I’m Only a Man: Genre and Gender in Grimes’ “Kill V. Maim”
The music video for Grimes’ “Kill V. Maim” opens, in silence, with a wide shot of the musician herself riding in a hot pink CGI animated car along with several backup dancers. As the camera zooms in on her face, and a vintage-style film clutter counts down to one, she stares defiantly at the viewer. Then the video jumps to the text of the song title, stylized and animated in an obvious pastiche of the title card of the iconic procedural “Law and Order.” At that moment, the music begins.
Claire Boucher, better known by her stage name Grimes, co-directed the the video herself along with her brother. And with only these two shots and ten seconds, Boucher is able to expertly set up not only the tone of the piece, but also the motifs and thematic allusions that contribute to the messages she spends the rest of the video examining. Through her use of visuals and allusions to other popular media, as well as the lyrics to the song itself, Boucher has created a four minute and thirty seven second piece of art that entertains while also providing commentary about the concepts of gender, technology, and personal identity.
When the video for “Kill V. Maim” was released, most of the original reviews and commentary instantly categorized it as ‘cyberpunk.” Rolling Stone described the video as being set in “the Neo Tokyo cityscapes of Akira, from a grubby subway station to slick, neon-lit highways” and discuss how “[Grimes] wreaks havoc with a pack of vampiric cyberpunks,” while Pitchfork summarized the video as “a cyberpunk fantasy taking place inside a sci fi world.” Generally, cyberpunk as a literary term describes a sub-genre of science fiction heavily focused on computers, technology, and the internet. Generally set on the planet Earth in the near-future, cyberpunk fiction imagines a world dominated by corrupt technological overlords and stars individuals who are striking back against the literal machine, co-opting punk aesthetics of the early 1980s while doing so.
Based on these prerequisites, “Kill V. Maim” seems an obvious example of the genre in terms of atmosphere, but its alignment with cyberpunk philosophies is less cut-and-dried. One criticism of the genre, especially of early cyberpunk, is that its works are actually far less revolutionary than their authors may believe. Early cyberpunk was filled with male protagonists upholding individualist ideals and relegating female characters to mothers and love interests. Moreover, these male protagonists fail to actually achieve their intended roles as anti-establishment heroes. Nicola Nixon writes in a 1992 essay entitled Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?:
“Computers are so intrinsically a part of the corporate system that no one working within them (…) could successfully pose as part of a counterculture, even if they were sporting mohawks and mirrorshades.” (13–14)
Of course, that was written in 1992 about books written in the early to mid 1980s. Since then, computers and the Internet have become infinitely more democratized and access has spread globally, to the degree where roughly 60% of the world’s population now have access to the Internet. Still, it would be a gross exaggeration to call Nixon’s criticisms totally defunct. Class conflicts are still very prevalent, and the wealth disparity between the richest and the poorest humans has only grown since 1992. In “Kill V. Maim,” the grittiness of the abandoned subway backdrop exists in glaring tension with the glossy couture of Grimes’ red leather cape and impeccably styled two-tone ringlets.
Moreover, while cyberpunk is theoretically about civilians fighting back against a cybernetic dystopian government, there’s no real evidence of such a battle in the music video. There are cars and cityscapes, exquisitely dressed troupes of dancers in a subway, and eventually a blood-soaked rave scene, but no indications of any grandiose battles against any overlords. Rhetorically, the video doesn’t seem to be making any sweeping political statements–it’s concerning itself with smaller-scale theatrics. As Boucher croons at the end of the chorus, the main question of the song is a personal one:
“Are you going to the party? Are you going to the show?”
Of course, that’s not to say that Boucher is shying away from any serious topics in either the song lyrics or the video. While Grimes has been increasingly styled in the media as a “pop goddess,” this is emphatically not a vapid party anthem (not that there’s anything wrong with vapid party anthems!) In an interview with Q Magazine, Boucher said that “Kill V. Maim is written from the perspective of Al Pacino in The Godfather Pt 2., except he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space.” (Stereogum 2016) It’s a rather idiosyncratic topic for a pop song, but however abstract the theory, it still adds context to the otherwise cryptic lyrics of the song.
Some turns of phrase immediately make more sense, such as:
Looking so precious”
“You gave up being good when you declared a state of war”
Some other lyrics, however, still need further unpacking, as do the visual analogues in the video to vampiric time-traveling crime-boss activity. Visually, the “Kill V. Maim” music video may be more Tokyo-esque than Italian-American, but there are still some clear rhetorical ties to the vaguer concepts of violence and organized crime, if not to the Corleone family drama specifically. The first chronologically and most obvious of these allusions is the use of the “Law and Order” brand to open the film. She’s using the ubiquity of the logo to conjure up . Law and Order are both concepts associated with morality and discipline; killing and maiming are obviously both violent crimes. This contrast sets up the theme of the video to be an inversion of the general storytelling tropes; Boucher has cast herself as the villain in her own story–or at the very least, an anti-hero.
Another, subtler visual cue used to indicate moral transgressions in the video is Grimes’ black and white striped leotard, pictured above. The black and white stripes may have been selected as a nod to the classic black and white horizontally striped prison uniforms; the fact that she’s wearing vertical stripes rather than horizontal means it’s a rather tenuous connection, but still one worth pointing out. This shot is also interesting for other reasons: the camera shoots from below the line of sight for the scene as Grimes’ postures aggressively in front of her clique of cyberpunk extras. Shooting this scene from below instead of from straight on like the rest of the music video positions Grimes in a dominant role, a fitting choice as she sings,
“I don’t behave, I don’t behave,”
“Cause I’m only a man, do what I can”
The latter turn of phrase brings to mind Boucher’s declaration that “Kill V. Maim” is not simply about a mob boss, but a genderfluid one. The notion that Grimes is “only” a man brings up an interesting point about gender reducing and limiting the self. Grimes is presented exclusively in feminine ways throughout this video, which does make for some slightly odd dissonances, but it could also be a point about how contrived and performative gender roles can be. She uses the rhetoric of cultural stereotypes about traditional gender roles to support her points about transgression and identity.
The obvious transgressive behavior is of course the obvious: murder, ignoring the law, etc. These transgressions against society aren’t especially inherently gendered; women committing crimes is not a feminist act. But positing these clear transgressions as part of the identity of the character of the song reinforces the points about transgressing gender roles; it could be considered that the “switching” of gender is a crucial component of the commentary. The criminal activity transgresses against universal rules of humanity, which when man is considered as “default” are essentially the only gender barriers that apply. Doing anything at all, on the other hand, could be a considered a transgression against the boundaries of acceptable behavior as a woman.
The two quotes above make up the main body of the chorus, but the pre-chorus is dense with this sort of commentary as well.
Looking so precious
You gave up being good when you declared a state of war
“Italiana mobster” is an obvious statement of identity; “looking so precious” is intentionally incongruous as a description of a “mobster”, but typical for a young woman. The spelling out of “behave” is performed like a cheerleading chant, rhythmic and energetic, and a clear relation to cheerleading, which is sometimes considered one of the embodiments of ideal girlhood. But Boucher ends her chant not with “be aggressive,” as is traditional for cheers created for sporting events, but with its near-rhyme “arrest us”, bringing in the themes of crime and punishment once again. This lyric appears for the first time as the video cuts to a scene of an underground “rave” crowded with the same costumed “cyberpunk” characters as the previous subway station scene–a rave scene that will appear later in the video drenched in blood.
She ends the pre-chorus with another repetition of the cheerleading chant: “B-E-H-A-V-E / Never more / You gave up being good when you declared a state of war.” This segues into the chorus, which also features repeated lyrics about behaving. The imperative to “behave” is a very gendered command. When young girls are told to “behave,” it’s an instruction to be more polite, more quiet, more subdued. It’s a cultural cliché of a quote, misattributed to Marilyn Monroe, that “well behaved women rarely make history.” Despite the phrase’s triteness, it’s not untrue; the command to behave represses originality and bravery and anything that might undermine the patriarchy. By singing “I don’t behave” repeatedly, Boucher is being overly literal about the theme of criminal behavior, but it goes beyond that. If she simply wanted to make a point about law-breaking actions, there are other turns of phrase that she could have used that would’ve been more directly applicable; using “behave” repeatedly is an intentional rhetorical choice designed to evoke the associations discussed previously.
It’s worth pointing out that the genres of crime fiction and cyberpunk aren’t the only ones Boucher uses in this piece, and also not the only ones she uses to comment on gender roles. In addition to the vampiric blood-drenched rave scene, Grimes styles herself as two separate vampire characters, both of them adorned with black angel wings. The first one has a sweatshirt, hot pink goggles and boxing gloves, and appears in the established subway set; the second is different. Darker clothes, different hair, long ornate gold claws, and appears in a grim warehouse set introduced for this character.
“Kill V. Maim” was released under the album “Art Angels,” and video for the first single off this album also featured the visuals of vampires, angels, and blood. Angels obviously have associations with Christian theology; they’re mysterious and gloriously terrifying, the subject of countless Renaissance paintings. Co-opting angels as a theme could be a way for Boucher not only to create some parallels between these Christian aesthetics and her own work, but also as a way to build credibility. The ethos of an angel is a strange one; as literal messengers from God, they’re the ultimate source of truth and integrity.
Of course, neither of these characters are the soft of virtuous white-winged angels of Raphael paintings. They’re darker, and they’re borrowing from other genres: the first from cyberpunk, the second from noir crime. And moreover, they’re both wearing vampire teeth. Vampires, in contrast to angels, represent death and violence. By constantly combining the two, Boucher is mixing fantasy with theology and life with death, light with dark, in an intentional and not at all subtle way.
After all this, the video ends, almost abruptly, with a card that reads simply “You Died,” a reference to the popular horror video game series Dark Souls. It’s a brusque tongue-in-cheek conclusion to a surreal short film, but it’s also a statement that ties together the film as a whole. One common theme in cyberpunk is the mind virtualizing and ascending beyond the need for something so crude as a physical body; the “You Died” ending could represent both an ending and a rebirth. The card could also be a way to frame the rest of the video itself as a video game, a fantasy world that posits the viewer as “Player One.” In some ways, this interpretation actually detracts from the message of the video rather than enhancing it; it’s a relatively common belief that the “it was all a dream” ending is one of the laziest cop-outs found in fiction. The video’s status as a non-narrative short means that the “all a video game” twist would be less likely to rob it of originality, and would serve rather to explain and contextualize the surreality of the film.
Still, surreality for surreality’s sake has value; essentially, it’s more interesting to interpret “Kill V. Maim” as a story about an organized-crime vampiric angelic cyberpunk future, rather than a theoretical of a story. Maybe “You Died” as an ending is another way to point out that Dark Souls consumers regularly accept inconceivable eldritch horrors at face value, and following from that is the ultimate rhetorical goal of the song: Boucher as Grimes is asking the viewer and the listener to accept the narrative, the hypothetical, the possibility; not to consume the music and video without criticism, but to suspend disbelief enough to look for what Boucher as artist is trying to say.
Boucher, C. (2016, January 19). Grimes — Kill V. Maim. Retrieved May 03, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2EJMd7ZN7w
Exposito, S. (2016, January 19). Grimes Enlists Vampiric Cyberpunks for ‘Kill V. Maim’ Video. Retrieved May 03, 2016, from http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/watch-grimes-gritty-video-for-kill-v-maim-20160119
Helman, P. (2015, October 18). New Grimes Album Inspired By “Bro-Art” Like Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, & Al Pacino In Godfather II. Retrieved May 04, 2016, from http://www.stereogum.com/1838166/new-grimes-album-inspired-by-al-pacino-in-the-godfather-part-ii-and-bro-art-like-billy-joel-bruce-springsteen/news/
Nixon, N. (1992). Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?. Science Fiction Studies, 19(2), 219–235. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4240152
Phillips, A. (2016, January 19). Grimes Releases “Kill V. Maim” Video. Retrieved May 03, 2016, from http://pitchfork.com/news/62756-grimes-releases-kill-v-maim-video/