Writing about Grimes is hard for me. Partially, it’s loyalty: Claire Boucher’s project is close to my heart, and it feels petty to toss out criticism or even analysis of something that’s been so good to me. Modern celebrity functions sort of like friendship, and for the past few years Grimes in a weird spectacularized way has felt more like a friend to me than an object of critical interest.
Beyond loyalty though, I feel like I have nothing new to contribute to the conversation. Everything there is to write about Grimes has already been written. That’s not because so much has been written about her. It’s that there’s not very much to write. That sounds negative, but I mean it in the best possible way: Grimes is too present to write about. She’s as tapped into the collective Internet conscience as her critics are. Her music enacts what’s already playing out in the process of writing thinkpieces.
Kill V. Maim is the Grimes-iest video yet. No one else could have made it. That doesn’t mean that it’s astoundingly unique. It looks like a lot of other videos. There are nods to Colin Tilley’s The Boys. There are nods to David LaChapelle’s Dirrty. There’s an overall Gaga-at-her-peak vibe. You could write a lazy comparative analysis to the post-‘Mad Max’ feminist-power vibes of Bad Blood.
All of those videos are fundamentally lacking in Grimes, though, who’s really the make-it-or-break-it presence here. Music videos have always been a laundry list of references; even the best ones are just catalogs of salient images that serve to bolster the imperial presence at the center. It’s not like Grimes was the first person to ever incorporate Akira allusions into her branding. But the hat tip isn’t the point. Grimes is the point, and Akira is a part of that. So is Nicki, so is Christina, so even is Taylor Swift. All of it comes to the surface and helps make every Grimes video all the more Grimes-y.
I think that collaborative culmination is the heart of Claire Boucher’s project, and that’s what makes her so hard to write about. She’s not trying to break new ground. She’s just throwing herself at the screen and trying to get a better result. Better for other people, and better for herself. I think that’s basically what the Internet is all about: everyone using everything to make their own version of the same thing better. Kill V. Maim is the same as so many other videos, but it’s better, and it’s Claire Boucher’s.
It’s great to watch someone else’s version of better play out in front of you. Especially when they know how un-unique that better is, and especially when they still put everything they have into that better because of it. The thing that I’m trying to say better than anyone right now, I guess, is that Grimes is better at doing that than anyone. “Human Tumblr”, to use her mortal enemy’s descriptor, isn’t as insulting as it sounds. You could sum up her entire project as the best possible assembly of cultural elements, performed not as a mash-up but as an enhancement of the woman at the center whose perception of everything has made that assembly possible.
For Grimes, there’s so much everything in that assembly. There are tentacle animations, there’s Tei Shi done up as a demon, there’s the entire thing being framed as a Law & Order episode. It’s not like she thinks this made sense, but that’s ok. She’s aware of the incongruity, but she’s totally ambivalent of it. In an interview with The New Yorker last year she said, “Nothing about anything I do is ironic”. But she’s totally ironic. She’s too aware of everything to be anything but ironic. The difference is that her brand of irony does nothing to negate sincerity.
A couple weeks ago she posted a picture on Instagram of her legs covered in bruises. It was nervous-making, the kind of photo that makes you worry about someone else’s ability to watch her health. We can see the source of those bruises now when she throws herself onto her knees at the end of Kill V. Maim. It’s a dance move that echoes the fist-pounding that I found particularly poignant in Flesh Without Blood. That one was on a bed. This one is on concrete. There’s even a health counter in the top-left corner to feed your technology-addled subconscious with the idea of damage.
Maybe it’s stupid under our rubric of artistic progress to hurt yourself over another knot in an endless string of references. But when everything’s already happened so much, it’s worth it to throw yourself into whatever everything you want to make better. Even if that everything has already been thought into a million pieces, it’s still worth literally dying for.