As a college freshman, I took a feminist history class on “dangerous women”–women who, because of their activism or political radicalism were deemed dangerous or hysterical by society at large. The class was taught by a Professor MacKenna, a brilliant woman who was the first person that I ever heard use the term ecofeminism.
I’ve thought of her a lot as I’ve listened to Anohni’s (formerly known as Antony Haggerty of Antony and the Johnsons) stunning new album, HOPELESSNESS–both because it’s a decidedly ecofeminist record and because I think you could safely call Anohni a dangerous woman.
One of the most visionary poets, artists, dramatists, and avant-rockers of post 9/11 America (the figure that Lou Reed called an “angel”), Anohni has never shied away from publicly engaging in radical politics. But HOPELESSNESS represents both Anohni’s evolved sonic landscape and new level of pop provocation. Co-produced by the one-two-electro-visionary punch of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, it recasts uber-sexy dance tracks as potent protest anthems. HOPELESSNESS may brutally illuminate the failure of the American Dream, but you’ll sing along as it does.
Perhaps the best example is Drone Bomb Me, the second single (if you could call any of them that) off the album. If you haven’t seen the video starring Naomi Campell, you really should. The song is a smoldering ballad sung from the perspective of a seven-year-old bombing victim. Lines like “blow my head off/ explode my crystal guts” free wheel over an astral backbeat. “Drone bomb me!” she says, imbuing her delivery with a twisted version of pop star coquettishness.
On Watch Me the American surveillance state is “Daddy” who watches Anohni in his hotel room, watching pornography. “Watch me! Watch me!” she begs. Anohni twists NSA surveillance into a a voyeuristic exchange between the subservient individual and the dominant, subtly queer American government. It’s a masterful critique–scathing and hilarious–that also manages to be the most sing-able track on the album
In an album of politics, Anohni’s ecological consciousness is a major tenant. 4 Degrees, Why Did You Separate Me From the Earth, Hopelessness, and Marrow all deal with ecocide and ecological collapse on one level or another. In the old Antony and the Johnson days, Anohni recorded Future Feminism, a monologue where she discusses the intersection between patriarchal oppression and ecological collapse. And Why Did You Seperate Me From the Earth is the most blatant piece of ecofeminist music I’ve ever heard. “Why did you seperate me from the earth?/ my father” she asks. And later, in a move that recalls the no-future politics of early British punk, she exclaims “I don’t want your future/ I’ll never return/ I’ll be born into the past.”
One of the most masterful elements of HOPELESSNESS is the way in which Anohni (and Hudson Mohawke’s and OPN on a production level) manages to integrate her experimental tendencies with traditional pop elements. Certainly several of the songs on HOPELESSNESS are the most quote-commercial-unquote material that Oneohtrix Point Never has ever been attached to. But tracks like the ambient hex Obama, or the glitched-out chimes of Violent Men are there to remind you that Anohni is not always a nice witch. Though neither track is a standout exactly, they’re texturally refreshing.
Anohni owes a great debt to the soul tradition of Nina Simone, as well as the work of openly political folk-rock singers like Neil Young and Buffy Sainte-Marie. In particular, HOPELESSNESS seems to draw from some of the same vocabulary as the experimental later work of Sainte-Marie (Power In the Blood comes to mind). But the most obvious parallel might be fellow pop-provocateur MIA, whose global mish-mash dance music is often a vehicle for radicalism. On Crisis Anohni explores one of MIA’s most consistent themes: empathy for Western enemies. The song explores the relationship between American military action in the Middle East and the rise of radical Islamic groups like ISIS. But these are not just global conflicts. Anohni reminds us that we cannot escape culpability. “I’m sorry,” she moans. I’m sorry.
Earlier this year, Anohni made history as the second transgender performer ever nominated for an Oscar for Manta Ray from the documentary Racing Extinction. In the wake of the announcement, however, it was also revealed that she would not be asked to perform at the ceremony due to “time constraints.”
In her official response she explained why she would not be attending the ceremony. The whole response is worth reading, but one particular line stands out to me as a kind of manifesto of all of her work to date: “I enjoy that wild and reckless exhilaration that comes from naming my truth as best as I can.”
Maybe that’s ultimately what makes Anohni so exhilarating to experience. She’s not provoking for the sake of provoking. She’s a dangerous woman who is speaking her truth–the world is dying, the patriarchy fucking sucks, Western military intervention usually makes everything worse, and the death penalty is barbaric. But even though those are the truths she speaks, even though she named her album HOPELESSNESS, she still thinks there’s hope. After all, why would she sing, implore, scream at us to listen if she didn’t think we could be saved?