Silent Shout: Grimes’ ‘Art Angels’ Is The Strongest Argument In Favor Of The Pop Singularity
Silent Shout is our recurring roundup of the latest in alt-pop. It might not be music for the masses, but — to paraphrase *NSYNC — this might be pop.
We are rapidly approaching some sort of pop singularity. The internet was supposed to fractionalize everything and create countless music niches, but instead everything is swarming around the power of the hook. Now that pop is no longer a dirty word, alternative artists are flocking to the genre’s instant-grat pleasure principles, while the mainstream is taking more risks and fiddling with bolder sounds to pique the interests of a desensitized public that has heard pretty much all there is to hear. These two complementary forces are having a congealing effect, where the mainstream and the fringe feed off of each other so quickly and so frequently that sometimes it feels like we’re left with a giant beige overlap in pop’s Venn Diagram.
Cross-pollination is as old as pop music itself, and this latest iteration isn’t even a new observation. But I think the alt-MOR dimension is about to reach critical mass. The seeds of this particular aspect are found in the “Since U Been Gone”-Yeah Yeah Yeahs intersection, and then once The Knife emerged we were set on a crash course for this mass convergence. The Swedish duo’s 2006 LP (which gives this column its title) was a revelation at the time for pairing cold, futuristic synthscapes with bright pop melodies, mixing the immediate with the oblique, the odd with the accessible. Fast-forward to the current landscape, and this type of mainstream-underground interplay is apparent in nearly all corners of pop. Chvrches, Taylor Swift and Purity Ring are compared and even conflated. Kanye West collabs with Arca and Evian Christ. Beyoncé enlists the services of Chairlift. Former Disney star Demi Lovato releases a single that apes Justice‘s sleaze-techno, then drops another track that may or may not rip off Sleigh Bells. Noise-rock wildmen HEALTH take inspiration from heavyweight Top 40 production. Justin Bieber churns out sensi-dance tunes with Decepticon-wave god Skrillex. Madonna spitballs with SOPHIE. These are incredibly exciting and jarring things!
Pop has never been more blown-out and adventurous. More ideas are moving around in the music marketplace and the oddball ones have almost as much weight as the tried-and-true Max Martin presets (partly because Martin is often co-opting the oddball ones). On the other hand, there’s something particularly disappointing, on an instinctual level, when superstars sound like watered down versions of emerging acts or when an alt-pop artist swings for the blockbuster fences and whiffs, like Grimes’ Rihanna reject “Go.” There’s something so unsatisfying, even to the poptimist, about onetime electronic pop vanguards Purity Ring now being nearly indistinguishable from the uber-accessible, radio-optimized Swift. There’s a perplexing logic to the idea that you’re going to seek out HEALTH for the silky melodicism.
But then every few months or so, when I’m filled with a vague pessimism and confusion about this ouroboros effect, an album like Yeezus or M3LLI55X arrives, taking pop and the underground and danger and accessibility and integrating them in some way that transcends this inside baseball, masturbatory music blogger bullshit. Grimes’ Art Angels is the latest release to accomplish this. The sheer amount of sounds and obsessions she weaves together on each track, the sheer breadth of styles, would be disorienting if she didn’t somehow make it all resonate on a purely pop level. “Kill V. Maim,” for example, is an undeniable earworm despite the fact that it juggles Britney, bedroom pop and Burzum. This is a remarkable thing!
As far as I can tell, Art Angels is the single best argument in favor of the pop singularity. In an era when it can feel like everyone is rushing to sound “different” and fashions themselves as iconoclasts, Grimes is a true outsider. In an era when we have trouble admitting that, sometimes, a pop song is just a pop song, Grimes has provided us with cerebral singalongs that demand to be unpacked. So many artists and producers in recent years have tried to jump the gap between the center and the fringe, but with Art Angels Grimes figured out how to flourish there.
TALK ABOUT POP MUZIK
Plaitum — “LMHY” This London duo takes widescreen waves of angelic coos and synths and litters them with jagged bits of electro-shoegaze. The high-drama “LMHY” is a promising preview of their self-titled debut EP, out December 4 on Paul Epworth’s Wolf Tone imprint.
GIRLI — “So You Think You Can Fuck With Me Do Ya” Our favorite little shit-stirrer is back! For her debut video, GIRLI is even snottier, whinier and meaner than she was on previous track “ASBOys,” singing and chirping about subtweets and calling her enemies whores. It’s the type of confrontational bluster you rarely see outside of hip-hop, the exact opposite of the enlightened teen pop of Alessia Cara, Dua Lipa, Clairity and the like. Which is fine because every era needs a villain.
Roxanne Tataei — “My Weakness” There’s a trip-hop, Sneaker Pimps, “this should be in The Crow soundtrack” electro-creep feel to this song. We don’t get much music exploring that vibe these days, which is a shame. I think this sort of gloomy spare-pop is due for a revival, because the world is a vampire and everything is awful and it’s an election year. Anyway, “My Weakness” is off the Londoner’s aptly titled Grey Area EP, out November 27.