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Grimes Is the Artist of the Decade

No artist has challenged our assumptions about what pop music can be like Grimes.

by Emma Garland
Nov 15 2019, 12:00pm

Illustration by Alex Jenkins; Photo by Zak Kaczmarek/WireImage

The 2010s were the decade where it felt like time sped up. As we reach a major mile marker during one of the most confounding periods in cultural and political history, we’re looking back at the artists, albums, and trends that best marked the changes over the past 10 years. Picking one singular artist of the decade proved difficult, because so many genres shifted, careers launched, and sounds grew—and frankly, there were a whole handful of musicians you could make the case for. So we decided to talk about all of them. Click here to see all of Noisey's Artists of the Decade, and here to read up on all of our end-of-decade ruminations.


The Grimes we know in 2019 is a lot different from Grimes we came to love at the beginning of the decade. Her breakthrough album, 2012’s Visions, set her apart from the majority of Pitchfork’s Best New Music section at the time while still fitting loosely within the heyday of off-kilter indie and dream-pop artists (see: Feist, Purity Ring, Beach House, Tame Impala, No Age). It would have been entirely conceivable for Grimes to go the way of those artists and continue to release sonically consistent albums with reasonable regularity, but there was a sense of strangeness and subversion to tracks like "Oblivion" which suggested that might not be the case.

From her Dune-inspired 2010 debut, to her latest electro-pop single "Violence," which chronicles the abusive relationship between humans and the environment, Grimes has carved out a career that is defined less by any particular sound than her penchant for jumping from concept to concept. Whether she’s pledging allegiance to the world’s most powerful computer or trying to make a song as "sonically uncool" as possible, her releases are so far-flung from one another and the general landscape of pop—like planets stretching deeper into space— that comparisons almost seem beyond the point.

But the difficulty with categorizing Grimes isn't that she doesn’t fit in anywhere—it’s that she fits in everywhere. The prototypical offspring of the internet, her spider diagram of influences is both specific and vast (think: Tool and Bikini Kill, Burial and Mariah Carey), and her appetite for knowledge is too ravenous to be confined to a single medium. Her style has led to collaborations with Hedi Slimane, Proenza Schouler, Alexander Wang, and Ricardo Tisci. Her artwork has graced every one of her records, in addition to an alternative cover of an issue of The Wicked + the Divine, a comic book series which envisages pop stars as deities, in 2015. And despite being extremely ambitious, her albums have some of the shortest credit lists in pop. She recorded Visions entirely on Garageband, and in order to make 2015’s Art Angels the way she wanted she learned how to play the guitar, drums, ukulele, and violin, in addition to producing and engineering it alone.

There’s another reason why Grimes feels synonymous with this decade. At the beginning of the 2010s, when she got her start, it was inconceivable that James Blake would end up working on a Beyoncé album, or that Frank Ocean would use his Beats 1 show to blast a song by U.K. DIY band Trust Fund, for example. They were simpler times, maybe more innocent times, when the biggest controversy Grimes ever got caught up in involved her dropping "We Like To Party," "Gasolina," and "All I Want For Christmas Is You" during a DJ set at Richie Hawtin's Ibiza party—only to be promptly accused of trolling Boiler Room, not generating the biggest red carpet shocker since Björk and Goldie. But the gap between the underground and the mainstream has narrowed, and our definitions of fame are different now. So are the parameters of pop, which has become more experimental than ever, thanks in part to the women and queer artists who drove the conversation this decade. And partly because of her insatiable curiosity and esoteric influences, no artist has made greater headway than Grimes in challenging our assumptions about what pop music is and what it can be.

Through Grimes has always said she admires "character centric" art (citing Prince, Bowie, and Beyoncé), she’s spent an awful lot of time dismissing assumptions that the outside world projected onto her—whether that be male producers who undermined her technical abilities as a woman, scenesters from the underground who grumbled that writing pop songs was akin to selling out, or fans judging her relationship with Elon Musk in relation to her perceived politics. Nevertheless, as time has gone on, she has continued to push further into the foreground as both a performer and a public figure, while showing the world that pop music can be just as inventive and weird and something you’d hear in a basement show in Montreal.

Visions was a fully realized version of the hypnotic homegrown pop she'd been building towards on previous albums, while the innovative, chaotic Art Angels saw her wearing her influences—rap, metal, country, and power pop—on her sleeve. But even as her music grew bolder and more accessible, it still sounded uniquely hers. With their disparate influences and elaborate worldbuilding, Visions and Art Angels felt positively alien—less a reflection of anything else going on in music than idiosyncratic takes on genres that were already out of place in Western pop, thereby dragging them into the mainstream. Even as her career seemed to incarnate the collapse of the underground into the mainstream this decade, the whole project seemed strangely out of time.

There are artists who are defined by their sound, and others who are defined by their character. Grimes is very much the latter, which makes her more recent moves both unexpected and unsurprising. Between inventing a new genre called "Faé" in 2017, showing up at the 2018 Met Gala in a Tesla necklace with Elon Musk, threatening to "publicly execute" her stage persona, and collaborating with Bring Me The Horizon, it feels as though Grimes has strayed further and further from the zeitgeist. That said, Grimes' trajectory over the past ten years feels in some ways like a mirror of U.S. and U.K. culture at large, which has seen social media contribute to massive political tension and the collapse of "good taste." This is a decade where Kanye West went from rapping about social injustice to hugging U.S. President Donald Trump in a MAGA hat, Taylor Swift went from American sweetheart to shady villain to major girlboss (and is now somewhere fairly neutral), and True Blood—a tongue-in-cheek southern gothic drama about vampires—became HBO's biggest show since The Sopranos. All things considered, is it really that surprising that an underground artist who has always been vocal about finding positive influence in derided figures, would end up dating a big tech bro who shot a car into orbit?

With her unstoppable DIY work ethic and a brain that's already skipped past the next few years of discourse to bring us a forthcoming album "about the anthropomorphic Goddess of climate change," it’s pretty much impossible to predict where Grimes will be five years from now. Her last two songs—"Violence" and "Pretty" (Demo)—suggest a return to the darkly minimal synth-pop sound she mined on Visions. She also released a nightcore remix of the already high octane nu-metal experiment "We Appreciate Power," though, so anything could happen. Still, somehow you know what you’re getting with Grimes: captivating pop music that is both accessible and challenging. Songwriter, singer, producer, sound engineer, artist, fashion designer, anime girl, faerie, adopter not one but two robot dogs—Grimes has spent the past ten years shapeshifting her way through pop culture while also refusing to compromise, even when it makes her "unlikable." No matter which way you slice it, that’s pretty rare.

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pop music
grimes
Artist of the Decade