Climate change, foreign policy, and mass surveillance
Anohni delivers a politically charged album
Released May 6, 2016
Six years after releasing the album Swanlights with the ensemble of musicians known as Antony and the Johnsons, the English artist Anohni returns to the music scene, dropping the previous name “Antony Hegarty,” and releases her debut solo album Hopelessness. As the second openly transgender person who has been nominated for an Academy Award (with Angela Morley being the first), she re-enters the industry not only with a new moniker, but with a new musical style as well. Shifting her work, which was previously rather pastoral and orchestral, to pop-inspired electronic music, Anohni focuses on politics this time in an attempt to make a protest album.
The transition to a new genre is executed flawlessly. Joined by producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, Anohni delivers a successful combination of pounding and captivatingly glitchy synth-pop in “4 Degrees” and “Violent Men,” followed by the catchy and peppy songs “Watch Me” and “Execution,” in addition to offering ballads like “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and euphoric anthems like “Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth?” Her vocal performance is just as effective, with a wide range of emotions, which are vividly portrayed in each song, clearly indicating the promising potential of this album.
Unfortunately, the successful musical production is thrown off balance by the album’s draining lyrical content. Despite Anohni’s best attempts to deliver a dance protest album that addresses a wide range of topics, from foreign policy and capital punishment to climate change and mass surveillance, her fusion of music and politics instead creates a naive image of a bleak, nihilistic, and 1984-esque society facing impending doom.
“Execution,” for example, attempts to showcase the saddening truth that capital punishment is still actively practiced in several countries around the world, but Anohni’s simple recital of nations, “Like the Chinese and the Saudis / The North Koreans and The Nigerians,” accompanied with the repetitive hook “Execution / Execution / It’s an American dream” over a jingle-like melody, renders the song bereft of any emotional maturity. Similarly, in the song “Obama,” the weakest track on the album, Anohni directly criticizes the president through verses such as “Now the news is you are spying / Executing without trial” and “All the hope drained from your face / Like children we believed”, while periodically chanting the president’s last name. Without giving a more diplomatic and well-thought-out criticism of Obama’s presidency, she fails to deliver the intended message and instead presents the listeners with a rather unpolished set of opinions.
On the other hand, when the lyrics become coated with poetic ambiguity, the album feels undoubtedly triumphant. “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” the only song on the album that does not have any explicitly political content, highlights Anohni’s mastery as a storyteller. When she sings “I was so lonely, all alone / When the phone rang, I wasn’t there / When my parents called, I just sat and stared” with a dejected voice, a more vulnerable and visceral side of Anohni is shown, allowing the listeners to feel the gravity of her personal struggles. In “Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth,” she succeeds at creating a palpable vision of a dying environment, one that shows the dire repercussions of careless human activities, by singing “I don’t want your future / I’ll be born before you’re born / Why did you separate me, me from the Earth?” Lyrics like these contrast sharply with the bluntness of other songs on the record, and show that poeticism could convey her ideas more effectively.
Blurring the lines between music and politics is not a novelty, and Anohni is certainly not the first musician whose lyrics draw attention to current global issues. Just within England, M.I.A.’s single, “Borders,” which addresses the European migrant crisis, created controversy when it was released at the end of 2015, and, more recently, PJ Harvey’s track “Community of Hope,” from this year’s album The Hope Six Demolition Project, drew criticism from D.C. politicians, who considered Harvey’s apocalyptic depiction of Ward 7 as incorrect and incomplete.
Much of the criticism directed at politically charged music usually stems from observations that artists themselves do not offer any solutions to issues presented in their songs. But, it is important to understand that this type of disapproval is completely unwarranted, as musicians are certainly not expected to propose sound policies in their work. The purpose of such music is merely to raise consciousness and promote discussions about issues through a medium that is more accessible and less censored.
That said, the underlying problem of Anohni’s debut album is not that she does not complement her observations with robust solutions, but that she tries to encourage discussions about issues of layered complexity with haste and no tact. Had she dedicated more time towards developing nuanced and mature lyrics, the album could have easily become an indispensable component of leftwing music.
It would be unfair, however, to give her no credit. The album’s political content certainly should have been crafted with more care, but Anohni’s courage to lyrically tackle global issues as an openly transgender artist through a new musical genre deserves unequivocal praise. At its best, Hopelessness should be appreciated for its strong, albeit latent, message — that humanity must stand united, more so now than ever before.