Music blogs, journalists, commenters and online forums debating the merits of pop music is a conversation isn’t anything new but I would argue it’s a conversation that never fully blossomed until the internet provided a platform. For the debate to exist in the fabric of the world wide web makes sense on most levels (if you remove the idea that people just like to debate on the internet regardless of subject). For years and years, those that listened to the Velvet Underground, Pulp, and Suicide had no one but their close friends and record store burnouts to understand and relate to. Rallying cries against the Top 40 radio dial were deafened by the overwhelming, seemingly singular, success of artists like Madonna or Elton John or Journey. Sure you could be mad when “Vogue” was played on the radio, but why were you getting mad, and to whom was your energy being directed? Constructive conversations regarding pop music were left to old media and culture critics exclusively, mostly because they were the only ones to have an audience. The advent of the internet has allowed people to unite – something not specific to music, by any means, but certainly an important moment for music and the music industry. In a pre-internet era, a conversation around Ariana Grande would’ve been intimate and unproductive, and the “bah humbugs” that would’ve stemmed out of unearned music elitism would have at least been academic or personal. But now through comment sections and thinkpieces and Reddit, we can have honest discussions about the relative merits of “pop music” (whatever that means to you) and debate whether Madonna or Prince or Michael Jackson were making “art” or not. Is Ariana Grande “authentic” or “genuine”? Does her music fall somewhere out of hipster appeal or does her music cut deeper than that. I speak of course, of rockism vs. poptimism, an idea I think that is very important to Grimes’ newest record, Art Angels.
Her previous album, Visions, will likely be reevaluated quite a bit in the wake of Art Angels debut and rightly so. What was once thought of as a skeletal art pop record dabbing in minimalist rave beats and abstract pre-PC music ideas will now be seen as a precursor to an honest to goodness, very-little-bullshit pop record. While Visions could certainly be looked at as exploratory foundation for all of Art Angels polished pixie stick weirdness, Visions hollow emotions hold it back from reaching a state of pure pop ecstasy. At its core, “pop” music in the way we think about it now, exists to simply please. For me, “pop” as we’ve known it for the past 30 years is hearing a Katy Perry single and recognizing that it’s been constructed to make people on a mass scale feel one specific emotion. Visions never strived to make people feel one thing – some times it unfortunately made us feel nothing at all. Singles aside, it was a relatively one-dimensional album and it rarely seemed to construct emotions meant to be accessible on all levels. Art Angels, on the other hand, does do that. Grimes has forced the “bah humbug” indie fans that dismiss the genuine quality and cultural ramification that “pop” music can have and that conversation will no doubt be fun to watch unfold.
The discussion of pop’s place in music and culture criticism has been extensively covered elsewhere on the internet so I’m not planning on discussing Art Angels directly with that in mind, but I do think it’s an important backbone of the album. The last time the internet wanted to widely debate the grey area known as “authenticity” within pop music was with Beyoncé’s self titled album in 2013 (though if you wanted to argue for my girl Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2015 release, I won’t fight you). Beyoncé was a bonafide pop star yet her album was complex, rich in musical qualities we don’t normally associate with the by-committee-production of MOST mainstream mediocrity.
The aesthetics of Beyoncé’s LP were staggering because it took many of the ideas we were praising in indie culture and mixed them into a mainstream release and the fractions of the scene at the time couldn’t understand why. When Pitchfork wants to cover Lana Del Rey, or Janet Jackson, in (arguably) legitimate ways with (arguably) legitimate ideas regarding music and music theory, the instinct is to dismiss it because what THOSE artists do is apparently less authentic than what Queens of the Stone Age or the xx or whomever do. If you don’t believe me, Justin Bieber (bonafide pop star) and Skrillex (bonafide EDM star) released a new single “What Do You Mean” which actually isn’t half bad. Stereogum posts the headline “Justin Bieber’s New Single ‘What Do You Mean’ Is Really Great” – as far as places for legitimate culture analysis Stereogum isn’t the best source, but it’s hardly the worst source (shout out to Tom Breihan’s weekly hip-hop opinion series “Status Ain’t Hood”). Here are the top comments on the Facebook posting for that article:
Dan:just because a song is tolerable, doesn’t make it “really great.” go home, stereogum. you’re drunk *164 likes*
Caroline:I’m just here to watch a hundred music nerds up in arms that Stereogum acknowledges mainstream music*57 Likes*
John:This is not a good song. Sounds like Skrillex is copying Kygo and J Biebs still can’t write lyrics for shit*9 likes*
One (semi) legitimate deconstruction of why the song is bad, one self-aware jab at commenters, and one, seemingly popular, opinion dismissing Stereogum’s coverage of the song.
If you think we stopped talking about Grimes’ album, we really haven’t. In fact, the discussion of mainstream pop, internet commenters, and artists fighting their musical identities, has really begun and ended with Grimes the past year. The backlash against her 2014 single “Go” was so loud that not only did she choose not to include it on Art Angels, but she also chose to apparently scrap an album’s worth of similar sounding material all together. Whether the “music nerds” alluded to in Caroline’s comment heard that the song was intended for Rihanna and made up their minds before hearing it, or whether they legitimately thought it was bad (it’s not, or at least no reason to grab your torches and pitchforks), we’ll never know. But curiously, Grimes has chosen to find a middle ground with Art Angels, an album that still retains weirdness on the fringes of it but certainly hyperextends the pop sensibilities that were featured on “Go”.
Art Angels isn’t going to make defending pop music, or even trying to talk about the legitimacy of pop music, any easier. Art Angels is an incredibly layered record, filled with some pretty incredible production and some of the most infectious songs you’ll hear all year. That’s what industry people like to tout as a “glowing recommendation”. And you’re going to hear songs like “Artangels” and either love Grimes’ odd 90’s dancefloor acid trip or hate it. But I’m here to tell you she made a pop album – as gnarled and fucked up as it may be – and we should just accept that eurodance clubs in the 1990’s and early 2000’s would’ve pushed songs like “Kill V. Maim” or “Pin” or “Reality” onto the charts, right next to Alice Deejay’s “Better Off Alone” or even Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”. Embrace it as a pop album.
Grimes still fights to be understood, though Art Angels is a far more lyrically direct album than Visions was. Many of these songs feel like fallout from the conversations she had to have post-”Go”. Much of the album is about making music that stands in defiance of internet commenters and her fans, the same that will likely cry out in betrayal after hearing Art Angels. “Pin” and “Flesh without Blood” almost directly comment on that disappointment, but the trancey closer “Butterfly” also addresses her critics, saying “If you’re looking for a dream girl, I’ll never be a dream girl.” In its own way, her claims that the “bro-art” album artwork is inspired by The Godfather and Billie Joel, or her declaration that “Kill V. Maim” is “written from the perspective of Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II,except he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space” all feel like trolling the internet trolls in the name of justice.
Musically we’ve hit so many flashier and catchier peaks than Visions ever provided. Even when she’s trying to hold back on tracks like “Easier”, she can’t help but future up the past, making the pre-beat dropping era of 90’s dance music seem both wonderfully nostalgic and highly simplistic in equal measure. “World Princess part II” has such an obvious keyboard sound running in the background you assume it has to be sampled from either a Sega video game or from a Moby song, yet it’s just one of several instantly iconic feelings captured on Art Angels. And Grimes knows how to keep things weird, and while I wouldn’t call the album “normal”, many of these songs are so instantly agreeable that she’s forced to conjure up some weird production to remind us who she is; “SCREAM” and the jungle boom chaos that closes out “Venus Fly” are less vintage Grimes than they are subtle reminders that Grimes is still making this album.
I’m not trying to simplify Art Angels – it’s a record that takes only one or two listens to like but takes many more listens to absorb. When Beyoncé dropped her album two years ago, people scratched their heads – not just because of the unique release pattern but because as sonically endearing as a traditional Beyoncé song was, her music was rarely dissected with such legitimacy. Grimes is beloved in indie circles but really hasn’t reached a mainstream audience (let alone reached a Beyoncé status); this meek, pale, white girl has made some of the most blatantly obvious and enjoyable pop music in many years and the sad thing is that the mainstream audience won’t hear it and segments of her indie audience won’t accept it. Grade: A-