Why Grimes' Misunderstood Boiler Room Set Wasn't "Trolling"
But Grimes' Boiler Room set wasn't, at least in any traditional sense, "trolling"; I think it was a challenge.
When Grimes, aka Claire Boucher, was invited by DJ Richie Hawtin to play a Boiler Room set in Ibiza last week — an "underground music show" that broadcasts live DJ sets via the internet — she made no bones about what her playlist might include. "are there not any official Taylor swift remixes?" she asked her twitter followers, before responding herself less than a minute later: "respect - no remixes would be as good as the original i knew u were trouble any way." Then, in case there was any question left, she tweeted this:
Pissing off all Djs by playing t swift on boiler room tune in!— Grimes, Faery Queen (@Grimezsz) August 14, 2013
By publicly seeking a reaction, Grimes was "trolling," right? I don't think it's that simple. Boucher is too smart, too culturally aware and too genuinely in love with pop music like that of Swift, Venga Boys, Britney Spears, Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey, all of whom featured in her set list, to be playing songs simply because they're novel or ironic. Wrote Boucher herself:
i will leave it at this: nothing about anything i do is ironic.— Grimes, Faery Queen (@Grimezsz) August 15, 2013
By now, "trolling" is a fairly ubiquitous term. Urban Dictionary defines it as "Being a prick on the internet because you can. Typically unleashing one or more cynical or sarcastic remarks on an innocent by-stander, because it's the internet and, hey, you can."
Most articles and opinions regarding Boucher's set categorized her actions thusly. They designated her set, to paraphrase this definition, as "being a prick on the internet because she could."
This thinking is reductive and, worse, I think it's inaccurate.
On her blog, Boucher has written thoughtfully and eloquently about her love of pop music in the past. In April, in a post railing against sexism and refusing to compromise her integrity to make a living, she posted the following:
"im tired of being considered vapid for liking pop music or caring about fashion as if these things inherently lack substance or as if the things i enjoy somehow make me a lesser person"
It wasn't the first time Boucher spoke out about the way her gender influenced the perception of her as an artist, either. In February, she wrote the following post after a reaction to her favourite songs of 2012:
"I'm tired of people telling me I'm ignorant for liking pop and hip hop, because I'm not. I know whats up with music. I have thoroughly investigated both mainstream and experimental music."
"and yet," she continued, "I know very few adult males who consider themselves serious 'music guys' who don't laugh when I say I like Mariah carey. Why? because shes beautiful and people like her. therefore she must be selling sex, right? so obviously her music is terrible, right? ugh."
Why, then, would she play Carey at Boiler Room, if she knew "serious 'music guys'" found her laughable? Maybe she was making a point.
Another entry at Urban Dictionary defines trolling as "trying to get a rise out of someone. Forcing them to respond to you, either through wise-crackery, posting incorrect information, asking blatantly stupid questions, or other foolishness."
If "foolishness" includes hopeful optimism, I think we can get at what Boucher's Boiler Room set was about. Yes, she acknowledged beforehand that she was going to be "Pissing off all Djs by playing t swift on boiler room," but I don't think it was without specific intent or purpose.
Boucher was forcing a response; she played Swift and Carey at a "serious" event like Boiler Room (which, in this case, was next to a pool) specifically because their music is perceived as novelty or irony by the taste-making crowd digitally and physically present. To play them there, she knew, would serve to emphasize that these are artists whose work, even as it achieves broader success, remains marginalized by underground and critical culture.
Casual sexism against female artists continues to abound in music journalism, especially against artists like Swift, Carey, Britney Spears and Nicki Minaj, who make supposedly "disposable" pop music.
That she was called "the Paris Hilton for hipsters" by one online listener and asked "Seriously Grimes what the fuck is this power puff girl music?" by another as a result of her set only underlines the sexism inherent in the designation of it as mere trolling, rather than a challenge to consider which artists are worthy of respect as musicians, and which are deemed ironic or novel.
There's no arguing that Boucher's Boiler Room set was designed with the purpose to "get a rise out of someone" and force people to respond to her, but to call her set trolling is too simplistic; just because you disagree with her song choice doesn't make her a troll. Defining her set as such validates the perception that the music of Carey, Spears, Minaj and Swift can only be enjoyed as kitsch, and that she couldn't possibly genuinely like the music she was playing. It also robs Boucher's set of any potential message or implied purpose, and worse, suggests that she wasn't fully aware of the implications of what she was doing.
Or, to put it simply: if Boucher's purpose was to illuminate and emphasize that sexism still plays a overwhelming role in the designation of what is considered to be good taste, then the reaction she received only validates her set and confirms her past assertions that she's considered "ignorant" or "vapid for liking pop music."
If you ask me, Boucher knew exactly what she was doing. Or, to quote directly from the source: "I know whats up with music."
I'm inclined to agree.
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