‘See You On A Dark Night’: Grimes’ “Oblivion” Depicts Sexual Assault

To any who have heard the ethereal, self-identified feminist, Claire Boucher, more famously known as Grimes, her high soprano, multi-layered vocals are as celestial as they are cryptically near-inaudible. Those listeners, or readers of her lyrics, would similarly find her lyrics predominantly elegiac after revisitation, particularly her most famous single “Oblivion” (2012).

Unsurprisingly, interpretations of her lyrics tend to assume that the ambiguity of her lyrical content indicates Claire’s more lofty, unassertive motive, failing to give her work the same accolades for their political potential as they do for their production quality and her unique voice.

Perhaps due to our generation’s post-Internet post-Tumblr attachment to surfaces and exteriors, the meaning behind songs like “Genesis,” “Vanessa,” and “Oblivion” tend to be esteemed primarily from their music videos, which serve to overlook the subtle subversiveness of her words, and, as a result, infantilizes her work and persona —an image that she has recursively criticized and desired to dissociate herself from.

In an interview with Spin Magazine, she describes the origin of her song “Oblivion,” which is rooted in her own experience with sexual assault:

“The song’s sort of about being—I was assaulted and I had a really hard time engaging in any types of relationship with men, because I was just so terrified of men for a while.”

Yet the reception of the now-widespread single has often elided the personal nature of its recollection. “Oblivion” limns the experience of sexual assault, but given the wistful yet still playful tone of the song, some may find themselves flabbergasted to find out that this is indeed the subject matter. Its titular reference to oblivion denotes a state of being unaware or unconscious of one’s surroundings, but also implies an intoxicated stupor. From Latin, oblivisci further means ‘forget’, and its legal definition constitutes amnesty or pardon. The word’s lack in the actual lyrics also elucidates the origin of “Oblivion.

Another 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

The imagery within the song details Claire once more about to venture out alone once it is dark, recounting the typical “stranger danger” leitmotif of worn-down victim-blaming-centered warnings of rape: such as don’t walk alone after dark. Most, if not all, of us have certainly heard the same crime-prevention rhetoric that supposedly centers on the agency of victims to prevent the crimes committed against them: a particularly symptomatic instance of our widespread rape culture(s) that shore up its corollary myth of “the victim’s blame” while neglecting the perpetrators’ reprehensibility within the system in question. Using an enjambment run-on, she conveys the sense of time passing ever so quickly as this “someone” is creeping up towards the unassuming person, who in some interpretations, is herself. The person who might be following Claire is a theoretical unknown and unnamed stalker, yet the use of the 2nd-person pronoun ‘you’ implies that she too could be that unnamed stalker, a subtle semantic switcheroo that further reverses the scene of assault.

And now I’m left behind all the time
I will wait forever
Always looking straight
Thinking counting all the hours you wait

Like many of those who have been sexually assaulted, she has been “left behind,” must now try to look ahead, despite being left with haunting legacy that sexual assault often impels upon its victims. Thereafter, she repeatedly sings the refrain verse of the song—“See you on a dark night.”

This line recurs throughout the song, harkening back to her initial line where she is out past dark, but the soothing nature of her crooning only further instills a sense of discomfort given the topic at hand.

And now another clue I would ask
If you could help me out
It’s hard to understand
Because when you’re really by yourself
It’s hard to find someone to hold your hand

grimws5

After the fact, Claire offers another “clue”—seeking help after the boundary-crossing encounter has taken place. “It’s hard to understand” the majority of assault cases, the toll they bring on its bearers, and the elusive yet nevertheless unnerving process of living with and surpassing the grips of post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of rape. For her, “it’s hard to find someone to hold your hand” once you realize “you’re really by yourself”—a poignant reminder to survivors of assault of the feelings of self-helplessness and alienation that sting so readily once one registers the significance of her now-symbolically nearly muted, barely heard, words and voice.

And now it’s gonna be tough for me
But I will wait forever
I need someone now
To look into my eyes and tell me
“Girl you know you’ve got to watch your health”

To look into my eyes and tell me
La la la la la
To look into my eyes and tell me
La la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la

She “needs someone now,” but does not, like many victims, seem to vocally require or desire immediate rape crisis centers, therapy and emotional support. Instead, she wishes someone would peer into her eyes and perhaps soothingly say, “Girl, you know you’ve got to watch your health.” Perhaps one of her most musically inventive moments is how Claire repeats this same image of someone looking in her eyes, only to replace the former words with “la la la la la” repeated over and over again – reminiscent of singsong in children’s lullabies, yet more disturbing and soothing because of their context within the song. Claire finishes the song with the initial refrain—”See you on a dark night”—and repeats it continuously thereafter, intermingling it with various oohs and aahs, until the beat ends with the tech-driven sound of drones.

Her seemingly jovial treatment of the subject matter remains equally playful in the video for “Oblivion.” While the song does not directly address the topic at hand in its depiction, the lyrical content does inform the meaning behind this video work. In the aforementioned Spin interview, Claire voices what the video can be said to signify:

“‘Oblivion’ embodies that kind of archetype, going into this masculine world that is associated with sexual assault, but presented as something really welcoming and nice.”

This ‘archetype’ of which she speaks is “the Japanese archetype of a female protagonist who is very small and very cute and very physically powerful.” She laments, moreover, how we “don’t see that archetype in America,” even though, “in Japanese culture, there are female characters who can embody this girl uniform and still cut someone’s head off with a sword.”

grimes2

The choice of setting in the videos—the public spaces of a motor-cross park and football field, accompanied by their private interiors of locker rooms—proves crucial, since she decidedly chooses hypermasculine, homosocial settings. Her presence within them, particularly in the scenes with her schoolgirl outfit, are certainly to an extent out-of-place and she continually plays with this incongruous duality. She is often seen alongside men, some of which are seen stripped half-naked, and this juxtaposition reminds the now-informed viewer of her previous reluctance to be around men, let alone frequent stereotypically all-male spaces.

She, now, is not the one being stalked, though she is of course the central figure depicted in the video, but is now the viewing onlooker in these arenas. The sexual context latent in these scenes and these men’s bodies are different from the one’s recounted in the song, reinterpreted and readjusted for a Grimes who no longer trembles at the thought of intermingling with men.  When the men are later seen bouncing up against each other with the haphazard precision of atoms caught up in entropy, Claire in the midst of their jostling, she gains a certain power she previously did not have in her ability to not only navigate this scene with safety, but furthermore to be able to be the center of attention despite otherwise being a visitor of these sports’ spectacles. The video for “Oblivion” seems to crystallize her ability to surpass the constrictive confines of post-assault PTSD-related dysphoria.

When asked about the importance of the song, Claire remarked,

“It would be intense if it were an overwhelming part of my image. I can’t censor myself; it’s really important for me to say how I feel. I needed to put out this song. I needed to make this song. I took one of the most shattering experiences of my life and turned it into something I can build a career on and that allows me to travel the world. I play it live every night. The whole process has been positive — engaging with that subject matter and making it into something good.”

Indeed, Claire is not so much a “victim” of sexual assault, sullen and downtrodden by the heels of patriarchy, as she is, in fact, a daring “survivor.”

We at Bluestockings admire her courage in coming out about her assault and using it with poise as the subject matter of Pitchfork Magazine’s #1 Single of 2012.

Ragna tweets @raggijons and occasionally Tumbls

10 Comments
  1. yeah, unfortunately i think a lot of these lyrics are incorrect and the analysis is done over top of those errors…i kind of disagree with a lot of the specific points related to specific lines in the lyrics, but i do think the overall theme of the article is really good and the more general analysis is on point

  2. The important aspect of her use of the second person “you” is in its correlation to the strange interconnected quality of the victim and the perpetrator in the face of the trauma. For Claire, “all the hours you wait” is a lyric that references the necessary recovery time which she must wait out in the aftermath of the assault, while the same “you” could be her attacker and the hours of wait, in his case, being the hours of repression before the ghost of his victim unexpectedly appears in his future. Claire seems interested in this idea of the haunting as an intimate and inescapable byproduct of sexual trauma, as she looks like the ghost of the drowned woman from certain mythologies as she stands beneath the flashing lights of the locker room.

  3. this has got to be very healing for her, from that experience, turning it to something else, revisiting it from a safe place and turning it to something she gains power from. good for her.

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