2012: the year of the supposed apocalypse. News media and pop culture thrived on an “end of days” mentality, and it was all given weight by things like the election, the environmental catastrophes, the ignored inequalities, and the Tupac hologram. The end did, indeed, seem near. In this dramatic atmosphere, a lot of great music was released, but none felt more relevant than Grimes’ Visions. Visions is a confluence of culture, technology, music, and personal experience, together forming something that feels, like very few other recent cultural artifacts, truly futuristic.
I first heard Grimes when I downloaded a mixtape from the always great blog Disco Naïveté in fall 2011. On the tape was the soon-to-be-viral hit “Oblivion,” which I listened to obsessively. The album really became meaningful for me when I finally looked up the lyrics to “Oblivion,” and realized it wasn’t just a great pop song, but a testament of sadness and struggle, and a battle cry against the parts of us that get in the way of our success and happiness. The album, for all its catchy hooks and beats, has a sense of ghostly loneliness, and on “Oblivion,” Grimes explains how even her success can be alienating (“when you’re running by yourself, it’s hard to find someone to hold your hand”). But, as she puts it, “I will wait forever,” a statement I find empowering rather than defeating. She’s not about to give up. Maybe the world isn’t ending.
But why did Grimes’ music and persona enrapture critics, electronic music fans, and teen bloggers alike? Maybe because it felt “new” in a way that has been noticeably lacking in recent years, and that part of that newness came through in the way it acknowledged that the social Internet is here to stay, and it is profoundly changing the way we live. This technology is transforming how art is created and consumed, the way human interaction occurs, and our perception of ourselves as a species.
The generation with no name yet — the kids who populate Tumblr and TinyChat who will succeed the much-discussed (and derided) “millenials” — have found their icon. The songs off Visions, which Grimes herself has described as “post-Internet,” sound like how we connect and experience the world online. There’s a webby, networked aura to the echoing, trippy beats and layered vocals. The songs can feel both overwhelming and sparse, human and inhuman, easily distractible and addictive. Her lyrics hint at a future where everything is seemingly up for grabs, with culture opening up in a way it never has before. Previously rigid categories of gender, sexuality, subculture, and cultural history are all accessible simultaneously, allowing for a playground of self-representation in which anyone with Internet access can participate. This is what meme culture is building up to, and this is why so many young people identify so strongly with Grimes. Her music and aesthetic doesn’t feel like a static masterpiece, but something any creatively inclined person could emulate, tweak, and expand on — a Meme Generator for art.
Grimes’ popularity can serve as a window to a subculture, in the same way that Nirvana was an indirect path to riot grrrl bands for a generation of ’90s kids. She can lead young people to the the world of subversive Net artists like Ryder Ripps, gender binary-dismantling rappers like Mykki Blanco, or less accessible female electronic artists like Laurel Halo. The Internet-based music and art that Grimes’ rise to fame gives points to is full of people who have rarely had the privilege of the spotlight and who fully deserve to be discovered by a wider audience.
Grimes is important to me because she provides an alternative narrative for what the future holds and a constantly evolving relationship between humans, technology, and art that would scare Bill O’Reilly shitless. She makes me believe that apocalypse or not, there are still amazing possibilities for art in this absurd and endlessly complex world of ours, and thanks to the Internet, we may all create it together.