Here’s a dirty little secret of contemporary music criticism. Most of us don’t have the slightest fucking clue about the technical construction of the music we’re reviewing.
Here were the qualifications I had when I got hired to be an intern at Baeble Music where I would eventually be the Managing Editor: I had an encyclopedic knowledge of classic rock, “barely literate” would have been an accurate phrase for my knowledge of indie rock/pop, and I could throw a sentence or two together without embarrassing myself or my boss. That was it. When I got promoted to Managing Editor three years later, my only other qualification was that I now had a fairly robust knowledge of the indie canon and my prose was a little better.
From day one of my internship, I was being asked to talk about what made new music work or fail with an air of authority, and to this day, I only kind of, sort of understand what a chord progression is. I can talk about the politics/poetry/power/prose of lyrics. I can talk about what genres and artists this act is borrowing from and why that creates an interesting and new or tired and stale piece. But if you were to put a gun to my head and ask me what makes a Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar solo or a Buddy Rich drum performance special specifically in regards to music theory, I’d be completely silent. I don’t know any of that shit. And I’ve always had a sense of imposter syndrome in my music writing because I know that I should.
That common issue is why so much music criticism just reads like a laundry list of bands that the artist and the reviewer both know and love. It’s easy to say that Nirvana were huge fans of Flipper, Boston, and the Pixies. It’s harder to talk about how Cobain fused proto-pop punk riffage, garbled vocals/lyricism, and swirls of guitar noise into a brooding nova of desperate, alienated angst. It’s impossible for me to tell you what he’s specifically doing as a songwriter or what Steve Albini was doing as a producer to create those sounds outside of the context of my understanding of the basic building blocks of genre and the explicit text of the track.
And I’m not saying you need to be a musician or have a technical/academic music background to write about music. I eventually figured out my strengths as a music writer and honed in on them and let others focus on talking about the technical end of the industry. As much as I adore something like Kamasi Washington’s neo-jazz masterpiece The Epic and believe that I could put a piece together on the contemporary jazz renaissance and the specific debt that artists like Kamasi Washington and Flying Lotus owe to Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, I couldn’t talk about what made it a great jazz album in purely musical terms. I never acquired that argot. I would let my interns or freelancers who had that understanding do the writing instead.
I do think this ignorance explains a lot of the reactions that critics have to music that speaks a language that is patently unfamiliar to them or that has the gall to use musical languages that they hold in contempt. I wrote a piece once in defense of what we used to call “Mall Indie” in the Baeble offices. It’s indie/alternative music that is one step removed from commercial/mainstream music. The Shins are the Beach Boys meets Simon & Garfunkel. Charli XCX is Britney Spears via Green Day. Mumford & Sons are Coldplay meets Crosby, Stills, & Nash. You get it. They’re unexpected fusions of various commercial sounds that you might not have thought you’d ever hear together, but they aren’t major risks. I love Mall Indie bands. I got into alternative music because of Mall Indie bands. Alt culture is a rabbit hole that begins at the familiar and extends as deep into the weird and new as you’re willing to travel. Mall Indie bands are the beginning of that tunnel and if they’re as far as you dig, that’s cool. Not everybody has the time or desire to go further.
The next tier I like to call the “accessible avants.” These are acts like Radiohead or Sigur Rós or Bon Iver. They push the dials further than the Mall Indie bands. They might throw in influences that are decidedly non-commercial: ambient music, noise rock, metal, classical, baroque, etc. But if you’ve made it to the Mall Indie tier and are ready to push further, they’ve all got spiritual ancestors that you recognize and can latch onto as you’re learning to chart this new hybrid language the band is speaking. Bon Iver was such a challenge because it represented a clean break from the sparse folk of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, and like a lot of fans of the raw intimacy of that record, I wasn’t prepared for an album that traded in the solo acoustic guitar for orchestral compositions that owed as much to film scores as they did to someone like Cat Stevens. But if you stuck with the record, you realized that folk elegance was still there. “Towers” would have fit in neatly between “Flume” and “Lump Sum” on For Emma, and tracks like “Beth/Rest” marked Justin Vernon as one of the first prominent rock stars to reclaim the glory of jazzy yacht rock artists like Steely Dan.
And then you have the honest to god, obliterate the boundaries avant-garde of the present day. There are a handful of these acts that cross over into critical attention and let’s call it… intense fan love. Bands like Sunn O))) or Death Grips or Swans. These are the bands that you aren’t listening to for pleasure. You’re listening to them as a challenge to the very concept of what music is/can be. I’ve listened to Swans The Seer twice. I’ll never listen to it again. I respect what Michael Gira is trying to do with atonal, minimalist dissonance to expound on his masochistic and often nihilistic outlook on life, but I’ll never listen to it for fun. I’ll never return to it as something that I enjoy. I have friends who adore Swans and Death Grips, but art that is challenging for the sake of being challenging — which is not the same thing as saying the art is pretentious, just intentionally abrasive and confrontational in its deconstructions — is never going to be something that I turn to for pleasure. And it’s no surprise that outside of the most, “I’ve dedicated my whole life to listening to music and understanding how it’s all put together” types of folks, these bands have no commercial traction.
But what happens when a band/artist rides the line of “accessible avant” and the truly out there? If you think they’re the latter, are they really that far out on the edge or are the influences they call meaningful simply part of your musical blind spots? These blind spots are inevitable for even the most dedicated music lover. If you recognize the genres/sounds these artists are working in but react viscerally negatively to the track, do you think they’re failing to engage with the genre tools at their disposal? Do you think the tools they’re working with are incompatible? Do you simply dislike these tools to begin with? These are all of the questions you have to engage with as a music critic, and they’re why that of all of the mediums that I’ve written about, music is the one that I find to be the most challenging, particularly in regards to that ever elusive notion of “quality.”
I bring this whole internal conversation up because one of the first artists to short-circuit this portion of my critical brain was Grimes. When I was a Baeble intern in 2012, I reviewed Grimes’ third record, Visions, in the middle of February. I had been an intern for less than a month, and my brain had about as much success trying to figure out what Grimes was doing as an entry-level philosophy student trying to parse the sentence “this statement is a lie.”
The music video for “Oblivion” — with Grimes sashaying around Canadian sporting arenas and inverting the male gaze in a locker room of half-dressed male athletes — hadn’t turned her into an overnight indie sensation yet, and all I could engage with was a record made from sounds that I thought I lacked a frame of reference to. Beyond hints of Panda Bear that I couldn’t articulate and an apparent love for Mariah Carey and bubblegum pop vocals, I couldn’t put my finger on anything that made Visions work, and the review I wrote of the record is a bloated, meandering mess of me saying “I have literally no clue why, but I really like this thing.”
Visions was a strange beast. It left me with all of the slack-jaw confusion of a Sunn O))) record, but instead of turning me away with droning walls of noise, Grimes was inviting me deeper into her web with warm sounds that were seemingly being born out of the ether. They weren’t. No sounds are. But 22 year old Don couldn’t figure out the reason why I was so drawn to Grimes’ sound even when the answer should have been so painfully clear.
A sickness that has consumed video game criticism for the last two decades are games critics who don’t have any frame of reference for art or criticism outside of video games. If the only narratives you experience are video games, you won’t question the often murderous and sociopathic tropes at the heart of many game narratives. If you’re only engaging with the mechanics of a game in your games writing in terms of how it compares to established standards of finesse/playability, you’re missing the opportunity to analyze what that game’s “play” says about the politics of the game or what tricks the game uses to make you care about its inhabitants and what the game is saying by forging those bonds.
And when I was listening to Visions, I was committing that sin as a music writer. I was limiting my expectations of what music can do to the pop/R&B/rock/hip-hop worlds that I knew and not thinking about art that could influence Grimes outside of the world of traditional, American vocal radio music.
Except that’s not entirely true. I had an inkling of an idea, and I rejected it as a nerd-ish coincidence. I should have dug deeper.
In my review of Visions, I made an offhand reference to science-fiction roleplaying video game Mass Effect and earlier said that there were tracks that were the sort of dance-pop that we’d be grooving to at a nightclub in a space station two hundred years in the future. I didn’t come out and say it cause I didn’t want to sound like a total dork, but I was talking specifically about the Flux and Afterlife nightclubs from Mass Effect 1 & 2. The combination of “Genesis”‘s churning, robotic bass and soaring synths traced a direct lineage to the score of the Mass Effect games any time you were in a nightclub. Getting Commander Shephard wasted and then busting a move on an alien dancefloor is still one of the great pleasures of those games.
When Visions came out, none of us really knew a lot about Grimes. She was the poster child for the last gasp of seapunk as a prevailing indie aesthetic… although thinking about Grimes as “seapunk” in 2016 is sort of hilarious now. She’s way weirder and more specific in her inspirations than obscure internet culture from the 90s. But Grimes has a pretty vocal social media presence, and in the months and ultimately years since Visions was released, we’ve been able to get to know her pretty well (or as well as you can “know” a celebrity who shares rather direct insights into their personality online). She’s just a huge dork like the rest of us.
There are plenty of examples to choose from, but I’ll pick the one that’s most representative of the point I’m trying to make. For ages, Grimes’ twitter handle was various puns related to Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice And Fire‘s Daenerys Targaryen.
And even if she hadn’t outed herself as a nerd with her Twitter rants, her music videos should have been another clue. The video for “Genesis” has Grimes in an outfit that’s only a couple degrees off from being Sailor Moon cosplay. She wields a samurai sword. The video for “Flesh Without Blood”/”Life in the Vivid Dream” is Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette re-interpreted as an a feminist, millennial anime power fantasy. There’s a bit in the video where she’s casually playing a PS4 game in a den that looks like it’s ripped out of Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. Her video for “Kill V. Maim” is Mad Max: Fury Road with Grimes as Furiosa and Tom Hardy nowhere to be found set in the Akira universe and featuring a cameo from someone that I’m fairly certain is supposed to be a gender-bent version of Street Fighter‘s Vega. And it ends with the “You Died” screen with the same font as the Dark Souls games and the end credits have the font of the Law & Order series.
But it wasn’t til I sat down to listen to Visions to write this piece (and then Art Angels afterward) that it finally came together for me what Grimes has been doing with her music and why that’s drawn so many people to her sound despite my initial assumptions that her brand would always be esoteric and inaccessible.
Grimes takes a sonic pastiche of bubblegum pop, B 80s science fiction film soundtracks, and Japanese orchestral scores and turns them into an intimate exploration of her darkest struggles and most intimate desires.
Take “Oblivion,” the song that helped launch Grimes from obscure critical darling to a mainstage festival act. She pairs a pummeling dark synth that sounds like it crawled out of one of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York movies to lyrics that are about her own experience with sexual assault. In a single track (though the rest of Visions and Art Angels do different variations of this as well), Grimes positioned herself as the musical equivalent of authors like Tana French or Dennis LeHane… positioning “genre” that is often considered beneath true literature (in French and LeHane’s case, that would be “crime fiction”) and imbuing it with philosophical and emotional weight that is the equal of more traditional lit fic authors.
As a music critic, I can tell you how often we all moan when we have to cover traditional pop music. That’s not to say that there isn’t commercial pop music that some of us love. I adore (early) Lady Gaga and Beyonce, and Carly Rae Jepsen released my second favorite record of 2015 which is not something I ever thought I would have said before I had the chance to hear Emotion. But the vast majority of radio pop by definition follows a formula. It’s that formula that makes these songs bounce around your head for a couple weeks and then you forgot it ever existed until you hear it again (and it finds itself lodged in your head again). And for a host of sexist reasons, bubblegum girl pop is considered the bottom of that pop barrel. But if you’re a kid and you listen to top 40 radio in the car, these are the songs that you know and they leave an imprint on your mind even when you’re older and you’ve potentially moved on to other types of music. I’m 27 years old. Kid A is my favorite record. But I’m also probably the world’s last Savage Garden megafan. Their 1997 self-titled debut was one of the first non-Greatest Hits albums I ever listened to and to this day, I still know it front to back. And maybe it’s 90s Europop trash (although they’re Australian) and songs like “Truly Madly Deeply” are the definition of cornball cheese, but beneath the campy theatrics, there’s an emotional sincerity. Grimes saw the same thing in acts like Mariah Carey.
And the domination (at least in the past, the space is becoming slightly more diverse) of alternative rock criticism by fans of crusty old punk/post-punk music meant that Grimes’ fixation on geek culture was apt to go over most of our heads as well. And even if you recognized the footprint of artists like Yoko Kanno (Cowboy Bebop) on Visions, mentioning that in any write-up would mark yourself as someone a little too geeky to be talking about serious art. But that’s precisely what Grimes has done with her art. She takes the music/film/television/games that we’re supposed to be ashamed for liking and transforms them into triumphant personal explorations.
And there are plenty of examples in geek culture of doing just that. Studio Gainax is one of Japan’s most famous animation studios whose three most popular releases form a sort of triptych approach to fusing the personal and the over-the-top. Back in the 90s, Studio Gainax released the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. Primarily the product of the artistic vision of Hideaki Anno, Neon Genesis Evangelion took the giant mecha combat of the wildly popular Gundam franchise and added in gallons of Anno’s allegorical stand-ins for his struggle with depression. It was a show with robots piloted by teenagers trying to fight off a destructive alien force while navigating a murky government conspiracy, but it also dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety, and the darker sides of burgeoning sexuality. Neon Genesis Evangelion didn’t always handle those more complex issues with the care they deserved, and like every Studio Gainax product ever made, it indulged in misogynistic fanservice for its female characters whenever it could, but outside of the works of Studio Ghibli, it was one of the earliest and most notable anime to even attempt to engage with serious thematic material. And for a generation of anime fans, we’ve grown up knowing that not all parts of Neon Genesis Evangelion necessarily work, but the fact that it tried mattered. It was — like Cowboy Bebop — the anime series that we didn’t have to feel embarrassed to share with our friends.
The best piece of the triptych though is the middle entry, FLCL. Hideaki Anno wasn’t involved in its production (although he makes a cameo as one of the voice actors), and much of FLCL‘s atmosphere is a direct reaction to the omnipresent angst of Neon Genesis Evangelion. FLCL turns the giant mecha genre into a surrealist, bordering on dadaist coming of age tale wrapped in tender emotions and more psychosexual symbolism than a textbook on Freud. It’s giant robots driven by a lonely twelve year old boy whose older brother has moved to America to play professional baseball and has struck up a friendship with his brother’s impoverished ex-girlfriend who is uncomfortably stirring his own sexual awakening. And also there’s a crazed space alien with a magical guitar that can make robots grow out of your forehead if she smacks you with it. It owes as much to magical realism and writers like Neil Gaiman as it does to its Gundam forebears, but the genius of FLCL (and I do believe that significant portions of the series constitute a work of post-modern genius) is that it remembers that people like mecha series cause they’re fun and we like to see giant robots beating the hell out of each others. And FLCL delivered plenty of stylish robot action.
And then there’s Gurren Lagann. If Neon Genesis Evangelion was a deconstruction of the entire mecha genre and a harrowing look into Anno’s mental health issues and FLCL was a mixture of the personal and the fun, Gurren Lagann is a full-bore ride into maximalist, gonzo mecha mayhem. It’s as if Studio Gainax tapped into the essence of what it is folks like about robots fighting robots — explosions, heroes worth cheering for, giant robots of byzantine complexity, and villains that you want to see brought to justice — and then stripped away everything else. And then they had the good sense to crank all of those absurd genre elements not to 11 but over 9000… I’m sorry. The anime fans in the room will get that joke.
I was watching the end of the series’s first half the other day. Humanity has crawled out of the caves where they’ve lived for as long as anyone can remember to find a surface ruled by sentient beasts piloting destructive mecha called Gunmen (a Japanese pun that doesn’t really translate to English but relates to the fact that the smallest of the mecha look like faces). Slowly but surely, the series’ hero, the young and self-doubting Simon, leads a ragtag resistance group of humanity out of their caves and against the Gunmen who oppress them. The first half of the series ends with the final confrontation between Simon’s forces and the leader of the Gunmen, Lordgenome. And it is a chaotic, balletic canvas of fire, missiles, and high-octane action in a universe that runs on a self-aware acknowledgement of the rules of the genre. A common failing of shonen anime (anime meant for younger children as opposed to seinen anime which is meant for teenagers and adults) is that the heroes will often succeed through sheer force of will when the plot would dictate them to fail. Gurren Lagann turns that determination and sense of believing in yourself into a measurable force and it’s quite literally the energy that makes the universe go round and it leaves Gurren Lagann free to explore whatever outrageous power fantasy it wants to create next while still maintaining its own sort logical, internal consistency… a logic where the coolest, most unexpectedly absurd thing is what has to happen next.
And on her last two records, Grimes has followed an arc similar to what Gainax did with their mecha opuses. With Visions, Grimes took the most intimate pain and heartache in her own life and paired it with the sounds that defined her youth… and threw in enough overdubbing, multi-tracking, and general layers and textures to make each listen to the songs a new experience. Even the most straightforward track on the album, “Vowels = space and time,” sounds like a sentient AI from the future trying to turn Debbie Gibson records into weaponized seduction. Can I explain precisely what the hell that metaphor means? Kind of. The futuristic sci-fi electronica. The way the verses sound like Claire Boucher is singing them from her bedroom. The sexual ecstasy of the vocal runs during the bridge. But more than anything else, that’s just the image I have in my mind. An AI who has somehow convinced itself that teen pop music from the 80s was the height of human sexuality and is trying to create its own version of it. Another way to say that is Grimes wasn’t afraid to constantly challenge her audience on Visions even during its lightest moments.
Art Angels is a delicious mix of Grimes’s avant-garde ambitions and a more joyous embrace of the music that she loves. “Scream” is her production over rapping from Taiwanese performer Aristophanes. “California” could be mistaken for a Katy Perry song… albeit a really weird one. The drawing in the top right corner of the album art (and Grimes does her own album art and directs her own music videos and produces her own songs and writers her own tracks) could be a clear cut homage to Inuyasha. “Belly of the Beat” deliberately invokes late 90s Christina Aguilera. “Realiti” has hints of “Rhythm Nation” era-Janet Jackson. And by making all of her influences more visible, by washing away the walls of sound and texture that were obscuring just what it was people were connecting to in Grimes, she made more songs that stand alone and don’t have to be part of a bigger record to be appreciated. I’m not going to go on a lengthy aside here about why singles are okay and why it’s not necessary for every song to be part of an overarching piece, but Grimes turns the majority of Art Angels into songs that can do both. And the tracks that more resemble Grimes’ challenging, earlier work are the ones that begin and (mostly) close the album. They’re musical prologues and epilogues… although the epilogue is followed by the Europop hedonism of “Butterfly.” But even the record’s most chest-beating, triumphant single, “Flesh Without Blood” is as idiosyncratic and strange as anything Grimes has ever written. It sounds like the theme song to your favorite anime that changes a couple seasons in and the new song is pretty good, but nothing can quite compare to how much you fell in love with the original one. Dammit Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Did you really have to get rid of “Again?”
I don’t know whether Art Angels or Visions is “better.” They’re so different that it’s difficult to compare them. Their ambitions are so different. But they are both triumphs of different portions of Claire Boucher’s imagination, and it’s why I hope her next record takes the arc of this period of her career even further. Grimes released two tracks that never made it on to Art Angels which makes sense. They don’t quite fit. She recorded a song called “Go” that she had originally written for Rihanna who passed on it (it definitely wouldn’t have fit on ANTI). And she recorded “Entropy” with Bleachers aka Jack Antanoff from fun. These are both out and out pop radio bangers; “Go” in particular might be the best track Grimes has ever written. And I’m hoping that whenever we get a new record from her, that it’s her Gurren Lagann to Visions‘ Neon Genesis Evangelion and Art Angels‘ FLCL… that it finds her not just in the analytical, intellectual deconstruction of pop/sci-fi/orchestral tropes but in the mode of full embracement.
I won’t be surprised when she gets her first #1 album if she does that.