Despite the fact that Grimes has upheld a middling position on festival lineups in the years since Visions came out in 2012, the last time I saw her was that summer at London’s Field Day festival. When I left my friend’s apartment earlier that day, he asked if I was seeing the producer, who he thought was “good” but she “meows a lot” (he was referencing the “La la la la la” motif in “Oblivion”). I drank a Pimm’s Cup (hm) before completely losing my shit during her set. There were so many bodies under that small tent that I had a near impossible time moving, let alone actually watching Claire Boucher perform alongside her dancer, a tall person dressed up like a rodent of some sort. It was a momentous set because it felt like the start of something.
That day in 2012 felt very far away on the floor of Terminal 5 last night, a venue that I once swore I would never go to ever again. It’s cavernous, and despite the fact that Grimes delayed her set because an apparent 600 fans hadn’t arrived yet, it still felt like there was an impossible number of people there.
Nicole Dollanganger opened the show with her band. Dollanganger surfaced seemingly out of nowhere last year (despite the fact that she has a fairly stacked Bandcamp catalog) when Grimes announced that she and Elite Gymnastics/Default Genders’ James Brooks would put out the young Canadian singer/songwriter’s record Natural Born Losers on their not-really-a-record-label, Eerie Organization. Dollanganger’s set last night was engaging in its own subtly performative way. Her voice is the kind that leaks out into a room like vapor, delayed and looped and made to sound much larger than it actually is: Muted, then soaring. Aside from playing her own material, Dollanganger covered the doom metal band Type O Negative’s “Christian Woman,” a pointed move since her entire aesthetic depends on dichotomy. There she stood, shrouded in a cloak-like black baby doll ensemble, her femininity flanked by two dudes who wouldn’t look entirely out of place at Maryland Deathfest.
Grimes didn’t take the stage until 20 or so minutes after her set time, which was a cause for some concern seeing as how she cancelled her prior shows in DC and Philly. Admittedly, I was nervous. Art Angels is by far one of my favorite albums this year, and I wanted to see Grimes own the bossiness of that LP in front of the always hard to impress New York crowd in most everyone’s least favorite venue. And in the time between Dollanganger’s set, the venue speakers blasted exclusively classical music, which is calming in most ordinary settings, but disorienting and anxiety-inducing when some dudes on molly are trying their best to barrel through everyone in their midst to make it to the front of the stage in time for the set. Those concertos, however, created an artful transition when Grimes and her dancers finally stormed the stage to the symphonic “Laughing And Not Being Normal.” That’s the inaugural song on Art Angels, but those who attended the show in the hopes of hearing mostly new material would have been disappointed. Grimes only performed four songs off of Art Angels, which makes sense. The Rhinestone Cowgirls tour was announced long before the new album dropped, and the production on that thing is so overblown (in a great way) that it will undoubtedly take time to determine how to play some of those songs live.
Grimes had the flu, which she noted after performing Visions’ stand-out single “Genesis.” She apologized for being out of breath, which she really didn’t need to do. Grimes has an enviable stage presence even when she feels like she’s going to projectile vomit (a fact that she pointed out later during the set), manically running from her gear hub, to stage right, left, and back again. She makes small monkey-like “ooh-ooh-ah!” noises between songs to stoke herself up. She growls. When “Venus Fly” was introduced, Grimes bemoaned the fact that Janelle Monáe wouldn’t be able to join her onstage for it like she did in Atlanta but she “fucked around” with the 808s enough that it would hopefully sound just as crazy as the recording.
Though Monáe couldn’t make it to the New York show, the most exciting moment of Grimes’ set arrived when she announced that Aristophanes, the Taiwanese rapper featured on “Scream,” was backstage. Performed entirely in Mandarin, “Scream” is a song about female sexuality, and Aristophanes performed it with a menacing rigidity. It’s not a sexy song, it’s a near-threatening one, and Grimes yelped and howled behind the rapper as she spit out the hook: “If you can’t scream, then swallow it down.”
Everyone peaked during separate moments of Grimes’ set, but the minute Aristophanes left the stage was the apex for me, when Boucher followed-up the no-holds-barred, aggressive “Scream” with the much-contested, Rihanna-rejected, Blood Diamonds collaborative fairy tale of a song “Go.” The first thing I thought to myself was: “Anyone who doesn’t like ‘Go’ is a fucking idiot.” It’s the kind of song that will make unsuspecting teenagers want to take MDMA for the first time and pretend they’re in an episode of Skins. It’s danceable, but still gauzy, a love song of sorts that contradicts the ferocity of “Scream” in innumerable ways, and as I looked on at the stage I started to put together all of the reasons why Art Angels feels like such a powerful, complete statement to me.
Tangentially, without preaching, it honors femininity through one modern woman’s steadfast gaze. Grimes has always allowed herself space in the public eye to be raunchy and noisy and vulnerable and aggressive and weird and freaky and innocent all at once. And she’s not just allowed to be all of those things; she’s praised for it. The encore — which Grimes performed immediately after the set’s last song, “Phone Sex,” since she gets nervous waiting to see if people will even ask for an encore — was “Kill V Maim,” a song that I highlighted last week as the Art Angels track that “makes me hands-down believe in this alternate universe commanded by a slight, 27-year-old woman who pointedly refused to let anyone, especially a man, meddle with her reign.” There were green lazers slicing through the pogo-ing crowd, and it was a spectacular.
“Laughing and Not Being Normal” (played over the PA)
“Symphonia IX (My Wait Is U)”
“Be a Body”
“Kill V Maim”