“It fucking sucks to be awake,” sings Grimes, in a two-minute Instagram video posted at the end of September. “Oh Lord, I pray my soul to take / Nobody understands because / everything they hate is everything I love.”
The song, titled “LOVE,” is not an actual single off the Canadian indie-pop musician’s hotly-anticipated sixth album, “Book 1.” Rather, it is vent art; expressing Grimes’s frustrations at “bad press, online hate, and harassment by paparazzi” in the wake of her breakup with Elon Musk, the father of her oft-memed child X Æ A-Xii. In the next few days, she would go on to further vent her frustrations by “trolling the paparazzi:” publicly reading the Communist Manifesto in full steampunk cosplay and making another Instagram post poking fun at the ensuing headlines from the press.
Both posts invoked equal amounts of ire and ridicule from Grimes’s increasingly disillusioned fan base. The song was juvenile and bad. The Marx photoshoot was wrong-footed at best, and a perversion of actual communist ideology at worst. This isn’t the first time she’s inspired this much discourse, either. There is, of course, her famously incoherent AI Communism TikTok, helmed by the oh-so-recognizable line, “I have a proposition for the communists!” For some, there’s her entire relationship with Elon Musk, and for others, there’s her blind defence of him as a tech-age messiah even in spite of his anti-union practices and his failure to actually produce many of the innovations that he throws money at on a daily basis. There’s also the general accusations of hypocrisy from her left-leaning fans, who are often left wondering how someone once associated with alternative fashion, esoteric interests, and experimental electronica with incomprehensible vocals; someone who saw herself on the “hard, hard, hard left” of the political spectrum; could have ended up this way.
Grimes’s rise to fame in the late noughties famously included quirky and often bizarre factoids about her: her high school yearbook photo quoted Stalin, she dropped out of the prestigious Neuroscience program at McGill University to live in a crack den (as quoted in her Spotify bio), and she famously made her breakout third album, “Visions,” while locked in a room for two weeks on speed. She played shows in parking lots, made her own album art and referenced nerdy touchstones like “Dune” and ancient Greek philosophy in her music. Her big break into the mainstream read like a classic rags-to-riches story; articles about her boasted titles like “Grimes: The Triumph of a Self-Made Oddball.” Coupled with her bubbly, albeit slightly unusual behaviour in interviews — such as her talk with Nardwuar where she mentions being the high priestess of a homemade cult — her rise to fame as an indie darling beloved by art students and music snobs was all but secured.
If Grimes, the indie darling, was a diamond in the rough, Grimes the pop star was an unstoppable force. Her fourth album, “Art Angels,” injected her trademark fae vocals into an all-new brand of electronica, and launched her to stratospheric fame in 2015. Critics loved her. Listeners wanted more. Young musicians everywhere, particularly women, looked up to her. And how could they not? Her Twitter bio proudly proclaimed that she was “anti-imperialist.” She openly lashed out at detractors who refused to take her seriously, or those who sought to coddle her creativity simply because she was a woman. Outlets like Teen Vogue ran features on her and her equally kooky gang of indie misfits. Grimes didn’t just espouse counter-cultural beliefs. She was counter-culture.
Then it all fell apart.
Shortly after “anti-imperialist” was pulled from her Twitter bio, the indie music scene looked on in horror as Grimes made her relationship with budding space-imperialist Elon Musk public at the 2017 Met Gala. As if this wasn’t shocking enough to her legions of politically left-leaning fans, she proceeded to ardently defend Musk’s shady business practices, claiming that Musk was “very similar” to Bernie Sanders and denying Tesla’s anti-union stance despite plenty of accounts to the contrary. From there it plunged downhill faster and further than anyone could have imagined.
At the time of writing, despite still living together, Grimes and Elon Musk are no longer an item. But for her legions of now-wary fans out there, the damage has been done, and her persistently bizarre behaviour even in her post-Musk era only continues to astound them. Many are trying their hardest to perform the mental gymnastics necessary to separate her art from its artist. Others have disowned Grimes for hypocrisy, and her suspected appropriation of anti-capitalist rhetoric only when it was convenient for her and her image. However, both these responses take the position that Grimes was, in the first place, a bastion of unimpeachable conduct. But was she really? Are we more critical of Grimes now because of her recent behavior? Or are we only now spotting the cracks in her veneer that were there all along?
Some of the indie music scene’s initial adulation is owed to a wilful ignorance of qualities in Grimes that fans would be extremely quick to tear down in others. Awareness and debate about cultural appropriation found fertile ground on social media in the early 2010s — notably, Avril Lavigne was declared a full-blown racist in record time after the release of her infantile, Japanese-inspired video for “Hello Kitty.” Yet there was nary a word about Grimes’s constant appropriation of the bindi up until about 2013, or her appropriation of dreadlocks in her video for “Genesis,” or her similarly reductive views of Asia in a now-deleted Tumblr post that reads, “everything in asia is so alive. there is so much pain and poverty and so much ecstatic beauty and kindness and artistry, its overwhelming. very inspired right now. thank u.”
And then there is, of course, the debate on privilege. Discourse, and disappointment, around musicians and their parents’ wealth has been a persistent issue in indie music since the garage rock boom in the noughties, when The Strokes and other scruffy-haired New York City ne’er-do-wells decided to take their daddies’ money and masquerade as self-made greaseballs in downtown Manhattan. Countless other artists have been the subject of heated discourse for having rich parents or well-connected families. Shortly after her big break, Clairo faced countless accusations of nepotism after word got out that she was the daughter of Geoff Cottrill, an extremely influential and wealthy brand manager. King Princess was similarly disparaged for allegedly being the heir to the Macy’s fortune — which she later denied. And let’s not forget the persistent rumours that Mitski’s father is a CIA operative who committed war crimes in Zaire.
So why not Grimes? Up until her dalliance with Elon Musk, there was virtually no conversation about her own wealthy origins, despite having a father in “the business of biotech” and a mother who was a Crown Prosecutor and who also owned the largest fleet of privately-owned taxis in Western Canada. Sure, they aren’t alleged war criminals, but indie musicians have been ragged on for less, such as James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, the success of whose mediocre early music has been chalked up to his first wife being the heiress to the inventor of plastic bags. Neither was there any attempt to call Grimes out on behavior that, when examined now, leaves a sour aftertaste — like her Strokes-ian romanticisation of slumming it in crack dens for indie clout, or her weaponization of her status as an Iconic Female Popstar despite bullying Poppy and fat-shaming Azealia Banks, or her appropriation of just about any cultural touchstone that would augment her growing brand as indie’s favourite manic pixie dream girl.
It’s not that Grimes should be retroactively condemned for these points. Rather, in a world that was just opening up to becoming permanently online, the silence surrounding her has been deafening only until recently. Cancel culture may only have been given a name in recent years, but even in the heyday of her nascent Tumblr success, blogs like “yourfaveisproblematic” existed, and were popular. As we’ve seen, the indie music scene holds no qualms about giving in to Internet denizens’ collective base desire to cancel, cancel, cancel … so why was Grimes exempt? The answer is simple. Grimes was never infallible from the start. The warning signs about her, the inconsistencies and the appropriations and the capitalist allegiances, they were all there from the beginning. If we assume that we can actually “cancel” a celebrity — the nuances of which warrant a whole other discussion — then Grimes could have, and would have, been cancelled years ago. It’s just that nobody wanted to. Coming right off the back of landfill indie and a dearth of any authentic counter-culture under the Bush administration, the alternative music community was desperate for a savior, and in 2008, they pinned all their hopes on Grimes. She was the manic pixie dream girl they needed, but not the one they deserved. As Grimes herself said on “LOVE,” everything they hate did, indeed, turn out to be everything she loves. No wonder she let them down.