Was there any way to survive this past week and not be convinced that the world is ending? From the dud of a Democratic debate and the realization that a diverse field of candidates has been narrowed down to two elderly white guys to the potential for a widespread coronavirus pandemic and the deft choice of empty vessel Mother Boy Mike Pence to lead that task force, we’re definitely headed for a post-apocalyptic wasteland and fast. I mean, there’s pandemic kits being hocked for $30 at medical supply stores in Brooklyn and Manhattan drug stores are experiencing a run on Clorox wipes. And this isn’t even taking into consideration the larger sweltering scare of a global climate crisis.
We are–and I don’t say this lightly–completely and totally fucked.
Staring down this no future and bleak present, it’s hard not to feel as if José Muñoz really did a number on art, performance and criticism with his notions of queer utopia. Even a decade after the publishing of Cruising Utopia, people still suffer from stubborn attachments to his concept of queer futurity, seeking a “then and there” beyond the “here and now.” But, how does a search for utopia last with the gravity of where we are ecologically, socially and politically? What if the here and now is quite literally all we’ve got? I mean, who is doing the work of queer dystopia?
While I barely understand what queer means anymore as its been coopted by so many different interests, the artist that is currently most deftly wrestling with our dystopian present and future is undoubtedly Grimes. Her recently released album Miss Anthropocene is the nihilistic soundtrack we not only want, but need to both endure the end of the world and perhaps even, enjoy it. I mean, what other choice do we have? As she whispers in “My Name Is Dark,” “Imminent annihilation sounds so dope.”
In this respect, Grimes has already made the quintessential iconic album of 2020: the year of pandemics, elections, climate change and god knows what else. In contrast, 2019 was a year of music that offered fatalism with the potential for momentary escape. The best albums of the year–Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ Ghosteen–both offered a way out of the horrors, losses and grief of the present, coincidentally both with burning and sailing metaphors. Lana offered us her hand, commanding our boats to her as she sailed away from the burning shores of California to party and dance till dawn; Nick took us up in his galleon ship to the moon as the fires continued through the night in Hollywood. In 2019, both artists gave us the possibility of transcendence.
In 2020, though, that feels impossible. Enter Grimes and Miss Anthropocene. Rather than escaping the flames, Grimes is “the girl who plays with fire.” As the sea levels rise, fires blaze and we continue to get sweatier and sweatier, Grimes created an album inventing the personae of Miss Anthropocene, the Goddess of Climate Change–a combination of “misanthrope” and “anthropocene.” She defines both terms on her website, respectively: “A person who dislikes humankind and avoids society” (yoo hoo!) and “the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.”
Put together, Miss Anthropocene becomes the physical embodiment–and in regards to the album, the sonic representation–of our mutually assured, human-driven, well-deserved demise. Climate change and the climate crisis has always felt so divorced from daily life, despite hitting 70 degrees in the winter months in New York. With Miss Anthropocene, Grimes makes her real–and she’s pissed. As Grimes told Cultured last year, “It’s anthropomorphizing climate change…It’s sort of about this demon of the end of the world, this character that’s like the Voldemort of climate change. She’s relishing the end of the world, and it’s an album about how great fucking climate change is.”
And boy is she ever relishing in it. As an introduction to the album, Grimes, I mean, Miss Anthropocene, penned an unhinged, anarchic manifesto “Global Warming is Good,” which is worth quoting in full:
Poet of destruction,
hereby declare that Global Warming is good.
So, you humans have carved your existence into the earth,
lest you be forgotten.
Be who you are, embrace your demise,
For you are the architect of it.
How smart you are, to eradicate a species as resilient as your own.
Why deny your power?
It’s the greatest show in the universe.
Celebrate with me, the most momentous of deaths.
Now is the time to burn twice as bright and half as long”
In this manifesto, in her nihilism, Miss Anthropocene resembles the philosophical pessimism of True Detective’s favorite depressive philosopher: Emil Cioran (who also published a book New Gods, which is consequently also a song on Miss Anthropocene). In the cheerily titled The Trouble with Being Born, Cioran writes, “Say what we will, death is the best thing nature has found to please everyone. With each of us, everything vanishes, everything stops forever. What an advantage, what an abuse! Without the least effort on our part, we own the universe, we drag it into our own disappearance. No doubt about it, dying is immortal.”
Extending this thought, Miss Anthropocene argues climate change will immortalize us all.
On the album, Grimes firmly places us in the end times with repeated references to last calls, the sound of the end of the world and the world burning. No avoiding it. No escape. No winning. When not directly apocalyptic, the lyrics are full of anxiety, insomnia and drug taking. On “My Name Is Dark,” Grimes doesn’t sleep anymore (that’s what the drugs are for) and on “4ÆM,” she’s, as the title suggests, awake at 4 A.M. So might as well give in and as Grimes sings repetitively on “We Appreciate Power,” “Submit.”
Never has the end of the world sounded so close, so real or so beautiful. The poetic imagery on the album, as well as its electric, alien, sleek and dark melancholic (without being depressing) sound, reminds me of that final gorgeous yet doomed moment in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. And like that last scene, the album is beautiful, beginning with the submersion of the listener into the immersive descent of “So Heavy I Fell Through The Earth” to the ecstatic conclusion “IDORU.” It’s always been challenging to describe Grimes’s music, chock-full of bizarre samples, weird shrieks and high-pitched squeals. But in contrast to the bouncing pop of her last album Art Angels, Miss Anthropocene leans into the ethereal and ephemeral, reflecting our own temporariness on the planet.
Some critics have picked up on both nu metal and emo (particularly on “You’ll miss me when I’m not around”) influences on the album. However, it’s difficult to compare Grimes to anyone or anything. While Lana Del Rey’s music reminds me of nostalgic sounds from an unidentifiable past, Grimes’s music sounds as if it’s being transmitted through space–whether other galaxies or cyberspace–with her extraterrestrial whispers, howls, guttural screams, moans and coos. What ties her to the present (and to Earth) is some of her more mundane lyrics–not theory about A.I. or simulations–but lines like “You’re so cool, cause you don’t think you’re cool” or “putting makeup on my face.”
Now, Miss Anthropocene isn’t the only goddess connected to the album. According to Grimes’s Instagram and website, each song represents a horror of modern society as a Goddess or Demon. This includes the Demon of Addiction on the country-infused, banjo-shocker “Delete Forever” (“Cannot comprehend, lost so many men”), the Goddess of Gaming on “Violence,” the Demon of Political Apathy on “My Name Is Dark” (“I don’t trust the government and pray to God for sure”), the Demon of Sexual Assault on the raucous “Darkseid” with 潘PAN (“What does it take to be a survivor? Your death becomes part of the eternal pain of my body”) and the Demon of Suicide on the funky “You’ll miss me when I’m not around” (“If they could see me now, smiling six feet underground”).
In making each song correspond to a demon or goddess, Grimes creates her own form of polytheistic belief system, one that can perhaps better explain the near apocalyptic present. And it’s not only these Goddesses and Demons that Grimes has attributed to each song that feel akin to the Ancient Greek myths. The imagery of Icarus repeats throughout the album whether the fall on “So Heavy I Fell Through The Earth” or the line “Flew into the sun, fucking heroin” on “Delete Forever.” Perhaps we all flew too close to that hot summer sun.
As she recently told Lana Del Rey in Interview Magazine: “I’m really obsessed with polytheism. I love how the ancient Greeks or the ancient Egyptians lived in this weird anime world where there were just tons of gods that could be anything. It’s like every form of suffering had a representation. I wonder if it almost has a positive psychological effect. If your kid dies in a war, you can literally go speak to War and be like, “Why did you do this?” Or, “I hope you did this for a reason.” There’s a weird philosophical justification for all pain, and there’s an anthropomorphization of every form of pain. In our current society, we don’t even know how to talk about things. So my album’s about a modern demonology or a modern pantheon where every song is about a different way to suffer or a different way to die. If you think about it, god-making or god-designing just seems so fun. The idea of making the Goddess of Plastic seems so fun to me.”
Similar to Toilet Love punk goddess Jayne County’s repeated drawn representations of Bastet, the Egyptian cat goddess as an alien being with multiple genitalia, in her recent exhibition Bastet, Goddess of Wet Dreams at Marlborough Gallery’s Viewing Room, Grimes sees possibility in reaching out to alternate spiritual guides. She’s responding to the failure of not only monotheism, but also singular men who have deemed themselves gods. Connecting ourselves to political strong-men hasn’t worked out so well, has it? As she sings in the soaring ballad “New Gods”: “But the world is a sad place, baby. Only brand new gods can save me…Hands reaching out for new gods. You can’t give me what I want.”
By invoking these various new gods, Grimes also fractures herself and her identity as the singular narrator, creator and producer of these songs. With her layered vocals and frequent divergent and heavily distorted vocal manipulation, Grimes has always sounded more than a singular being as if serenaded by multiples. She also frequently obscures her vocals, a conscious refusal of legibility, easy listening and understanding, which only makes the clarity of songs like “Delete Forever” more startling.
This serves to render Grimes as a solo pop star unreachable, unknowable and unable to pin down fully, giving her license to remake, rebuild and reconsider her public personae over and over again. She’s even recently created her own digital avatar, WarNymph, closely resembling Bat Baby, to further extricate herself from the audience. As she told The Face, “I just want more freedom. I love playing devil’s advocate, questioning my beliefs, making hard pivots. People can see this as disingenuous but it’s a core part of my personality. I don’t like to repeat myself, and I like to challenge what I think is true. Malleability is inherent to digital life. Delete, rewrite… much easier than erasing pencil. I think the way I am might be easier to digest behind a face that changes too.”
On Miss Anthropocene, Grimes is perhaps even more unknowable and yet more enticing, like a siren guiding us to the brink and telling us to jump into the abyss. There’s no mistake that the apocalyptic “Before the fever” represents the Goddess of Ego Death–a self-surrender coinciding with the surrendering to and even reveling in the end of the world.
And there’s something David Bowie-esque about this grappling with and refusal of a stable personae, as well as her apocalyptic visions (not to mention her consistent cosmic post-human aesthetic). While the premonitions of the apocalypse may have resonances with “Five Years” and Ziggy Stardust, Miss Anthropocene, the Goddess of Climate Change, is a triumph of nihilistic monstrosity rivaling the coke-addled Thin White Duke on Bowie’s Station to Station. While Bowie on “Station to Station” called out, “It’s too late to be grateful. It’s too late to be late again,” Grimes croons on the intoxicating ballad “Before the Fever”: “This is the sound of the end of the world…Madness, intellect, audacity, truth and the lack thereof, They will kill us, oh, have no doubt. There are many ways in but there’s only one way out.” Perhaps Grimes is a Blackstar.
Despite the album’s darkness, Miss Anthropocene ends on a–not necessarily hopeful or optimistic–but rapturous note with “IDORU.” Meaning idol in Japanese and named after a book by William Gibson set in a cyberpunk future, “IDORU” is the “Rock n’ Roll Suicide” of Miss Anthropocene–its euphoric conclusion. After bracing yourself for the flames in “Before the fever,” “IDORU” begins with the sounds of birds chirping as if the Earth is repopulating itself without us.
Over these trilling tweeting sounds, Grimes both seeks understanding (“Look, I say, as my fingers tremble. This is what I am, and and you, Fingers tremblin’ too understand”) and invites both the song’s subject and us, as its listeners, to “play a beautiful game. You could chase me down in the name of love”. Now in its sincerity, “IDORU” does head toward saccharine, sappy “Just You and I” James Hurley territory.
However, when understood in the context of the rest of the album, it becomes more powerful–an assertion that despite the world ending, despite chaos, adoration, idolatry and love can exist. She’s not under the illusion that we can transcend. As she sings, “I wanna play a beautiful game. Even though we’re going to lose.” But, if we’re watching the world burn, at least we’re doing it together.