On the crushing and glorious HOPELESSNESS, Anohni collaborates with Hudson Mohawke and OPN to create something new: the electronic dance anthem as visceral protest song.
What has been the price of my protection? This spring at New York's Whitney Museum, the artist Laura Poitras—best known for her 2014 film about the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Citizenfour—offered a harrowing answer. Within her multimedia exhibition Astro Noise was a piece called Bed Down Location. It invited viewers to lay on a platform in the dark, assuming what in yoga is referred to as "corpse pose." The installation lulled you with doomy static and dispassionate male voices. The night skies of Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen were projected at the ceiling like a planetarium. The idea was to stare at them—the celestial expanses of countries in which the U.S. has launched drone warfare—and think. To imagine human lives reduced to coordinates on a grid, as if flesh and blood were part of an exercise in a math textbook. To imagine balls of fire falling onto us. To imagine death. A New Yorker might be struck by just how many stars those skies contained. Struck by how they look like sheets of glitter. By the beauty of an ornamented mustard-yellow building under our big Moon. By how nature could look like an oil painting. By how you want to be there. The emotion of Poitras' work did not just show the cost of our sense of protection—irrevocably, the cost was felt.
I thought of Anohni's HOPELESSNESS there. Both Anohni and Poitras have constructed monumental works this year dealing in the atrocity of post-9/11 America—drone warfare, mass surveillance, violent masculinity. These are the depths into which HOPELESSNESS demands that you swim or drown. HOPELESSNESS is a record where the American dream is a hallucination, where Big Brother lustfully becomes "daddy/ohhh," where we are all called out. It is the sonic equivalent of a burning Shepard Fairey painting and all its embers.
As leader of the chamber pop ensemble Antony and the Johnsons for two decades, the musician formerly known as Antony Hegarty has always been in dialogue with the present. But now, with co-producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, there are many more layers of rigor to that conversation. Anohni has undergone a musical metamorphosis, crafting another outlet for her vision: the electronic dance anthem as visceral protest song. So much has unfolded in the six years since Anohni's last studio album with the Johnsons—Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, the trial of Chelsea Manning, the Black Lives Matter movement. Anohni—ecofeminist soul warrior, dramatist, a person who Lou Reed called an "angel"—it would be hard to find a more capable figure to lead us into a woke pop polemic.
Poignant political realities have always grounded Anohni's work, but now they are at the forefront, articulated with an incisiveness that stares you in the eye. You have never heard words like "chemotherapy," "child molesters," and "mass graves" crooned so gorgeously. HOPELESSNESS places Anohni alongside radical pop provocateurs like M.I.A., artists who propose difficult questions that mainstream America does not want to ask because it would not know what to do with the answers. But Anohni insists that we raise our stakes. "A lot of the music scene is just a wanking, self-congratulatory boys club," she said in 2012. "It's just so fucking boring and not useful. It's such a waste of our time... another reflection of how astray we are as a civilization."
HOPELESSNESS disrupts that. Anohni, HudMo, and OPN meet on an astral plane and construct a sleek salon there, where we can reflect on the current moment and perhaps be spurred to action. The elegant bombast of these tracks propels the issues forward with a clarity that is exacting and exhilarating. Anohni has worked with both of these electro sophisticates before (in June of 2011 OPN tweeted: "antony doesn't use the internet anymore") but HOPELESSNESS represents a new level of collaboration. The subject matter is daunting, but this is some of the most accessible and pristinely infectious music that any of these people have made. With that, HOPELESSNESS simultaneously broadens Anohni's appeal and brings that appeal into focus.
"Drone Bomb Me" is sung from the perspective of a seven-year-old girl whose family falls victim to a targeted killing. "Blow my head off/Explode my crystal guts," Anohni sings, describing toxic reality with a honeyed cadence, and as this body-music gets under your skin, its subject—which in life is too often abstracted—makes an appeal to the heart. In her singing I am reminded of what we mean by "soul" music: empathy, pain, sincerity, dignity, the truth of life. I am also reminded that Anohni covered Beyoncé years ago, that her voice crushes you like Adele's. This isn't the first time Anohni has overlapped with dance music—she collaborated with Hercules and Love Affair, and in 2013, the DJ Avicii included an electro house remix of "Hope There's Someone" on his album True. (Perhaps Anohni heard its hyper-masculine drops and thought: ummmm…..)
Production-wise, the HOPELESSNESS team did not take the obvious route, which would have been doomy post-Arca metal scraps from Yeezus' industrial wasteland. If HOPELESSNESS recalls any Arca song, it's the xen philosophy of 2014's unsettlingly beatific "Sisters." (That Mohawke, a producer on Yeezus, Pablo, and "All Day," should serve as a connective between Anohni and Kanye—who've both worked to infiltrate and subvert—makes a lot of sense.) The sinister rumble of "Violent Men" and the ominous "Obama" monologue makes them outliers here, texturing HOPELESSNESS with darker, episodic pieces. The maximalist slam-dunk beats of HudMo's TNGHT project are absent, but the burnt-rubber bounce that opens "Obama" hints at it. There's an impulse to place "Obama" in the tradition of scathing presidential take-downs—like Stevie Wonder's "You Haven't Done Nothin'" or Neil Young's "Let's Impeach the President"—but the way Anohni turns liberal subterfuge into a literal hex feels more complicated. "Obama" recounts how the world cried for joy when the President was elected and how furiously disappointing recent years have been, "all the hope drained from your face." These are menacing lyrics you would still more readily expect to be railed by a contemporary punk band like Downtown Boys or Priests ("Barack Obama killed something in me," Katie Greer succinctly put it in 2014, "And I'm gonna get him for it!") than any pop star.
"Violent Men"—an ambient, pitch-shifted meditation on the need to "never again give birth to violent men"—underscores the essential theme of these songs, which is the violence of patriarchy as the core of all oppression. And this leads to another tenet of HOPELESSNESS: ecofeminism. On the 2012 Johnsons live album Cut the World there was a poetic speech called "Future Feminism," which situated Anohni unmistakably into this context—the basic idea that feminism must extend its liberationist ethos from gender, race, class, and physical abilities into nature. Ecofeminism defines the stunning "4 Degrees," alluding to the impending global temperature-increase that will factually topple our ecosystem. "I want to see this world/I want to see it boil," Anohni sings, belting out a striking catalog of the dogs, lemurs, rhinos, and other creatures who are going to perish because of our selfishness and greed. The mood is heavy, urgent, dire—a fully-issued wake-up call bearing reportorial weight, an ultralight beam parting a cloud.
Anohni's vast environmental songs are like modern rewrites of Kate Bush's "The Big Sky," where the once-innocent vaults of heaven are more foreboding, sites of hidden remote-control murder, invisible all-watching eyes, gas emissions. And yet underlying these songs is a plea for a kind of love that implicates all life. As Anohni sings of our current apocalypse, her voice and these beats have some semblance of utopia in them. It is music about death and destruction that sounds deep-down infatuated by the forces that keep us alive.
The bracing "Why Did You Separate Me From the Earth?" is another ecofeminist epic, the no-future punk tradition born anew: "I don't want your future/I'll never return/I'll be born into the past." HOPELESSNESS makes the lethal clashes of capitalism and nature, of the industrial and the organic, impossible to ignore. Crucially, ecofeminism posits that a masculine sense-of-self considers itself separate of the world, whereas a feminine sense-of-self sees itself as fundamentally interconnected, with responsibilities. All violence and ecological crises, then, come from failing to make connections. Anohni poses a most pressing question of late-capitalism: "Why did you separate me from the Earth?"
"Watch Me," meanwhile, is possibly the most sensual piece of musical surveillance art ever. Crisp, cavernous beats boom over ambient noise, and our nightmarish culture of intercepted metadata floats into eerie seduction—there's a degree of absurdity to that, befitting the absurdity of our world. In "Watch Me" Anohni is being spied on in her hotel room: "Watch me watching pornography/Watch me talking to my friends and my family," she sings, gliding gracefully, "I know you love me/‘Cause you're always watching me/Protecting me from evil/Protecting me from terrorism/Protecting me from child molesters." With bone-chilling intimacy, Anohni reveals so much about how surveillance culture cuts out the potential of choice. "Watch Me" is the HOPELESSNESS song that is most likely to lodge itself into your skull with its euphoric melody, but plot-twist: you can't really sing it in public. Astonishingly, then, "Watch Me" is song about surveillance that might make you surveil yourself—an act of sousveillance.
One is reminded of Anohni's connection to former Johnsons member William Basinski. HOPELESSNESS should fall alongside his ambient classic The Disintegration Loops in the canon of music that responds to post-9/11 America. The songs constantly underscore Anohni's complicity—from a pained utterance that "I'm partly to blame" to how she cries through the ecstatic apology of "Crisis"—but HOPELESSNESS also comes with an embodied promise of change. The message is encoded into every note: If Anohni's music can manifest into something new, then perhaps we can. There is risk involved with moving from a timeless sound towards one that attempts to capture a moment, but without risk art is worthless.
Earlier this year, news broke that Anohni would not appear at the Oscars. She was the first transgender performer to ever be nominated—on the successes of a song she wrote about ecocide for a movie literally called Racing Extinction—but the honor was diminished when she was not invited to perform at the ceremony. In response, Anohni wrote an essay about the decision that is itself a remarkable document. "They are going to try to convince us that they have our best interests at heart by waving flags for identity politics and fake moral issues," she wrote. "But don't forget that many of these celebrities are the trophies of billionaire corporations whose only intention is to manipulate you into giving them your consent and the last of your money. They have been paid to do a little tap dance to occupy you while Rome burns."
HOPELESSNESS is not afraid to sway within the flames, to draw you towards the heat. The fact is that Anohni's dramas cannot exist in a world of Hollywood endings. They are too real for a silver lining. HOPELESSNESS communicates the horror of seeing that in so many ways we have been profoundly fooled by the fantasy of the American experiment. By how the stars are not just stars. By how they contain lies. By how the truest protagonist of HOPELESSNESS is us.