Welcome to Weird Era, the first in a series of monthly special editions of my What's Good newsletter. This series will reflect on my 20+ years as the founder and editor-in-chief of Pitchfork and the music it covered during those years, in anticipation of my forthcoming memoir of the same name. The Weird Era newsletter series will become a paid subscription in the coming weeks.
The timeline is a little fuzzy. What matters is that “Oblivion,” the irresistible indie anthem that turned Montreal crust-punk Claire Boucher into the pop phenom we now know as Grimes, is at least 10 years old this month. Depending on the staunchness of your adherence to precise dates and other technical guidelines, this piece is either six months late or (mostly) right on time. But now’s as good a time as any to revisit, because for some of us, “Oblivion” represents one of the last, great, grand-slam moments in a certain era of indie music history.
Grimes first blipped onto my radar in the summer of 2010 via Altered Zones, the short-lived music blog collective I’d just assembled and launched that summer. The site pulled together 15 music bloggers to each write a post per week, then added further substance with features by the site’s editors and contributors, guest posts from artists, and its own version of Pitchfork’s “Best New Music,” a curious little section we called “Zoned In.”
By this time, I had lived in Brooklyn for three or four years (having relocated from Chicago) and the DIY culture of the borough’s music and arts scene had swallowed me whole; in the parlance of the time, everything was vibey, wavey, or in some kind of a zone. I had wanted to call the site Altered States, after the insane Ken Russell movie, but was talked down by trademark attorneys who insisted the mark was already claimed. But that should have been the name. Or we could have just gone with the simpler Zones, after the Oneohtrix Point Never compu-jam Zones Without People; that would have cut straight to the point. Instead, I ended up with a bastard hybrid of these ideas and a pretty fucking stupid name for a website.
Anyway, Altered Zones was born of a strange compulsion to do something “pure,” a left-of-center publication that only endorsed, never criticized, and was anti-corporate, anti-sponsorship, and anti-commercial. In short, it was deadset against any engine that could power a business of its kind, and that’s why it was dead within 18 months, if not upon its very arrival. As a creative pursuit, however, it was incredibly rewarding.
The blogs of Altered Zones were all theoretically chosen to represent a cross-section of subgenres but, to distinguish the young site from its looming parent company, the ethos became to specialize in the substrata beneath the underground already covered by Pitchfork. This turned out to lean heavily on homemade DIY projects by deeply obscure conceptual artists, bedroom weirdos, and overnight producers experimenting with cracked software and broken electronics.
I mention this because that was my introduction to Grimes: She appeared in the first-ever series of posts on Altered Zones, in July 2010, in a three-part feature on the collective’s favorite music of the year to date. In a section covering the year’s best cassettes, contributor Chris Cantalini of Gorilla Vs. Bear selected Grimes’ debut (and Dune-themed concept album), Geidi Primes, citing its “half-realized melodies [that] drift in and out from a distantly twinkling ether.” He was right; the melodies really did feel unfinished, but the tape’s spooky/pretty electropop inverted the sun-drenched synths of chillwave and, with heavy gothic overtones, anticipated certain elements of the fast-approaching witch house movement. Grimes would be ceaselessly championed on Altered Zones throughout the next 12 months, despite not having made anything resembling a completed song.
When we assembled the lineup for Altered Zones’ first major party, to take place during SXSW in March 2011, we enlisted Grimes as opener. Although the event was a day party, we sought a blacked-out venue and hired local video artists to create massive floor-to-ceiling visuals, including rear-overhead projections from the balcony onto the crowd that draped attendees in TV static and flashing patterns. Grimes took the stage around noon, standing behind her Juno-G synth and tending to a portable Roland sampler and a pair of Boss effects pedals. Running through a short set of Geidi Primes and Halfaxa faves, she was unassuming in a weathered jean jacket, hoodie, and green lace camisole with chopped a-line bangs and a rats’ nest ponytail. It was possibly the last time her natural hair color would be seen in the wild.
Darkbloom, her split EP with then-equally-obscure R&B singer D’Eon, showed off a more refined ethereal-gothic sound that seemed to be in stylistic conversation with some other AZ favorites (Gang Gang Dance, Sleep ∞ Over, Maria Minerva), but crucially elevated the songwriting above that of other artists experimenting with Wingdings song titles. In particular, “Vanessa”— still among Grimes’ most satisfying songs— was a caffeinated jolt of densely layered pop melodies. In its music video, released less than a month after that SXSW set, her style had already turned more severe: the hard-cropped bangs had become a crisp, black-dyed bob, and her skin, treated with acrylic paint, appeared ghostly-pale. From then on, she would treat her image as a canvas, shifting her look with each public appearance.
By autumn 2011, she’d risen from the bottom of the bill to the top, performing the penultimate set at Altered Zones’ next high-profile party, a takeover of NYC’s New Museum held during the annual CMJ music conference. The lineup and set times were finalized October 10; then, five days before the show, “Oblivion” leaked online.
The song’s now-iconic opening synth-bass riff, recorded in Garageband and performed on a Roland Gaia keyboard you could nab at any Guitar Center in the country for $500 (which I did— hmu if you’re interested in buying lol), was instantly infectious. Where her previous lyrics were amorphous, there was a new kind of weight to the subject matter here, exploring the post-traumatic reverberations of physical assault. The opening lines (“I never walk about after dark/ It’s my point of view/ ‘Cause someone could break your neck/ Coming up behind you, always coming and you’d never have a clue”) marked a clear departure from the glitter-light faerie dust that comprised her other tracks. As a refrain, “see you on a dark night” turned her vaguely eerie sonic trademark into a truly haunted sentiment that could be read as either a chilling recollection or revenge fantasy. It instantly secured “Best New Track” status.
Not everyone was convinced. While her set at the New Museum that night showed astonishing progress— from her evolved visual aesthetic to the performance itself— the museum’s Sky Room, a glass box overlooking the Lower East Side, was hardly the most acoustically viable space in the city. The next day, Jon Caramanica wrote of her set in The New York Times, “Eventually the music kicks in, swooning and idiosyncratic electro, but so do her vocals, which at times approximate cat meows.”
Pitchfork, however, was becoming transfixed. That year, “Vanessa” scraped onto the year-end tracks list; “Oblivion” did, too, narrowly, until an executive decision was made to hold that song for the following year, as news came that her next album, Visions, was being delayed for co-release between Arbutus, the Canadian label for which she recorded, and 4AD. (It was unclear at the time whether the final version of the song might change.) It was the right call: 2012 would be Grimes’ breakout year, and “Oblivion” would travel much further in the coming months, eventually landing our song of the year.
Some of the song’s appeal stemmed from its joy-inducing music video, which playfully inverted the format’s sordid history of objectifying the female form by turning the lens on hulking, beefcake athletes, all while claiming one of the most traditionally macho spaces in the Western world— the sports arena— as a stage for Grimes’ talents. And, as her star rose throughout the year, the video quickly became her most recognized work, effectively turning that stadium motocross rally into the most prominent platform of her early career.
“The sports world is so different from what we normally engage with,” she told Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal that month. “So it was like this voyeuristic look into a really violent community. Art gives me an outlet where I can be aggressive in a world where I usually can’t be, and part of it was asserting this abstract female power in these male-dominated arenas.”
Two years on, Pitchfork would go further, citing “Oblivion” as the best song of the decade’s first half. Even after my departure from editorial at the decade’s end, the song endured as the site’s second favorite song of the ‘10s, just behind Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” I’m not sure I’d have gone quite that far; in a decade of star turns for Frank Ocean, SOPHIE, Solange, FKA Twigs, Beyoncé, and Kanye West— from G.O.O.D. Fridays straight through to Pablo— “Oblivion” certainly had fierce competition.
Boucher may not have included it at all. She disavowed “Oblivion” in a 2015 interview with Entertainment Weekly while knocking another of her recent singles at the time: “I don’t like ‘Realiti,’ but everybody else does. I may put it on [Art Angels] by popular demand, I don’t know… I hate ‘Oblivion,’ too. All the songs that are singles are all songs people have to force me to do.”
In any case, it’s hard to imagine my own “best of the ‘10s” list without a respectable showing from the song. It was, and remains, a decade-defining track and one of the most enduring indie anthems from that era. As Laura Snapes observed in her write-up of Pitchfork’s final assessment: “‘Oblivion’ galvanized Boucher’s pain into a complex anthem of vulnerability and nihilism that defiantly eludes a clear reading— a reminder to never stop searching for nuance as you look ahead.”
If you enjoyed this piece, please consider subscribing to the newsletter.