Grimes, the Communist Manifesto and the literary celebrity photoshoot

Unlikely images have consumed the internet since they were taken on 2 October. The singer Grimes was been pictured walking along the pavement reading the Communist Manifesto. Her outfit is part cyberpunk, part Middle Earth. In the shots, she is relaxing on the pavement floor or leaning against a street light. She flicks through the Manifesto nonchalantly, as if glancing at a magazine.

The New York Post ran the first article on the story with the now infamous headline “Grimes seen reading Karl Marx following split with world’s richest man Elon Musk”. People joked on social media about the obvious irony of an extremely rich woman reading a book dedicated to the abolishment of the rich, and called her a poser. 

Shortly after the article was published, Grimes, also known as Claire Boucher, tweeted that the images were a hoax. “Paparazzi followed me 2 a shoot so I tried 2 think what I could do that would yield the most onion-ish possible headline and it worked haha,” she wrote. Then on Instagram, she shared more context. “I was really stressed when paparazzi wouldn’t stop following me this wk but then I realized it was opportunity to troll,” she wrote. “I swear this headline omg wtf haha im dead.” 

Quite obviously, these images were a deliberate attempt to provoke an internet storm that had been brewing since her high-profile break-up with Elon Musk on 24 September. Perhaps Grimes knew all too well that photos of celebrities reading are classic meme material.

In 2012, Britney Spears was photographed returning from a holiday in Hawaii with a copy of Voltaire’s Candide; it was irresistible to think that Britney was reading it with her own life in mind. A year later, Bradley Cooper, aged 38, read Lolita to his 21-year-old girlfriend Suki Waterhouse in a park while she sat between his legs, sprawled and wearing dungarees. Waterhouse looked undeniably infantile next to a visibly older Cooper; the image was infused with dark irony. 

In 1955, Marilyn Monroe was famously photographed reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, an image that stood in stark contrast to the “dumb blonde” characters she played on screen. In 2019, Gigi Hadid was photographed leaving Paris Fashion Week with a copy of Camus’s The Stranger, provoking a series of surprised headlines. “Bella and Gigi Hadid make books the hot new accessory of 2019,” said the New York Post. “Would you join the Bella and Gigi Hadid book club?,” asked Vogue. Society has long expressed a gleeful, (often sexist) shock at beautiful women reading philosophical literature, an impulse Grimes deliberately played with when she posed with the Manifesto.

Her “explanation” of the stunt was arguably more provocative. “Full disclosure… I am not a communist (although there are some very smart ideas in this book -but personally I’m more interested in a radical decentralized ubi that I think could potentially be achieved thru crypto and gaming but I haven’t ironed that idea out enough yet to explain it,” she shared to Instagram. “Regardless my opinions on politics are difficult to describe because the political systems that inspire me the most have not yet been implemented,” she continued: a sentence that reads as if it was ripped from the Tech Bro pages of Reddit. 

Fans of Grimes have called her staged photoshoot a piece of performance art; a deliberate juxtaposition of high and low culture. Like all great art then, its message, and its impact, is open to interpretation.

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[See also: Is the Sally Rooney bucket hat the latest literary status symbol?]

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