It takes two hours and forty-five minutes to get from Los Angeles to San Diego by train, and a little longer than that if there is a mechanical delay, which on this day there was. Claire Boucher, curled up in a window seat on the train’s non-ocean-view side, didn’t seem to mind, or even notice. It was July, 2014, and, because she hates flying and doesn’t relish driving, she was heading, slowly, to Comic-Con, which attracts huge numbers of geeks, many of whom bring along their alter egos. Boucher’s alter ego is Grimes, the name under which, since 2009, she has been producing and singing home-brewed electronic music that is irreducibly weird but insistently pop, a term that describes both its sound and, increasingly, its reception. She fills tents at festivals, and this summer she toured with Lana Del Rey; her music videos have amassed tens of millions of views on YouTube. That weekend, CraveOnline, a media company aimed at young men, had hired Boucher—or, rather, Grimes—to be the celebrity d.j. at a party aboard the U.S.S. Midway, a decommissioned aircraft carrier moored in San Diego Bay.
“Should my d.j. set be more chill?” Boucher wondered, not for the first time. (“Chill,” one of her favorite adjectives, can mean “mellow” or “good” or, most often, both.) “Or more dance?” She was thinking about songs, as she almost always is.
The intensity of Boucher’s musical obsessions can make her seem like a mad pop scientist. On her bustling Tumblr page, she keeps track of her research into a cultural universe that seems, like its physical counterpart, to be expanding at an increasing rate. Her followers might encounter a snippet from the Japanese soundtrack composer Yoko Kanno, or a fan-made video set to the music of the electronic producer Aphex Twin, or a recent Selena Gomez single—which, Boucher has discovered, sounds particularly arresting in a car equipped with subwoofers. In her own songs, Boucher takes delight in rewriting the old music-industry story of the female performer in the spotlight and the male mastermind behind the curtain. “It’s like I’m Phil Spector, and then there’s Grimes, which is the girl group,” she says. She got her start in Montreal, part of an underground experimental-music scene, but now she herself is the experiment, as she tries to figure out what “pop star” means in 2015, and whether she might become one.
For the moment, many of Boucher’s fans come from the world of indie rock, which has championed her as a new kind of pop auteur. One of her signature songs is “Oblivion,” an upbeat but ominous dance track; Boucher doesn’t sing it so much as haunt it. “Oblivion” never appeared on any Billboard chart, but last year Pitchfork, the definitive indie publication, called it the best song of the decade so far, which was a complicated sort of compliment. “Oblivion” was a great choice to top the Pitchfork list precisely because it was not an obvious choice.