(Re)Turn: Grimes, Resistance, and the High Holidays

I haven’t read too much about Claire Boucher, the woman behind Grimes. I’m a little worried that excessive knowledge will render her too tangible, as though she might take over my understanding of her as a cryptid and/or my queer twin sister and replace it with something much more mundane and potentially disappointing.

I have, however, read that she learned how to write songs after listening–just once–to Panda Bear’s album Person Pitch, which came out when Claire and I were in our senior year of high school.

(I’m assuming that last bit, because we’re nearly the same age. But doesn’t it sound like we knew each other, when I put it like that?)

And indeed, there’s lots to compare between Panda Bear and Grimes. Both operate in the realm of gregorian chants crossed with pop and electronica, a plane of existence as much influenced by Enya as by Queen. For Boucher, Person Pitch deconstructed songwriting.

For me, Grimes deconstructed resistance.

FLL #2 (6)

John Durgee for Fuse

I have this innate, unshakable conviction that the Grimes song “Flesh Without Blood” from the album Art Angels is about her relationship with a woman. I can’t even remember if I read that somewhere, perhaps in an interview, but it doesn’t really matter. The first time I heard it, at the beginning of what would become a string of months where I listened to nothing but Grimes, it hooked right into the emotional center of my brain and the twilight space of my psyche.

The words “flesh without blood” imply an unsustainable yet visceral materiality, and the song is, in fact, about the deterioration of the narrator’s relationship with someone whose insatiable hunger for power is becoming unbearable to live with. Narratives about women in mutually fulfilling relationships with other women are important and incredibly needed today, but those kinds of narratives never quite take hold of me, perhaps because I’m fortunate enough to already be in a loving relationship. Those kinds of narratives don’t reach out and spin me around and force me to look at the shadow my body makes in the full face of the sun.

“For me, Grimes deconstructed resistance.”

I have a long-documented history of cathecting onto queer-coded antagonists in literature and media. They’re the characters who unapologetically take up space, who talk–and, frequently, fight–back. They’re allowed to resist the status quo. The fictional dynamics I become invested in are also most often defined by a certain level of antagonism–rivals, enemies. I was, and remain, as drawn to conflict in fictional relationships as I avoid it in my personal life.

In reality, I am almost hilariously conflict-averse. As a schoolchild, I developed a self-protective technique where I would carefully spin a given conversation towards my companions’ interests so that I could tailor my opinions to theirs. I haven’t managed to fully give that up, even though it’s not serving me well in my adult life. I find even minor disagreement extremely uncomfortable, and the discomfort shifts into distress whenever it becomes clear that my conversational partner’s beliefs and values stand in direct opposition to my own.

As a white person, I’ve prioritized my own comfort for far too long, often coming up with excuses to end the conversation or answering noncommittally instead of engaging productively with, say, a fellow white person who believes the lies of white supremacy. I understand that being complacent and removed in these kinds of situations only reinforces institutionalized racism, and that I’ve been avoiding my own responsibility to do this work.

In the mystical Jewish system known as Kabbalah, the word tzimtzum refers to the seemingly paradoxical way in which God contracted His infinite light in order to create the space necessary to birth the universe.

My whole life has felt like a folding-in–without the subsequent and necessary flowering of creation.

Now that we are in the Days of Awe, the expanse of time between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, it’s time to think about what resistance means to me.

The Jewish month of Elul, which precedes Rosh HaShanah, the New Year, is the month of ma’aseh–the month of deeds, or the month of story. The slippage between the meanings is instructive. What you do is just as significant as the narratives unspooling from your mouth; from your fingertips against the keys. A key concept that emerges during this particular month is Teshuvah–(re)turn, repentance. This turning signifies a form of creativity as we rework the narratives that have taken hold about us in the world.

Throughout this time, the shofar–a ram’s horn, twisted like a snake–is blown, producing a sound akin to both wailing and laughter. We cling to this doubleness, this paradox, the slip-slide of boundaries unfolding, and we understand that this is the human condition.

The weeks that span Elul through the Days of Awe is a time to figure out, as Rebekah Erev says in their Malakh Halevenah/Moon Angels Oracle Deck guidebook, “What do you want? Not what wants you.”


from Rebekah Erev’s Moon Angels Oracle Deck

And oh, but the things that want us in this capitalist, white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal world. I can no longer be the complacent girl I’ve spent my whole life obsessively being once I’ve realized that the things that want us, really just want us dead. As Grimes sings in “Kill V. Maim,” “B-E-H-A-V-E / Never more / You gave up being good when you declared a state of war.”

Erev was ordained as a priestess by the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, a program under the auspices of which I’m currently training. The teachers at the Institute, which focuses on embodied, earth-based feminist Judaism, prefer to conceptualize priestessing as a verb, so as to keep it from stagnating. My roots as an emerging Kohenet thus require watering through a kind of becoming.

As part of their Institute graduation requirements, Erev created the aforementioned oracle deck, which I use in my daily devotional practice. I can’t help but see generative parallels unfurling like constellations between the deck’s titular Moon Angels and Grimes’ album Art Angels. As noted in the deck’s guidebook, “In Judaism angels are feelings. Feelings are seen as helpers, as guides along a path.” Angels, for Grimes, would seem to be more ambivalent–the dreamy chamber pop is often overlaid with lyrics that drift into darkness. In “Belly of the Beat,” for instance, Grimes sings about suicidal ideation and plumbing the depths of music for a world bereft of heaviness. And yet, Erev doesn’t specify positive feelings in their definition of angels, indeed, one of the cards is entitled “Wave of Mutilation,” after the Pixies song. Angels, for both Grimes and Erev, seem to function as the connective tissue between the worlds, the ultimate impetus for movement and change.

While it would perhaps make sense for me to understand the sense of stagnation that has developed, like groundwater, around me over the course of my life, remaining even through my accomplishments, as a type of resistance, that would imply my having taken any sort of stand or position against movement. In fact, the almost overpowering feeling–angel?–of stasis that I experience is a direct result of not having made a choice, and thus letting the choice be made for me. This can, of course, lead to an insidious denial of my having any responsibility in the matter, which is why I believe it’s taken so long to come to terms with the problem. It’s choosing the path of least resistance.

I believe that this is another manifestation of my conflict-averse tendencies. Whenever I feel the smallest inkling of resistance moving against me, I back off. I develop a self-care practice that’s really an excuse for me to stay home and do nothing. I cultivate a seemingly irrational hatred of turning out of driveways when other cars are behind me, because I don’t want to inconvenience them by waiting until it is safe to go. I treat myself like the most delicate glass, which is of course what I’ve become, having rarely allowed myself to be tested against any sort of vibrant challenge.

I couldn’t bring myself to conceptualize that in order to move, you first have to resist, to work against inertia.

“I treat myself like the most delicate glass, which is of course what I’ve become.”

I first felt things start to shift back in March, the earth still cold and hard under the wheels of my car as I drove back from a Kohenet training week, yelling along with Grimes’ otherworldly howls in “Scream (ft. Aristophanes)”. Something had cracked within me that week, and Grimes was widening the gap.

Half a year later, a solar eclipse heralded the month of Elul, and the Jewish community was consumed by debate–though, when are we not–over whether to bless this celestial event. Historically, eclipses have been considered bad omens, and the Talmud even blames them upon homosexuality. While many Jews chose not to engage with the eclipse for these reasons, I decided to reframe the Rabbinical negativity towards LGBT people by writing an eclipse prayer elevating us as a community, with a particular focus on those who are most marginalized–queer and trans women of color. I read the prayer aloud in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, as I watched the eclipse cast a multiplicity of shadows on my notebook through the leaves of nearby trees. A few days later, I attended a planning meeting in support of Hate Free Zones at Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, to support my prayer through active work in the world.

The Hebrew root for ‘to be willing’ is similar in its combination of letters to the word Elul.

Resistance is fundamentally dependent on willingness.

Grimes has operated for me as a modern-day mystic, the cyclical drone of her music like feverish prayer. “I got a big dream, small world in between / Me and everything I can’t do,” is the opening line of “World Princess, Pt. II,” which features a few measures of counterpoint that sound straight out of a Nintendo 64 soundtrack. Her voice, wrenched somewhere between girlhood and agelessness, sings her confessional poetics in the operatic trill of a woodland sprite who got saved by punk rock.

“I have no idea what she’s saying,” said my dad in wonderment when I played Art Angels over my tinny iPhone speaker as we drove over the Oregon/California border a couple months back, full moon rising over Mt. Shasta in the distance. “I know,” I replied, “isn’t it perfect?”

In this way, Grimes reminds me of the Zohar, the thirteenth century work of Jewish mysticism that has been called the jewel in the crown of Kabbalah. Famously impenetrable to all but the initiated, the Zohar nevertheless revels in the ocean of its poetic vision. Similarly, it’s easy to be drawn into Grimes’ mesmerizing musical phrases, following the feelings/angels through, and only later going online to lose yourself in the lyrics, in an entirely different sort of meditation.

Resistance through mysticism.

But, what of those shadows, that residue of conflict I fall into so easily with Grimes? Isn’t that an unhealthy way to frame resistance?

Perhaps. And I might not suggest it as an ultimate pathway to transformative liberation. But the movement in those songs, that pure kinetic energy–it uncages my sense of self and gifts me with potential.

The shofar that is Boucher’s voice strikes me apart, and I am ready for my unfolding. •


Featured image © Rankin

Ryn is a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Studies at Stony Brook University, where her dissertation explores the speculative potential of detection. She’s working on a science fiction/fantasy/detective novel about antagonists in love, and lives in Brooklyn with her wife and one very fat, very old cat. She spends too much time on twitter

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