Last Thursday in a cavernous hangar near 63rd and Lexington, Anohni debuted material from Hopelessness, her first album since publicly transitioning from her former identity as Antony Hegarty. She performed as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival in New York at the Park Avenue Armory, a venue that serves as a monument to wealth, violence and imperialism in one fell swoop. The lights went dim right on schedule in the cave-like hangar, but no Anohni appeared. Instead, for almost twenty minutes a video of lingerie-clad Naomi Campbell played on loop. Outfitted like a goth Statue of Liberty pin up girl, Campbell gyrated alone in an empty concrete space that oozed darkness. The visual functioned like a jammed outtake reel for those who’d seen the preceding “Drone Bomb Me” video, but played over and over, with no soundtrack, no explanation or unpacking of her dancing. The silence allowed ample time for each audience member to flick through their own interpretations of the visual. I saw beauty, sadness, despair and rebellion–defiance, thickening loop by loop. Others grew bored and checked their phones, after all, they came here to hear something. Perhaps they forgot silence is also a sound, it represents something too.
Hopelessness is a collection of deathly, incandescent future-pop songs that interrogate our apathy toward ecological destruction and the commodification of violence. On songs like “Drone Bomb Me” and “Crisis,” Anohni confronts the twinning terrors of technological warfare and government surveillance from the eager perspective of a glad victim. She does not assume a bird’s eye view on these experiences, but adopts a first person narrative perspective; the jarring lyrics are expedited by a sensual desire: Drone bomb me. I want to die. I want to be the apple of your eye . The resulting tracks are uncanny, scintillating, arresting: If I tortured your brother / In Guantanamo / I’m sorry. On “4 Degrees” she sings, quavering, over such grand orchestral immensity that I had to listen several times before catching any images of death. I wanted to sing the hook with soaring abandon, but the rhetorical somersault forced me to occupy an uncomfortable role–one I didn’t agree with. One that gives voice to my own future destruction. Instead of using the protest songs to set herself apart from either victims or perpetrators, Anohni uses them to implicate herself and us as part of a corrupt and violent system. She dismantles the idea that she, the artist, or we, the audience, are excluded from these atrocities simply by our assertion that we disagree, or through our participation in art that protests them.
When Anohni finally took the stage that night she remained unlit, cloaked entirely in a glistening silvery-white robe, face hidden completely under a black hood. And even after she appeared, the video component remained the primary protagonistic force of the show. Projected above and alongside Anohni, eclipsing her, the faces of other women emoted and lip-synced songs off her new album (along with several other newer tracks with perhaps even more provocative names like “Indian Girls” and “Jesus Will Kill You.”) The videos featured primarily women of color, mostly other artists, who loomed enormous throughout. Sometimes they faded into one another. Sometimes the women cried. Each one replaced the figure of Anohni as narrator of a song. Even if her voice remained, it was these women who demanded our attention, demanded we endure their tears. Anohni wanted us to hear her, yes, but more than that, she wanted us to hear them, to watch them. The live show functioned as a visual extension of her deeply empathetic songwriting.
The songs on Hopelessness are elegiac but not unlinked from the possibility of restoration. The melodies are spare, glistening shrouds for lyrics of devastation. Using pop ebullience to cloak sorrow is not a novelty, and surely, few collaborators are better at bolstering this particular breed of magnificent electronic production than Oneohtrix Point Never or Hudson Mohawke. But it is rare for an artist to turn their pen to topics of this political scope and successfully create songs resilient enough to shoulder their own emotional weight–and then some. Anohni achieves this feat by surrendering completely to the role of victim without qualms, sinking into the pain as a desirable space worthy of exploration. Given her identity, I can only imagine this place of empathy was already carved out by personal experience. Trauma is not a competition, but a meeting point; it breeds recognition more than anything else. These songs are precise and gleam like polished bone, hinting at death even when they shine. They wink and hiss, flicker, but never consume. They are full of light that illuminates but doesn’t burn. They imbue hope by embodying trauma, making space for it, as the live show literally made space for other faces.
Though Anohni previously performed with the band Antony and the Johnsons as Antony Hegarty, gender fluidity has always been a part of their art and identity. No matter what subject matter Anohni concerned herself with, her luminous, tender voice and masterful sense of composition would render any output impossible to ignore. That she continually chooses to tackle larger international issues that plague our planet is further proof of her courage. Instead of dwelling on Anohni’s personal identity, Hopelessness interrogates imperialistic violence. Of course, it is nearly impossible to avoid the fact that the same faction of our country who support laws prohibiting marriage between queer lovers of any iteration also tend support American violence abroad, belittle or devalue other marginal identities, and still, in 2016, deny the damage we are inflicting upon our planet. While these issues aren’t synonymous, they are interrelated in undeniable ways.
When I listen to Hopelessness, I am thinking mostly about these people. How are we to behave toward them? How are we to behave toward anyone who would rather find something to hate about us than something to love? Those who would rather critique our perceived failures than listen to what is wrung out of our hearts? Anohni answers those questions by beating detractors to the punch; she identifies as culpable in everything she laments. By playing victim and perpetrator she smashes the binary between the two, establishing a more realistic portrayal of how fraught and complex our lives are. If this portrayal stirs something up in those who identify with her desire for change, perhaps it will also gain purchase in the hearts of those who don’t believe in climate change, those who still don’t believe transgender identity is valid. I believe it can, because once, my father was one of those people.
Listening to Anohni’s “Watch Me,” I had a moment of unexpected moment of communion: This is the first song about fatherhood I’ve ever related to. A close reading of the song yields the conclusion that the song is using “daddy” as an analogy for the sort of paternalistic, watchful “Big Brother” government, not a literal father. And yet, the feeling stuck. There are clear parallels between that overbearing surveillance and growing up in a conservative Christian household with a domineering father. Fear motivated most of my father’s actions, and the teachings of a religion that disavowed any form of sexuality that wasn’t cis, heteronormative and confined to the bounds of traditional American marriage. Currently, my father, the same person who taught me that gay love was a sin, is in the process of transitioning and identifies as a transgender woman. Change is not a myth that only fools believe in; transformation happens every single day, but it requires catalyst.
Hopelessness seeks to be that catalyst, probing at that uncertain space where we ask people to truly look at their lives, to change their minds. The title of the album indicates it’s a lost cause, and the namesake track finds Anohni questioning the way the world devalues her life (“how did I become a virus?”). Or is it questioning the way we’ve come to infest the planet with greed and pollution? Or is it questioning her own role in contributing to destruction and violence? It’s no surprise that by the song’s end this question becomes a thunderous, uplifting chant–because even putting any of these questions into words at all is an act of hope. Singing about pain is the opposite of succumbing to silence; a broken existence remains a triumph over death. Crawling is not quitting. Whenever I feel most hopeless, hearing someone else share that experience is exactly the thing that restores me; the thought that I am not the only one on the planet overwhelmed by the impossibility of my pain gives me solace. In the last several years I have seen too much change too rapidly to give up this hope.
Whatever critiques of Hopelessness that may be leveled–and indeed, art that strives to grapple with political and social issues on this level is always the most heavily criticized for any perceived failures–this is a record that provides hope by its very existence, because of the identity of the woman who made it, and because of her unshakeable refusal to shy away from the thundering political issues it addresses. Not all warriors need shoulder every cause, nor do all causes need be shouldered at once to make the effort sincere, impressive, valuable. An insistence that every voice speak for all groups at once is unreasonable and unsustainable, but Hopelessness is an album created by a transgender woman who consciously used her platform to elevate other marginalized voices. These songs are presented purposefully as vessels for other voices and perspectives to occupy, presented by an artist whose very personhood is still invalidated by many laws, countries, powers and principalities. Yet still she sings. I hope you find a way to hear her.