and delays.
Boucher’s trademark nervous energy and shy candor is still there—after accidentally setting off a song early, she unleashed a flurry of epithets, and later asked the crowd if she could skip the song and dance of the encore “for my own mental health.” But she ultimately, and deliberately, refuses to concede to being either a performer or a musician, frenetically running back and forth between her equipment to program songs and the front of the stage to dance, scream, sing, and head-bang.
“So, what do you think?” a friend asks during “Realiti.” The conversation inevitably lands on Grimes’ pop immersion. We talk for a moment about whether we think her new material is actually good, or just rooted in novelty. I admit that many of the new songs are still growing on me. There’s more I could say—that the bass was too loud, that her back-and-forth between the stage and gear was distracting, that the camouflage netting and sparse stage set up felt awkward. But as I watch Grimes fall to her knees and howl, throwing her braid like a mace as dancers stomp around her, I realize it doesn’t matter whether I “like” Grimes’ latest iteration. Qualifying what was happening in front of me as “good” or “bad” felt lacking, because it misses the point.
More than a happy homecoming, the show was a celebration of a pop artist unrepentant about reclaiming complete creative control over every component of her work. Grimes, along with the likes of Adele, Carly Rae Jepsen, FKA Twigs, and other soup-to-nuts, shirtsleeve-rolling creatives, make a strong case for the end of pop as a dirty word, a pejorative synonymous with assembly-line hit-makers and the superficial. And we, as the ones ultimately determining what is popular, do ourselves a disservice when we perpetuate that association—the idea that flawlessness and authenticity are mutually exclusive. Instead of dismissing Grimes for going pop, it’s artists like her who just might help reclaim the genre from its disingenuous connotations.
Back on stage, the dancers multiply. Fellow Montreal musicians are invited up to join in the fun. The crowd dances along beneath the strobes. Grimes looks out at the writhing expanse of bodies and screams a final, glorious “Holy fuck!” before launching into fan favorite “Kill V. Maim.” From the back of venue, the whole thing feels like a weird, post-apocalyptic rave from the future, a set that could feel equally at home at Levitation, Electric Daisy Carnival, Coachella, or some intergalactic throw-down—because it all feels like her. This is Grimes’ party. Get into it, or GTFO.
Andrea Domanick wants to go, wants to go with yooouuuu on Twitter.