Here’s a brief lesson in how context works. Today, Grimes released the music video for a new song called “We Appreciate Power,” her first solo song recorded in a few years. According to a press release, “We Appreciate Power” is “written from the perspective of a Pro-A.I. Girl Group Propaganda machine who use song, dance, sex, and fashion to spread goodwill towards Artificial Intelligence (it’s coming whether you want it or not). Simply by listening to this song, the future General AI overlords will see that you’ve supported their message and be less likely to delete your offspring.” In the video, Grimes and the synth-pop musician HANA (who appears on the song), styled as fake robot girl group members, are draped in moody lighting as they vamp against a cyberpunk backdrop, the song’s grainy lyrics flashing against the screen.
“We Appreciate Power” is also the first song Grimes (real name Claire Boucher) has released since her relationship with mega-billionaire inventor Elon Musk went public in May. Musk has been a confounding fixture in the 2018 news cycle: baselessly referring to a British diver as a pedophile, being forced by the SEC to step down as chairman of his car company Tesla for a bad tweet, appearing on Joe Rogan’s podcast to smoke weed, among many more inexplicable things. Boucher, too, has been steadily implicated in Musk’s dealings, receiving criticism for defending him against charges of anti-unionization and getting roped into a hellish, frankly fictional-sounding ordeal involving the rapper Azealia Banks, who shared a bunch of rude gossip about their relationship.
“We Appreciate Power” is a hypnotic song, built around chanted vocals and distorted instrumentation — it leans into Boucher’s previously explored preoccupations with industrial sound, plastic emotions, and anime-inspired aesthetics, even if “artificial intelligence is a sexy but existential threat” was played out as a mainstream concept by the time of The Matrix. Though you could take lyrics like “Pledge allegiance to the world's most powerful computer / Simulation: it's the future” at face value, it would be far more charitable to hear “We Appreciate Power” as part of a Disney-style animated musical about artificial intelligence. Think of it as something like The Lion King’s“Be Prepared,” sung by the antagonist of this Disney-style movie I’ve just made up, even if the novelty wears off after a few listens. But here’s something I couldn’t stop thinking about when I listened to it: It’s weird that Grimes made a song about artificial intelligence when she’s dating Elon Musk.
Is this somewhat unfair? Yes, of course. Grimes is Grimes, not her boyfriend. Grimes writes and produces all her music, but it’s hard for me to ignore Musk’s presence in her life considering his well-documented preoccupation with artificial intelligence. (He’s no evangelist, which he’s said presents a greater threat than nuclear weapons.) Of course my brain imagines the embarrassing conversations they’ve probably had about A.I., among subjects like Burning Man and, I don’t know, hentai. It would be insulting to credit a rich man for any part of a female artist’s work without providing receipts, but infantilizing to insist that a consensual relationship doesn’t mutually affect the involved figures, especially when they’re as institutionally powerful as Musk or as artistically talented as Boucher. (It’s worth noting that Musk has certainly been feeling himself more in the public eye since he started dating Boucher, though the consequences for tweeting on drugs are different when you’re the head of a global corporation, and not an artist.) And though celebrity and financial success are sometimes a byproduct of artistic ability, it’s weird to consider a new song by a beloved Pitchfork artist and think, “There’s an anti-labor, anti-press tech baron worth $23 billion mixed up in this, somehow.”
If you sift through the YouTube comments, you’ll see this is not really a concern for many of her listeners. Why should it be? “We Appreciate Power” is sort of a banger, assuming you don’t think about it at all. There’s context to impede enjoyment of anything — you might have listened to the song on Spotify, which steals money from artists — and sometimes you just have to throw your hands up and live a little. It’s fun to be a fan! In May, I argued it was unfair to attempt to hold Boucher accountable for Musk’s bullshit, which I still think is true; people can be allowed to love who they want, even if that person seems like a weasel.
But come on. Seven years ago, when Grimes blew up, she was an underground artist playing DIY shows; now she’s appearing at the Met Gala with an unhinged billionaire. After she started dating Musk, she removed “anti-imperialist” from her Twitter bio. The stakes of rooting for her have changed somewhat; that maybe sounds glib or uncharitable, but Musk is that outsized of a figure in the current culture. It’s sort of like how Megyn Kelly’s husband is a semi-successful novelist, whose artistry is obviously muted by the fact that he’s subsidized by Megyn Kelly. It would be easier to take the title in good humor if it didn’t appear to be what Boucher literally believes, at least for the time being.