California by Grimes
My little brother is a producer, musician, and multi-instrumentalist, and I’m emphatically none of those things. That’s why he’s much quicker to catch onto good music than I am. I have good taste sometimes, but other times I just wanna turn my brain off and enjoy something objectively indefensible. I’ve listened to Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You” a lot, if that gives you a frame of reference here.
So when my brother urged me to listen to the 2015 Grimes album Art Angels upon its release, I passed because I was not in the mood to be challenged that day. “Grimes” is a vaguely upsetting name, the album art for Art Angels was creepy, and the opening track, “laughing and not being normal,” had irregular capitalization that offended me. There is so much music to listen to and so little time, and I was willing to filter out anything that signaled to me that it would be grating and unenjoyable.
2016 was a very bad year for me, which I know is not a novel thing to say because it’s universally accepted as terrible for the world in general. But I started that year with carpal tunnel syndrome at a job that was giving me daily anxiety attacks. My boss would sometimes yell at me until I cried over miscommunications that were his fault. I moved in with my mom to save money so I could quit that job and see if my hands healed; they did not but at least I was unemployed and living at home, so now my anxiety and depression could really blossom. I scheduled two surgeries for my wrists and elbows. I applied to grad school, I auditioned for grad school, I got into grad school, I toured the grad school and realized it wasn’t for me. So then I had no plan for my life. I was in a relationship that had recently become long-distance and we’d recently accepted that it would soon be a non-relationship.
This big picture was bad, but the day-to-day was somehow worse. My days were divided into two parts: hiding in my room and pacing around the house. Talking to another person was hard, so I’d retreat to my bed once my mom got home from work and binge TV until I fell asleep. During the day, when I had the house to myself, I’d pace. My carpal tunnel meant I couldn’t use my phone or computer too much and my life circumstances meant that my brain was a garbage can full of rotting emotions, so I just walked around the house, lap after lap, the world’s most dismal Indy 500. I’d listen to podcasts for as long as they could hold my attention, flip through magazines, and devour my Spotify Discover Weekly playlists to see if some new track would provide a distraction from everything. One Grimes song did.
It was the chipper, pitch-shifted “Ca-a-a-a-a-alifornia!” that grabbed me first. It was catchy verging on ridiculous, even annoying, but saved from cloying sweetness by that propulsive, four-to-the-floor drumbeat. Later I listened to it again, more closely, and found more to like: the sunny banjo, how pretty Claire Boucher’s cooing vocals were, the buzzing synth that builds energy every time it comes in.
And that’s when I fell in love with Grimes — just kidding! I still didn’t get her whole thing. I tried again to listen to Art Angels, but the song after “California” on the album is “SCREAM,” a showcase for Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes with Grimes providing feral animal sounds and shrieking in the background. I again wrote it off as not for me, but I saved “California” to my liked songs.
A few months later, things were better, if not great. I’d had one surgery and started to recover from it. More enjoyably, I’d taken on a good project, directing a show. The size of the task gave me something to focus on, filling my schedule with production meetings and my hours with tasks like blocking. Things were going well. And then I woke up one morning and knew before I’d gotten out of bed that my brain had broken.
I’d had depressive episodes before, but this was by far the worst, and the longest-lasting. There are a lot of descriptions of depression that you’ll hear — it’s like a fog or a cloud, it’s like a stone pressing down on you — and they’re all fine, I guess. Mostly depression, to me, is the conviction that you’ll never feel better, that things have always been this bad and always will. It’s helplessness and resignation to that helplessness. Sometimes that resignation feels like defeat, an exhausted urge to go to sleep for weeks, and sometimes it feels like a screaming inside your chest trying to burst through your skin so the world will know how desperate you are. Sometimes the scream turns into a force that threatens to hurl your body forward onto the train tracks or out the window. But you have to keep it together, so you resign yourself to holding onto it very tightly.
Now my show was an insurmountable obstacle to cope with instead of an exciting challenge. One night an actor asked me if I was okay, noticing the anxiety that I couldn’t conceal. Another night, I hid in a dressing room to stop myself from crying uncontrollably at the thought of having to rearrange some chairs for a rehearsal space. I started sleeping all day until I needed to leave for rehearsals or performances and began crying as soon as I got in the car to drive home.
The show ended, the depression continued, and I drove to visit my boyfriend to see if a change of scenery helped. It didn’t, really. Everything we watched caused too much emotional distress for me and triggered sobbing. I experienced wild dysphoria for the first time — I couldn’t look in mirrors because my face looked all wrong, like someone else’s face. My phone’s storage was full so I tried to delete old pictures, but when I opened my selfies folder I got so weirded out by the sight of myself that I got nauseous.
There was one thing that brought me happiness in this time, and it’s “California.”
Grimes is a production genius. The layers of sounds immerse you in the song completely, and that’s what I liked about it — it felt like it was taking over my brain, and God knows something needed to. Listen to just the first five seconds of the song: the stomping drum, tied to the banjo chords, pans from your right side to your left; the lovely vocals with a hint of an echo provide a strange sense of place; a half-second of a whispered sample appears, then is clipped before you can even process it. In the next five seconds, you get a chopped sample of splashing water and handclaps to accentuate that beat. I would listen to the song for years without realizing that the beat was sampled from Rihanna’s “Pon de Replay,” of all things. Grimes, ever the pop music omnivore, transformed a traditional dancehall rhythm so fully that it makes sense under a damn banjo. That’s the genius of Art Angels, I would realize eventually. The joyful conventions of pop music are blended with disparate elements in a surprising way that works and feels totally original, Top 40 music created by an alien. Those watery noises, for instance, are perfect: both text painting (it’s about California, duh, where she predicts she’ll drown when the ocean levels rise) and pleasing ASMR.
The song was written as a retaliation against blogs like Pitchfork that assigned value to her work based on the personal trauma it depicted. The song “Oblivion” from her 2012 album Visions, for instance, received rave reviews all mentioning that it depicts psychological damage after an assault. She felt that this narrative overshadowed her most significant accomplishment, the multi-layered soundscapes that she created without any contributors as one of the few female producers in the scene. And so “California” mocked the idea that her music only had worth if it came from suffering. “This music makes me cry,” she taunts in the opening lyrics. “It sounds just like my soul.” She rejects the notion that her music was made by getting “carried away / commodifying all the pain.” But the ultimate clapback is the composition: it’s the happiest possible song, a dazzling burst of California sunshine daring anyone to dismiss it.
The lyrics meant nothing to me at the time, because it was the sound I needed. The melody is catchy in the way a child’s rhyme is, that “You only like me when you think I’m lookin’ sad!” burying into the part of my subconscious that loved “Old McDonald” as a toddler. But the production, of course, is sophisticated, a whirling blend of samples and sounds. They sweep the song forward like the waves that Grimes anticipates drowning in, and they swept me away when nothing else could move me from my boyfriend’s couch.
I went back to my mom’s house eventually. One day, I woke up and started to walk downstairs and before I even made it halfway down I realized that something was different, and that something was that I was a normal person again. The depressive episode had gone away as suddenly as it had arrived. Things got better in general after that. I had my final surgery, I dyed my hair platinum blonde, and I moved to New York City.
I’m a Grimes fan now, as are most people who bleach their hair and live in Brooklyn. Her episode of Song Exploder appeared in my podcast feed that summer and helped me understand her work, and I was finally able to listen to Art Angels with an open mind. I still return to it when I want an upbeat pop album that’s also incredibly weird. If I’m in a good mood, “California” remains a joyful bop. But sometimes I put it on and get caught off-guard with a visceral flashback to the time when I was a human-shaped bruise begging not to be poked. I hear the bitterness in the lyrics in a way I didn’t then and wonder if my brain latched onto it so completely because of the darkness hiding in plain sight. (This music does make me cry. It does sound just like my soul!) But I’m always able to surrender to the song, to the tingle of whispers and the angelic layered vocals and that joyful melody.
2020 is bad again, a version of 2016 that manages to be even worse. I’m unemployed again, and pacing around my home a lot again. But I have more tools now. I’m on antidepressants and in therapy (well, tele-therapy now). And I can still turn to “California” when I need a shot of dopamine on a dark day. I don’t only like it when I’m lookin’ sad, but when I am, it helps.