It’s not often that you find a song that oscillates between using masculine and feminine self-descriptive phrases. So imagine my surprise when Spotify decided to play ‘Kill V. Maim’, an energetic and edgy dance/electronic track by Grimes, which follows the perspective of a non-binary persona. For me, ‘Kill V. Maim’ was ground-breaking listening. Never before had I given thought to the fact that each song has a speaker/persona with a distinct gender identity reflected through pronouns and self-descriptors. ‘Kill V. Maim’ opened my eyes to the lack of non-binary representation in pop music, or any music genre for that matter.
‘Kill V. Maim’ opens with Grimes explicitly referring to themselves in masculine terms, singing ‘I got in a fight, I was indisposed […] but I’m only a man, and I do what I can’. The contrast between Grimes’ high-pitched and extremely feminine voice and the singer referring to themselves as a ‘man’ was a complete surprise for me listening back in 2015. Did I just mishear what Grimes had sung? Grimes must have said ‘I’m only human’- ‘a man’ and ‘human’ sound close enough when sung. Yet Grimes sings about being a man nine times in this song. I had been confused by these obvious lyrical mistakes and played the song again whilst reading the lyrics online. It was no mistake, Grimes did call themselves a man, despite not sounding like a man at all.
What’s more, upon my second listening of ‘Kill V. Maim’, I realised Grimes goes on to describe their persona using feminine terms in the song’s pre-chorus, in which they call themselves an ‘italiana mobster, looking so precious’. Grimes’ persona is both masculine and feminine, what with being a ‘man’ and a ‘mobster’ inspired by Al Pacino (as Grimes said in an interview), but also ‘italiana’ and having a sugary sweet voice. This duality of identity and the rebellious refusal to be contained by the gender binary were radically new concepts for me back in 2015 when ‘Kill V. Maim’ was first released. The way in which the persona of ‘Kill V. Maim’ performed gender in their own way and in their own terms inspired a younger me to be myself and pay no heed to gender roles or norms.
Refusing to conform to norms is a running theme in ‘Kill V. Maim’, with Grimes chanting ‘B-E-H-A-V-E/ arrest us’ in the song’s pre-chorus, mimicking a cheerleader’s chant in a girly voice. The persona of the song is told to ‘behave’ and satisfy societal norms (by being a law abiding, cisgender individual), yet they defiantly assert in the song’s chorus ‘I don’t behave’ – not one but six times. The persona’s rejection of a life of conformity is an empowering message, one that inspires Grimes’s fans to live their lives true to themselves.
On the other hand, a case could also be made that Grimes’ ‘Kill V. Maim’ is not wholly empowering and uplifting in its depiction of a non-binary/genderfluid individual. Grimes seemingly equates not conforming to fixed gender categories to not conforming to any rules at all and being a criminal ‘mobster’. This conflation of nonconformity to the gender binary and not obeying the law is problematic, as it suggests that non-binary/gender-fluid people are criminals or lacking morality. This attribution is harmful, as it affirms the belief of conservatives that non-binary individuals are disobeying lawbreakers who cannot be trusted.
However, whilst there are certain aspects of ‘Kill V. Maim’ that could be perceived as problematic, I personally don’t receive the song this way. Grimes is a gender-fluid songwriter who uses they/them pronouns, so I genuinely do not think that they intended for the ‘Kill V. Maim’ to group non-binary individuals in with criminals. Ultimately, Grimes just wanted to write a song about ‘a vampire that can switch gender and travel through space’. ‘Kill V. Maim’ is one of the only songs I know with non-binary representation, which is significant for countless non-cisgender fans of Grimes and music in general.
Representation in music matters, as music is often a starting point for self-reflection and exploration. Music can drive social change by giving a microphone to thoughts and feelings never expressed before. ‘Kill V. Maim’ inspired thousands of fans (including me, even though I’m a cisgender woman), with its confident, unapologetic rejection of the gender binary, to be themselves in spite of societal pressures to conform to strict gender norms. I am grateful to Grimes, who made not fitting into neat identity boxes seem just as cool as being space-travelling vampire Al Pacino.
Edited by Emma Short, Music Editor