Music by VICE

Is Grimes Really Making 'Silicon Valley Propaganda'?

She says 'Miss Anthropocene' is about making "climate change fun"—and she can't stop talking about her hopes for an AI-driven future. But she might just be playing with our perceptions.

by Emilie Friedlander
Feb 21 2020, 6:14pm

Image via YouTube

There is probably no better way to make a bunch of people mad than to suggest that technology is going to render them entirely obsolete. But on a recent episode of Mindscape, a podcast by theoretical physicist Sean M. Carroll, the artist known as Grimes ended up doing just that, extrapolating on various galaxy-brain theories on the uses and abuses of artificial intelligence to suggest that one day, machines will become much better at producing art that humans are. "I feel like we're kind of in this amazing time where we may be like the last artists ever," she said, "which feels fun."

As much as I love Grimes, the idea didn't sound all that fun to me—especially when you consider the results of a recent report by the Creative Independent, where over two-thirds of the professional musicians surveyed reported that they were struggling to make a living wage. And it sounded even less fun after the Canadian producer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist proceeded to announce the eventual demise of live music—not as a financially devastating hypothetical side effect of a world where we spend too much of our time online, but as an outcome she seemed to be looking forward to. "One of the things I like about the digital age—maybe this is bad, but as a performer, I hate the potential of failure in front of a giant audience," she said, before pointing to the popularity of Instagram and other social platforms as proof that music fans were seeking something different, too. "People are actually just gravitating towards the clean, finished, fake world. Everyone wants to be in the simulation."

The response was swift and emotional—especially from the growing faction of high-profile independent musicians who have taken to including the phrase "Bernie Sanders 2020" in their Twitter bios. Singer-songwriter Zola Jesus posted a stream of (since-deleted) Tweets criticizing the interview, at one point calling Grimes "the voice of silicon fascist privilege." Former Majical Cloudz mastermind Devon Welsh, who in another era of the music Internet used to be Grimes' partner, likened her remarks to "propaganda"—then reposted a video from the unveiling of the Cybertruck last November, drawing on a rumor that Grimes played the hologram Cyber Girl who introduced Tesla founder Elon Musk, her current boyfriend and the father of her future child. "Is this where we want to be going?" he wrote. "Are these our idols? Is this a future for everyone? Or just the wealthy few?"

At points, Grimes weighed in on shitstorm. "I care about the future of art, why not speculate on it?" she wrote in one Tweet. "Seems weird to withhold ideas, and even weirder that suggesting potential futures can cause so much rage."

Grimes has a long history of getting in trouble for saying what's on her mind, even when she's saying things her critics probably ultimately agree with. But in 2020, as she gears up to release her excellent fifth album, Miss Anthropocene, it's become seemingly impossible for people to see her every word and gesture as anything more than a reflection of the eccentric tech billionaire who showed up on her arm at the MET Gala two years ago. Considering the long arc of her career—that of a thoroughly DIY artist who has spent the past ten years decrying sexism in the music industry and asserting that women who make compelling pop stars can also be formidable producers—it's a development that has a touch of tragedy to it. It's not as though she suddenly became hyped on artificial intelligence because of her association with a man who's trying to use it to revolutionize the car industry; after all, it's the thing that brought them together in the first place, and Musk has long been blowing the whistle about the potential dangers of the technology.

But the Internet is notoriously good at simplifying the messiness of reality into cut-and-dry projections of our deepest hopes and fears—symbols so gripping that they can sometimes cause us to make assumptions that go against our values. To believe that Grimes has made an album designed to spread good faith in Silicon Valley is to undermine her intelligence and agency as an artist, one whose artistic reckoning with the world—and her place within it—has never been anything close to straightforward.

Still, it's easy to see why her comments might invite accusations that she's become part of a powerful elite obsessed with prescribing technological solutions to everyday problems. Is Grimes really making straight-up Silicon Valley propaganda? Probably not—though it can seem at times like she's trying to make people believe she is. After publications picked up her remarks on AI music, she took to Twitter to offer some recommended reading: Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Swedish-American cosmologist and MIT professor Max Tegmark, co-founded a research institute that counts Musk as an advisor and multi-million-dollar donor. In 2018, she teamed up with Los Angeles musician HANA to release a song from the perspective of an "AI propaganda girl group," imploring listeners to "submit." And in a recent interview with Zane Lowe, she even revealed she has plans to start a "psychedelic tech company."

At first, much of conversation around Grimes and Musk's infamous red carpet appearance seemed to center on the incongruence of a former Montreal scene kid and an inventor who once bragged about wanting to put an Italian restaurant on Mars, as though their union were somehow proof of the algorithmic randomness of the Trump era. Now that I've had a few years to digest it, it makes a strange kind of sense. Both of them, after all, are in the business of using technology to dream up fantastical new worlds—with the giddy brilliance of people who have the resources to turn those dreams into real things. And while there's a big difference between making art about the future and actually designing rockets and self-driving cars, their public output over the past few years suggests a strange blurring of that distinction.

Ever since Page Six announced they were dating, it's been hard to avoid noticing that Musk has been acting an awful lot like an artist, from his Bond-franchise inspired Met Gala outfit to the frenetic EDM track he released the top of this year. Though he's been billing the Cybertruck as a cost-saving high-performance vehicle capable of towing a Ford F-150 and withstanding actual snipers, the retro-futuristic pick-up certainly feels a whole lot more like an art object than something you might imagine an actual farmer using; its hulking silhouette and blunt steel surfaces definitely wouldn't feel at all out of place in a Grimes video, though Travis Scott got that honor first. Grimes, meanwhile, has been making art and public statements that seem particularly concerned with the way our world is designed.

You wouldn't necessarily notice it just by listening to the music, which feels like a culmination of the vision she set forth with her 2012 breakout album, Visions: future-gazing pop music that is as infectious and warmly enveloping as it is alien, buoyed by a blurring of genre lines and geographical boundaries that feels distinctly of the Internet. The production is immaculate, the songwriting is strikingly mature (see: "Delete Forever," her country-inflected tribute to Lil Peep), and the record includes an Auto-Tuned collaboration with a Taiwanese rapper named Pan, aka Aristophanes, that sounds, for what it's worth, like the dawn of an entirely new kind of music.

But Grimes has always been as obsessed with sonic innovation as she is with world-building (she calls it "lore," perhaps in a nod to role-playing games), and Miss Anthropocene is particularly ambitious in this respect. Mainly, she says, it's a concept album about climate change, one that eschews explicit political messaging to discover the artist, in videos and promotional social media posts, incarnating a misanthropic climate goddess who seems hell-bent on destroying the world.

By anthropomorphizing the economic and industrial forces threatening our planet, Grimes has said, she hopes to make climate change "fun"—which is another use of the word that will probably rub some people the wrong way. It's also a bit of an odd premise coming from an artist whose partner is in the business of selling green cars, though it seems to be a sincere attempt to make people more interested in the problem. Miss Anthropocene isn't just an album about climate change, though. Drawing on the religions of ancient Egypt and Greece, she says she's devised an entire pantheon of gods, each corresponding to the different forces that shape our present reality: pollution; artificial intelligence; plastic surgery; social media. In an interview with Lana Del Rey and Brit Marling, she explained it as a means of making sense of a confusing world. "It's like every form of suffering had a representation," she said of her pre-modern inspirations. "If your kid dies in a war, you can literally go speak to War and be like, "Why did you do this?"

Still, when she sings a line like "We don't move our bodies anymore," as she does on Pan collaboration "Darkseid," it can be hard to tell exactly where she stands. Her comments to the media suggest she's enough of a techno-optimist to be at least a little bit excited about a future where we merge more fully with machines, if not being supplanted by them entirely—and she seems to be approaching the album's rollout as an exercise in building out her own digital world, as though she weren't entirely happy with the present one. The cover art is a representation of the software the artist presumably used to design Miss Anthropocene—and her social media feeds are littered with various other not-wholly human characters: a quivering AI talking head; a pair of robotic dogs. Recently, after unveiling Instagram and Twitter accounts for an AI character called "War Nymph" (she's been describing it as her new online avatar, mapped from her own body), she sent War Nymph to a magazine photoshoot in her stead, clad in Balenciaga.

Grimes has long been saying that she considers herself more of a behind-the-scenes Phil Spector figure than a performer—and though she's still billing Miss Anthropocene as a Grimes album, the concept feels of a piece with a dismantling of her public persona that has been in the works for some time. Back in May 2018, she took to Twitter to announce that she was changing her legal name to c, the symbol for the speed of light. In March 2019, when she released a demo she'd written for a forthcoming augmented reality musical, she informed fans that she was going to start making "AR (or illustrated?) ‘submembers' within Grimes," inspired by her last album's titular "Art Angels." "im bored being so precious abt music and also feeling boxed in by the Grimes branding and I have this whole other world that's rly fun to write for," she wrote in the YouTube caption.

With the confusing panoply of alter egos she's constructed around this particular album, though, there seems to be something more personal at play. As she explained on the Mindscape podcast, the War Nymph avatar idea was something of a coping mechanism for some of the very real trauma she's experienced over the past few years—mostly at the hands of the Internet. "People are always getting mad at me, and I'm always in controversies and getting canceled and all this shit," she told Carroll. "And it's just like, I would love to untether my digital self from my real self so I don't have to go through this suffering of… people misunderstanding."

She has a point: In a world where we're all one quote-tweet away from context collapse, thinking of your online self as something distinct from your offline self is probably a necessary form of self-preservation. And though the idea she's proposing feels like another version of the same refrain—that the solution to the problems of this world, even the ones caused by technology, is to retreat further into technology itself—it's a reminder that even an album like Miss Anthropocene is probably motivated by something far more human than one might suspect. When the world is already telling you that you're a villain, why not beat everyone to the punch and become the thing everyone believes you to be? And if people still insist on seeing you as "bad" even after you try to explain yourself a second time, why not luxuriate in all that badness? Why not come up with a way to make all badness feel fun?

The trouble with owning one's perceived badness so completely that you transform yourself into a literal demon, though, is that it's a bit of an out. There's nothing inherently wrong with trying to use technology to democratize music-making, or to offset our reliance on fossil fuels—but it's hard to take techno-optimism seriously when its proponents also seem strangely blind to the world that exists right in front of them. In the realm of business, that blindness can take the form of building a fortune partly based on the idea that you're trying to stop climate change while also discouraging your employees from unionizing. In the realm of art, it can mean getting so carried away by the grand design of your vision that you fail to realize that it's motivated by something a bit solipsistic, a mirror of your unique prison of pain. At worst, it can produce art that is less a reflection of shared experience than a vision of the world that was dreamed up in a corporate boardroom, by people who have the luxury of turning existential crises into an entertaining thought-exercise.

Ultimately, I think Miss Anthropocene escapes that fate: you don't have to buy into the concept to be genuinely moved by the music, which, on songs like "IDORU," paints a more ambivalent picture of our digitally mediated world than her comments might suggest: "We could play a beautiful game / You could chase me down the way," she sings. "I wanna play a beautiful game / Even though we're going to lose." Of course, knowing Grimes, there's also the possibility that the album's elaborate conceptual scaffolding might be an elaborate troll. Still, I keep coming back to something she said in the interview with Del Rey and Marling, where she likened a world where people don't read past the headlines of articles anymore to the Middle Ages, where widespread illiteracy coincided with a proliferation of religious iconography.

"I feel like we're going back to a time like that, where everything is symbolic," she says. "The same symbols are being fed to people, and they're gathering completely opposite meanings from them, and it's creating chaos." It's a sentiment that anyone who spends any time on the Internet can relate to—and one that applies equally to the way we choose to interpret a word like "socialism," or a video about a group of Catholic-school students demonstrating on Washington, as it does to the person of Grimes. At the end of the day, that may be Miss Anthropocene's most meaningful contribution to the discourse.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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