He seemed unfazed by the mess of period sex, so I decided I was cool with it, too. Afterward, I watched as he caught his breath, zeroing in on a tiny whitehead at the center of his chest. My urge to reach over and pop it alerted me to an affection I had apparently already developed for him, nevermind that this was only the third time we’d slept together.
He reached for his phone and scrolled through his playlists, searching for something apropos. His eyes slid sideways in my direction, his lips spread into a self-satisfied smile.
“You’re into Grimes,” he said. It sounded like an accusation.
I wasn’t yet, but for him, I wanted to be. “Oh yeah,” I said. “I love it.”
Thirty minutes later I burst through his backyard gate in my pit-stained sundress, struggling to untangle my headphones so I could properly educate myself on whatever the hell “Grimes” even was. It looked like she (not it, god dammit) had released her first breakthrough album, Visions, the year prior. I started from the top.
“I’ll wait for you, if you want me to,” some gremlin voice taunted, over and over again, on the first track. Simultaneously dead and infantile, hollow and round, she beckoned as she warned. I didn’t understand what the refrain meant, exactly, but it made me feel a little less guilty about having lied to this boy about loving something I knew nothing about. Here was a chick, it seemed, who would understand the appeal — no, the necessity — of this particular kind of lie. She would brush it off, knowing how good it had felt to make him think he’d sized me up correctly, to confirm his idea of me — even if he was kind of wrong, even if he found parts of it kind of repulsive.
What I had identified in Grimes as a certain fabricated rawness — a roundabout route to the elemental via the synthetic — became, in the coming years, the guiding ethos of my own feminine performance. Growing up in a largely white, outdoorsy, “progressive” bubble in Seattle, I had long felt stunted by now-stale second wave rhetoric that glorified the natural and conversely, pathologized the artificial. In contrast, Grimes’ high-production femininity presented a version of self-expression that felt more reflective of — or at least more open to — an idealized conception of my own girlishness.
It wasn’t that I wanted to replicate (or even be enveloped by) her aesthetic, per se. It was just that she seemed to be a rare example of someone who was emboldened — rather than degraded — by her own staged artificiality; somewhat paradoxically, she appeared to grow more embodied the less “naturally” she portrayed herself. (At the time, the idea that she would later become involved with Elon Musk would seem almost too on-the-nose, a lazy rounding out of her galaxy-tech manic pixie dream girl persona.)
I was now luxuriating in undergraduate critical theory classes on so-called “new media”, poring over issues of hyperreality and cyborgian ethics. I’d never liked SciFi or played video games, but I understood these cultural artifacts as instruments for larger ideas, as safe fictional sites through which we might experiment with different modes of being. I began to value encounters with art solely for their potential to launch me back into Idea Land; the only thing getting me through my stack of Philip K. Dick novels was the prospect of discussing Baudrillard on the other side.
Grimes, for me, functioned as both object and lens. I liked her music and her look, sure, but I was mostly interested in the way she seemed to manufacture herself as a vessel for others’ projections. I’d been taught by good, smart feminists to resist any kind of objectification, but was there not some power in imagining — and then methodically crafting — yourself into something fake?
I was aware that I identified with Grimes primarily for her tendency to self-fetishize — that in her, I registered a go-ahead for a level of self-involvement (and subsequent self-expression) I’d often felt shamed out of by my environment growing up. On some level, I knew that this navel-gazing, self-deterministic worldview was “bad” — it was Ayn Rand bad, or at least Kardashian bad — but it wasn’t like I could just decide to stop feeling this way.
In my 20-odd years of rotating celebrity obsessions, this was the first time I became acutely aware of the fact that my adoration was not confined to the art itself. I wasn’t just consuming Grimes’ albums and videos, I was using them to access an illusory, invincible side of myself. I hoped that someday, I could create those conditions for someone else.
I listened to Art Angels on an infinite loop the day it came out. Initially, I absorbed little more than the textures — I was mainly using the album to propel me through writing a last-minute essay on Ovid’s Metamorphoses — save for the closing line: “If you’re looking for a dream girl, I’ll never be your dream girl.”
How serendipitous to have singularly identified this lyric, I thought, which happened to dovetail so perfectly with my then-current situation. Now in my senior year of college, my focus had shifted away from theory and toward the “real world,” which primarily meant positioning myself as the perfect (anti-)dream girl for a boy I’d lusted after for years. It was a delicate science: I diligently noted the oddities in his tastes and did my best to refract a series of staged, complimentary idiosyncrasies, taking extra measures to conceal my labor. It was precarious, exhausting, and completely unsustainable, but at the time, I truly believed I was in control.
As it turned out, this lyric had not pierced the cosmos to singularly speak to me — in fact, it was the opening line of the Pitchfork album review. I laughed out loud when I read it, tickled by my own myopia: this was not a hidden gem, it was the fucking pull quote.
But perhaps there was some magic in that, too. If this line, out of all forty-nine minutes of dizzyingly cutesy chants and play-screams, was the obvious snag, it must have been a shared experience. Other girls must have also felt compelled to construct a quasi-fantasy version of themselves for the dating marketplace — and they must have been deriving real pleasure from it, without too much concern as to their own duplicitousness.
Post-graduation, I was living just outside of Nagoya, Japan, where parts of the “Realiti” video had been filmed some years back. My micro-managed job teaching English to Toyota salarymen was a far cry from some imagined Roppongi club scene, but alone in my 250 square-foot apartment eating conbini onigiri, I could transport myself to the world of the video with relative ease. Despite the glaring difference in alluded-to social lives, Grimes appeared just as out of place — if infinitely cooler and more self-assured — and as such offered a seductive, imaginary alternative to my own day to day.
I remembered the first time I had watched the video, years ago in my then-boyfriend’s sparse apartment. His scrubby, DSA-touting friend had produced live commentary on Grimes’ vapidity (“This is so stupid, she’s just jumping around in Asia with dyed hair”), but I hadn’t been phased by his one-note (albeit justified) critique. Actually, I’d recreated the video on my own the next night, crudely approximating it in my dorm bathroom with the lights off, aided by my roommate’s cheap portable strobe. I had watched myself dance to the song in the mirror, transfixed by the bounce of my own ponytail, until the shower steam eventually obscured my reflection.
Now, alienated and directionless in Japan, I saw Grimes as the gutsier version of me — not the version who did the “right” thing, necessarily, but the version who didn’t care what people thought of her. Whatever the politics beneath such apparent freedom, I admired her willingness to so un-self-consciously give herself over to her own frivolity: it raised the possibility that through relentless self-mythology, I might actually come out better equipped to connect to people, to create something meaningful in my writing. To read her in the most generous light, Grimes’ brazen confidence simply seemed like an expression of love, both for herself and for the world.
I realized relatively late that it was kind of taboo to like Grimes. The behavior that tended to draw skepticism — her violently erratic Tumblr and Twitter personas, controversial performance conduct, and refusal to participate in various online social justice challenges — all seemed pretty innocuous to me. Why did people care if she didn’t adhere to the optics-driven “responsibilities” of celebrity? All told, she was still making great art.
Besides, I’d always found the insistence on individual moral purity a disastrous PR strategy — at best, it seemed a sign of stupidity, for wasn’t it obvious that any single person would eventually be “bad,” or at least do some shady stuff to preserve the illusion of being good?
When Grimes publicly debuted her relationship with Elon Musk at the Met Gala, though, I retreated briefly from this position. Was consorting with an exploitative billionaire the threshold at which we could no longer separate the artist from her art, an ethical line analogous to supporting Trump? Even as I mulled over the arbitrary-ness of such moral boundaries (there seemed to be lots of other so-coded “evil” things in the world that we collectively overlooked), the whole thing made me nervous. The qualities that had drawn me to Grimes — her apparent fearlessness, physical ebullience, and force field against petty criticism — were still intact. But her skill as a fantasy-enabler (which I’d simultaneously resonated with and felt ashamed of) now seemed to have been weaponized — or at least, stumbled upon by the wrong guy.
I had always felt that, on some vague ideological plane, I agreed with the way Grimes lived her life, not because we did the same things but because we seemed to be solving for a similar type of freedom. But now, I saw how such logic could yield decidedly dangerous results when extrapolated out beyond the imagined self. It might mean, for instance, that I’d be comfortable aligning myself with “bad” people or doing “bad” things, insofar as they made me feel valuable.
I left his fifth floor walkup with my sunglasses already on. The early winter wind slapped me across the face, finally inducing the rush I’d been after the night before. I tucked my AirPods into place and marched toward the F train.
Grimes’ new single began with a scream, followed by a distorted guitar loop that seemed to build endlessly toward some forestalled, inevitable rupture. “We appreciate power, we appreciate power,” she declared. “What will it take to make you capitulate?”
He and I had been stuck in a feigned game of cat-and-mouse for over a year. Initially the simulated power struggle had been fun, and I had enjoyed indulging in my own over-the-top show. But now that it was clear he’d earnestly fallen for the blown-out caricature I had peddled, the whole thing was turning me off. It wasn’t sexy to have this much control.
I began to question his powers of observation. How could he not see through the con? The alternative — that he could, and was choosing to put up with it — was even worse. Sure, I was the one doing mental gymnastics to fake-debase myself, but I was starting to suspect that he also had some serious self-respect issues.
This type of dupe, I realized, had diminishing returns. I still recognized the impulse of Grimes’ provocation — “submit, submit,” she ordered — but it no longer felt safely transgressive, now that my performance bordered on straight-up manipulation. I should have known that I’d crossed the line months ago, back when I’d stopped feeling the need to act compellingly weird, and had simply defaulted to buying more sparkly hair clips.
The couple had been in the news a lot lately. Between the birth of their child X Æ A-Xii, her plan to auction off her soul, and Elon’s personal endorsement of Kanye’s presidential run, Grimes faced mounting pressure to address her complicity in her boyfriend’s megalomania. All year, the internet had been taking bets: was she a cruel co-conspirator or a total pawn?
In July, when Elon tweeted “Pronouns suck,” it seemed like we might get the clincher we so obviously craved. Grimes’ reply, which she later deleted, came within minutes: “I love you but please turn off your phone or give me a dall [sic]. I cannot support hate. Please stop this. I know this isn’t your heart.” It was messy, muddled, and perhaps cringe-ily naïve, but from my vantage point, it felt sincere.
Of course there would be no tidy, satisfying answer, and perhaps there were real, harmful effects from, as one friend put it, Grimes “empowering” this particular billionaire. But why was her relationship necessarily evidence of a deeper, calculated darkness or privileged ignorance? Wasn’t it possible that she’d just been following the same impulse-driven mode of existence she’d been displaying for years, that love and loyalty could exist for her — as it likely did for us — even when it wasn’t morally (that is, logically) justifiable?
If nothing else, cancelling Grimes seemed at odds with the prevailing “feminist” rhetoric marketed toward millennial women, which presented authenticity as the key to empowerment. Evidently, there were limits to this ideology: Doing You was mission critical to the project of female emancipation, but only for those who automatically ceded to some omniscient, narrow arbitration of right vs. wrong.
Actually, I felt that Grimes had assisted in my “liberation” much more than other PC public figures, precisely for her refusal to be corralled into some sort of Good Liberal Ethos. It wasn’t that I agreed with everything she said or did, but I respected the ferociousness with which she pursued her own ideas, regardless of how they might be externally politicized.
Mostly, though, my attachment to Grimes was personal, as her model of self-exploration had enabled me to get curious about — rather than repress — certain traits I had been taught to code as narcissistic. Through her, I began to re-understand my natural propensity for performance as a neutral trait, one that could certainly cause harm if I was out of alignment, but that wasn’t, in itself, something to feel guilty about.
I’d watched myself abuse this tendency a handful of times — provoking public fights for show, sending (and deleting) one too many obnoxious tweets — and had sustained the natural consequences. But I had to trust that over time, I’d continue to develop the instinct to know when I’d crossed my own threshold, with the knowledge that I couldn’t control how anyone else would choose to interpret my behavior.
Because I had seen a part of myself in Grimes, I trusted that she, too, was mediating her own ethics in good faith — even if that meant loving someone who society had maligned. I knew my loyalty wasn’t perfectly morally defensible, but I had to believe that her sweetness still existed, because it meant it still existed in me, too.
I woke up at 5AM to write, kissing him on the forehead and tip-toeing out of his apartment without locking the door. I’d learned from past flames to take advantage of the morning, when I was most productive, rather than feigning sleep and later resenting the wasted time if it didn’t unfold exactly as I had envisioned.
Outside, it was a blue dawn. The sky was low and velvety, the streets were nearly empty. I figured if I hurried, I could make it home maskless.
“Entropy” was one of my favorite walking songs. It had debuted years ago on the fourth season of HBO’s Girls; back then, having recently destroyed a relationship with the only boy I felt had ever actually seen me, I’d teared up as the credits rolled. “How can something so free feel so rehearsed?” Grimes sang out. I wondered if I’d feel this fraudulent — and this lonely — forever.
Now, as I skipped down the arterial to the candy-coated beat, the song felt like a friend. I wasn’t sure if this new relationship would be a healthy one: I didn’t know if I could stay vulnerable enough to resist slipping into self-parody, but I would try my best. It was too soon to make any claims about our compatibility — I’d never met his friends, and we had yet to disclose our voting records — but we seemed to make decisions from a similar place. Mostly, we were chasing a feeling.