In his first article for OQM, Juhana Henrikki Harju compares two videos by Claire Boucher (Grimes). Harju makes a case for Grimes using the audio-visual medium as a way to impart her message of empowerment, gender and identity.
The Canadian-born artist Claire Boucher is most famous for her work as Grimes, a project encompassing albums, live performances, artwork and music videos. The music video is a fitting medium, as Grimes combines music, lyrics, dancing, costume design and visuals through these channels. To date, Boucher has directed over a dozen videos under the Grimes umbrella.
Between late 2015 and early 2017 Grimes released nine videos that visualize songs for her latest album Art Angels (I count the clips for ‘Flesh Without Blood’ and ‘Life in a Vivid Dream’ as separate). The latest is called ‘Venus Fly’ (featuring Janelle Monáe). It’s also the last one to be based on a song off Art Angels, so a somewhat longer wait for the next release is likely to be expected.
This essay is a comparison of two music videos, ‘World Princess Part II’ and ‘Venus Fly’. The videos were released about four months apart, ‘World Princess Part II’ in October 2016 and ‘Venus Fly’ in February 2017. Both captivated me on first sight.
World Princess Part II
The video for ‘World Princess Part II’ was shot with an iPhone in various locations (including the Millennium Bridge in London and also a castle in ruins) whilst Grimes was on her 2016 European tour with HANA. No crew apart from a director of photography was used (Claire Boucher’s brother Mac), no extra lighting was utilized, no makeup applied. As the story goes, they originally planned to shoot only this one video, but eventually the project grew into a series of seven videos, titled Ac!d Reign Chronicles, with four videos starring Grimes and three videos starring HANA.
Reading what Boucher has revealed in interviews about the songs on Art Angels, it’s easy to interpret ‘World Princess pt. II’ as a song about not letting others get in the way of one’s own thing. As Boucher has often mentioned, male producers have approached her with offers to produce her music with the incorrect assumption that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. This is reflected in the song lyrics:
But I can see something more
Than the things you try to take
Now, who made a mistake?
Don’t you cry
The music belongs to her; producing is one of the vehicles of Boucher’s artistry. In the case of Grimes though, producing and songwriting form only the musical aspect of the project, the visual aspect (artwork, fashion, music videos) playing an essential role as well. Boucher’s combined roles of music producer and auteur can be seen most clearly in her music videos.
In the castle scenes, Grimes is dressed in a princess costume that resembles Princess Zelda from the popular video game series. This reference, if it indeed is a reference, contains interesting significance. In the video game series, Princess Zelda is a damsel-in-distress character in need of a male rescuer (the character Link). Yet in the ‘World Princess pt. II’ video, Grimes portrays a character who specifically doesn’t need male help and celebrates her own agency.
These shots show a confident Grimes, and they manifest a lot of the video’s spirit of autonomy and empowerment.
Besides the princess-like character, the video also shows Grimes (and HANA) carrying closed umbrellas like weapons in a bold way that resembles anime aesthetics. There is also a shot in which Grimes uses the umbrellas as make-believe machine guns. There are also some scenes shot inside a private jet plane, the airplane symbolizing the capacity to cross one’s own limits. These shots show a confident Grimes, and they manifest a lot of the video’s spirit of autonomy and empowerment.
‘World Princess part II’ is a sequel to the song ‘World ♡ Princess’, released in 2010 on Halfaxa. The original song was about the death of a friend of Boucher’s, and there are dark, melancholic segments in the sequel (especially in the outro) that seem to allude to this:
If I stare into the darkness, I won’t know where I am
I haven’t seen the daylight since I started giving in
Overcoming negative, possibly traumatic experiences can inspire inner strength, but such experiences may still come back to haunt one and eat away at one’s confidence. We are reminded of this during the outro sequence, where we see a restless Grimes as the princess character, in turn looking towards the camera from under a mass of hair and avoiding the gaze of the camera lens. After this scene, we are shown the left wing of the private jet in flight.
In the ‘Venus Fly’ video, we see Grimes portraying an art angel with black wings, covered in a substance that looks like tar, with feathers falling on her. We also see Grimes and Janelle Monáe wielding flaming swords dressed up as warriors. It’s an assertive song, like ‘World Princess part II’. These lines are from the pre-chorus, performed and written by Janelle Monáe:
Why you looking at me now?
Why you looking at me again?
What if I pulled my teeth?
Cut my hair underneath my chin
Wrap my curls all around the world
Throw my pearls all across the floor
Feeling my beat like a sniper girl
Objectification is an exercise of power, and that power, as the above lines by Janelle Monáe suggest, can be resisted by changing one’s appearance in a way (e.g. scary, grotesque) that defies objectification.
Describing Art Angels in a 2015 interview for The Fader, Grimes mentioned a song about “being too scary to be objectified”, which is presumed to be ‘Venus Fly’. Objectification is an exercise of power, and that power, as the above lines by Janelle Monáe suggest, can be resisted by changing one’s appearance in a way (e.g. scary, grotesque) that defies objectification. Thus, the individual can retain their autonomy from outside definitions.
These lines are from the chorus, performed and written by Grimes:
Hey, what about me?
Oh, why you looking at me?
Oh, why you looking at me?
(Against the music)
Contemporary popular culture places great emphasis on the outward appearances of people and things. This often overshadows other aspects, such as musical expression. The black-winged, tar-covered art angel that crouches in front of the camera during the video’s final sequence before the credits symbolizes music (or artistic expression in general) that is daunted by the objectifying gaze of the public.
In the video, we see that the black-winged art angel is always depicted alone. Yet there are the scenes where both Janelle Monáe and Grimes appear, striking poses with their flaming swords. There are struggles, but one does not need to be alone.
Boucher’s public image is a theme that she has discussed in most of her interviews. Moreover, songs like ‘California’ comment on the image pop journalists have constructed of her in the past:
You only like me
When you think I’m looking sad
Again, the criticism contained in ‘World Princess part II’ could very well be aimed at pop journalists, besides male producers:
I know most likely
How I used to be a frail and silly thought in your mind
Call me unkind
You’re so far behind me
Public figures have little control as to how the public wishes to see them and treat them. This is especially true in contemporary popular culture which is based on fantasies projected on popstars, the tending of identities, and play between authenticity and artificial roles. Like everyone else today, public figures negotiate the social sphere and strive to defend their own definitions of themselves against the definitions made by others, to assert themselves against shaming.
The most obvious difference between the videos for ‘World Princess part II’ and ‘Venus Fly’ lies in the technical execution. I felt that, for the most part, the distinctive DIY quality of ‘World Princess pt. II’ succeeded in engaging me emotionally, but I also felt the abruptly shifting color scheme drawing unnecessary attention on each viewing. I suppose one could call it punk.
Like everyone else today, public figures negotiate the social sphere and strive to defend their own definitions of themselves against the definitions made by others, to assert themselves against shaming.
In a technical sense ‘Venus Fly’ is an entirely different beast. The Tidal-sponsored 4K video was shot in a studio with high-grade professional equipment and crew (they even hired a bubble specialist from Canada for the sessions). Post-production effects were used more extensively: there are dramatic slow-motions, mirror images, swirling effects and reverse sequences which allude to psychedelic/visionary aesthetics. The video is easily Grimes’ most accomplished to date.
Still, having compared these two videos, I feel that ‘World Princess pt. II’ stands out as the thematically more poignant one. The video has a certain dramatic arc, which of course originates in part from the song’s structure. The ‘Venus Fly’ video doesn’t quite have the same feel of a narrative, even though its flow of images and movement is itself impressive. Hopefully Grimes gets to direct technologically advanced videos like ‘Venus Fly’ in the future.