Whether you admire her go-for-it ambition and wildly layered cultural references or think she’s a cutesy walking meme with an annoying penchant for appropriation, it’s hard to deny that Grimes inhabited (and sometimes infuriated) the 2012 zeitgeist like few others. With January’s release of her third album, neon synth-pop Rorschach test Visions (4AD), the airy-voiced 24-year-old born Claire Boucher kickstarted a year that took her from Canadian curiosity to omnipresent enigma; the record also reached the top half of the Billboard 200 albums chart. In this revealing, wide-ranging conversation, Grimes takes on her critics, opens up about her troubled past, and looks back on an extremely eventful 12 months — pussy rings included.
It’s been a big year for you. How did you deal with the attention, not all of which was positive?
At first, it was really intense and freaked me out. I was thrust into some situations initially that I wasn’t necessarily ready for, emotionally or technically. But there was a point where I realized that being successful in music gives you a lot of social power. I’m a lot less shy and a lot more into [the attention] lately.
Do you feel like people understand what you are putting out?
Generally, I feel like people don’t necessarily get what I’m doing. Grimes can come off as something very different from what it is because I flirt so much with pop sonics and pop imagery. People who don’t listen to the album and hear “Oblivion” and “Genesis” can get the wrong idea, too. “Eight” or “Circumambient” are a better representation of what I was trying to do with Visions, which was to work noise, punk and IDM into more traditional pop and new jack swing production and structures.
Is your success about the right aesthetic and the right sound at the right time?
Everything is about doing the right thing at the right time. There is a degree to which I evaluate the world around me and try to predict what I think will work and what won’t. It’s kind of fun, how much this whole thing feels like politics. I can’t think about that stuff while I’m actually working or it ruins my process, but it’s fun to have a thing you’ve made, and think about how you can contextualize it and try to read into what you think will be cool, or how you could potentially make something cool.
What’s your relationship to the Internet?
It’s a contentious one, but a good one. The Internet’s just like guns or drugs: It’s extremely powerful, therefore it’s extremely dangerous. And therefore, I don’t necessarily trust it, but it’s a useful thing.
Do you read online comments about yourself?
I stopped doing that, because it was negatively impacting me emotionally and because I see so many of my peers do that and get totally worked up about things they can’t change about themselves and that are totally unreasonable, so I decided it wasn’t worth it.
There is a lot written about what you look like and wear, people calling you “elfin” and “Rainbow Brite” — essentially treating you like a magical angel child rather than an adult woman.
I think about that. I find it extremely obnoxious. My image seems to be so infantilized and I don’t really know why. It belittles the music. Maybe it’s because my voice is high-pitched. I look at my peers and I’m actually three or four years older than Azealia Banks or Sky Ferreira. I’m 24. I’m not a kid, but my image is very teenaged. Maybe it’s my fault. I was very into K-Pop and J-Pop when I made “Vanessa” and “Oblivion.” Those videos are kind of cutesy. And when I made them, I didn’t even think of that resonating with people. But I can see how it would. The sexual [stigma] is more dangerous than the cute thing. I see a lot of female artists who have a sexual image — it’s almost impossible for them to be taken seriously in a critical sense. And that’s really scary. If you focus too much on development of the visual angle, it could be a detriment to what you’re doing musically.
Then why pussy rings?
It didn’t cross my mind that they would be controversial. It just didn’t cross my mind. I had all this merch; we’d run out of T-shirts, and it was either print more shitty T-shirts or work with an artist. 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. And having them be a knuckle ring is so aggressive. If you punched someone with the ring on, it would leave a clitoris-shaped imprint on their face.
In your videos this year, you played with these clichés of powerful and powerless female archetypes. What was that about?
I was interested in the Japanese archetype of a female protagonist who is very small and very cute and very physically powerful. You don’t see that archetype in America. But in Japanese culture, there are female characters who can embody this girl uniform and still cut someone’s head off with a sword. “Oblivion” embodies that kind of archetype, going into this masculine world that is associated with sexual assault, but presented as something really welcoming and nice. The song’s sort of about being — I was assaulted and I had a really hard time engaging in any types of relationship with men, because I was just so terrified of men for a while.
Is it important for you to discuss what “Oblivion” is about?
It would be intense if it were an overwhelming part of my image. I can’t censor myself; it’s really important for me to say how I feel. I needed to put out this song. I needed to make this song. I took one of the most shattering experiences of my life and turned it into something I can build a career on and that allows me to travel the world. I play it live every night. The whole process has been positive — engaging with that subject matter and making it into something good.