How Grimes became pop's ultimate tastemaker
When Claire Boucher, who goes by the stage name Grimes, called herself “the future of music” in a 2012 interview with Nardwuar, she wasn’t wrong. “What I was referring to though was more pure musical stuff,” she later clarified to the now-defunct Australian site Everguide. “My mandate is to just take all of these genres, the ones that people think really shouldn’t be together, or that aren’t cool, and just find the parts that are cool because I think it will lead to a more interesting and original thing.”
Grimes is closer to a musical pinwheel of influences than an original source, writing songs that combine niche trends and genres — atonal drone music, cyber punk, kawaii metal. It’s a methodology entirely suited to the streaming age, where all it takes is a YouTube wormhole to go from Beyoncé to Balkan beats. Now, eight years on from her Nardwuar interview, and with a fifth album on the way, both Grimes’ music and her aesthetic principles and tastes have metastasized into the pop culture that exists today. Even if you find it hard to believe that Grimes really was responsible for all this, “the future of music,” it’s undeniable that she at least prefaced it.
Grimes’ power as a tastemaker revealed itself early on in her career. When she spoke about music she did so with all the excitement of a kid in a candy store, or a teenager being allowed on the internet for the first time. In Amoeba’s “What’s In My Bag?” — a segment where artists go through their record store purchases — Grimes’ picks were discombobulating. Among them were a Blink-182 DVD, Balam Acab’s album Wander Wonder, Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never concert film, and Skinny Puppy’s Singles Collection. While those selections wouldn’t be as jarring today, at the time, viewers were perplexed and intrigued by Grimes’ mix of commercial and left-field tastes. They also brought her immediate admiration. “It takes guts to admit you like [Justin Bieber] in front of people. I don’t like him myself, but I applaud her for being honest,” one YouTube viewer commented. (Keep in mind this was long before Bieber’s critical reclamation in 2015.)
But there was no platform more suited to showcasing Grimes’ interests than Tumblr. At the time she created an account in order to evade journalistic framing: “I want to make this tumblr because I feel like a lot of the things I do and say are misrepresented by journalists and the media,” she wrote in a post that’s since been deleted, and retrieved via The Way Back Machine.
It only brought more scrutiny, of course, and gave Grimes’ blog and the things she was writing on it additional levity. Her posts were increasingly turned into news, and when she posted her Best Music of 2012 list, it inspired several reports and thinkpieces from the likes of Vulture, Brooklyn Vegan, and Fuse, among others. “So I made that post about my favourite songs of 2012 (including taylor swift and gangnam style etc.) and people just hated on it. I just don’t understand,” she wrote in a follow-up post. “I don’t see why we have to hate something just because it’s successful, or assume that because it is successful it has no substance,” she added, reciting a basic tenet of poptimism.
Her views were propelled by a coherent aesthetic and strong iconography, which Tumblr also accommodated. The website was responsible for a new culture in which music was being seen as much as it was heard. Black-and-white photos of Lana Del Rey smoking cigarettes, GIFs of Odd Future performing skateboard tricks, Grimes dancing with her then-trademark terf bangs, were weighted with as much importance as artists’ music. That worked in her favor. Grimes has always been a expert of self-presentation. “I’ve met people that have never met her, that have the same hand tattoos that she has, just because they think it’s cool,” the electronic producer d’Eon told The New Yorker in 2015, recalling the early days of Grimes.
Her knack for predicting trends was proven with her “Grimes Pussy Rings” jewelry line in 2012. Photos of Grimes’ fingers with jellied vaginas — a kind of prototype to the pink pussy hat that emerged five years later — spread throughout the blogging site. While the world has since been desensitized to yonic paraphernalia, Grimes was forcing a trend at a time when it still seemed unsavory. “It didn’t cross my mind that they would be controversial,” she told Spin in December, 2012 “The more they became a thing on the Internet, the more I was like, ‘This justifies the pussy ring.’ The fact that people can’t deal with vaginas, it’s like, ‘Still? In this day and age, they’re scary imagery?’ It’s ridiculous.”
As her music and online presence gained traction, Grimes made it increasingly clear that anyone could do what she was doing. Reiterating her original “future of music” statement, she told Dummy Magazine in 2010: “Not knowing how to play music is my greatest asset…I try to imitate things, and then I fail horribly, and then it’s just…something different.” When she first tried crafting her own songs, they were made from precoded GarageBand loops — something that any stoner can tinker around with at 4 a.m. But GarageBand loops have also been responsible for mega hits, as was famously the case with the drum line on Rihanna’s “Umbrella.” In Grimes’ case, she was somewhat miraculously able to inject her own personality and essence into precoded loops, in a way which makes it hard to believe that GarageBand birthed Grimes and not the other way around.
Her DIY aesthetic and the broad-spectrum pop it produced became the gateway to a new era of sophisticated and increasingly dynamic popular music. Lorde, whose debut album Pure Heroine was released a year after Visions, cited Grimes as one of her biggest inspirations. She even went so far as to refer to Grimes as her “musical idol” (when her idol retweeted one of her songs, she made a Facebook post to crown the moment).
While not always directly influenced by Grimes’ sound itself, a flurry of (mostly female) bedroom musicians emerged soon after. Låpsley, the British singer-songwriter, eased herself into music using Grimes’ bottom-up methodology. Låpsley “didn’t find her groove until she downloaded GarageBand,” according to a 2015 interview with NME. She’s also listed Grimes as an influence: “I feel like she’s coming from a similar place.”
More recently, Grimes has been a direct influence on the internet-birthed group Superorganism, who have truly embraced Grimes’ vision for “the future of music” by patching together a surreal indie-pop tapestry of influences. “I was actually obsessed with Grimes,” the band’s lead singer Orono Noguchi told Complex ahead of their debut album in 2018.
Since then, Apple Music has curated their own Inspired by Grimes playlist, which features the likes of Tame Impala and Blood Orange, alongside editor’s notes claiming that “Grimes’ defiantly DIY attitude and uncompromisingly experimental pop prefaced a major shift in underground aesthetics,” adding, “A. G. Cook and his PC Music crew take her silvery synths and chirping vocals to giddy extremes.”
Currently, Grimes is curating her exhibition of the now via Spotify playlists rather than Tumblr posts, and they’re considered just as newsworthy. Several high-profile outlets reported on “the faé list” in 2017, a playlist which Grimes made, comprised of “INDEPENDENT ARTISTSZ ONLY,” from K-Pop, to Taipei electronica to industrial-infected nu-metal. Dazed went so far as to underpin what Grimes meant by “faé,” and even created their own faé-inspired playlist.
Knowing Grimes, the playlist is an indication both of what to expect from her upcoming music, and music in general. In an Instagram post, she claimed that her next album Miss_Anthrop0cene — a concept piece about global warming from the perspective of fictional characters who welcome the world’s extinction — will depart from her former synth sound and into “ethereal nu metal.” While the “ethereal” part has yet to be accounted for, nu metal has already found its second coming in the likes of Lil Peep, Lil Wop, BEXLEY, and a whole coterie of Soundcloud rappers who got to the genre before her. Now that the world is both listening and reproducing omnivorous tastes like Grimes’, she will once again have to find a new way to stand apart.