Drone warfare, environmental disaster, mass incarceration—these topics aren’t typical pop-song fodder, but Oscar-nominated musician Anohni is trying to change that with her new album. On Hopelessness, out May 6, the 44-year-old artist (who used to make music as Antony and the Johnsons) treats shiny electronic beats from producers like Hudson Mohawke as Trojan Horses for lyrics that address the world’s problems. The blaring first single “4 Degrees” uses a misanthropic narrator (“I want to see the animals die in the trees”) as a wake-up call about climate change, while “Watch Me” gives thanks to an all-seeing patriarch whose surveillance only becomes more disturbing as the song unfolds. Anohni wants listeners to dance to these tracks like they would any Top 40 hit, but she also hopes they’ll examine their own roles in the issues of the day. “Participation in and of itself is an act against hopelessness,” she says. “It’s the denial and the silence that was making me feel hopeless.”
Below, Anohni details her new album and reveals how pop can bring about social change.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The new album is a big departure from the music you used to make as Antony and the Johnsons. What inspired your sound?
ANOHNI: I was listening to too much Hot 97 [a New York hip-hop radio station]. I mostly listen to pop and electronic music, and I was just feeling like there was a wider and wider divide between me and the aesthetic of the music I made in the past. Not that I won’t return to that, but I wanted something that was fittingly contemporary-sounding so I could talk about issues that were very present-day. The pastoral kind of music I made in the past felt too passive. It didn’t have sharp enough teeth to address this kind of material.
So much of pop music is escapist, yet you’re using the format to talk about issues such as climate change and drone warfare.
I wanted to see if I could find that same kind of ecstatic energy or connectivity while actually addressing reality as opposed to escaping from it. That’s what I wanted to mischievously supplant in a song that sounded like an escapist song. I wanted to give voice to this aspect of our lives that we’ve minimalized in pop music: this scary, contemporary world we’ve created. We’re hiding under the leaves trying to continue forward as if nothing is wrong. I wanted to break out of that and create a soundtrack for people to recognize the reality of their lives.
Can pop songs bring about social change?
In the last year we’ve seen a resurgence of music addressing certain political issues of racism in America. The obvious one is Kendrick Lamar. That’s been refreshing, to see that resurgence. I just wanted to push that thinking into other arenas too. I also wanted to illustrate the connectivity between all these different things, how all these different issues exacerbate and amplify one another and climax in ecocide. In many ways, these issues are all just symptoms of this underlying crisis of our disconnection from our environment and creation.
You call “Drone Bomb Me” a love song, though its message runs counter to what a lot of people probably associate with love songs.
I call it a love song very sincerely. When a person only knows abuse, they shift their whole emotional and spiritual life into the context of that abuse. If all you’ve ever known is to be hurt by the one that pretends to love you, then many times you go to the one who hurts you for love. [“Drone Bomb Me”] is about a girl whose family has been slaughtered from the sky, and she’s too innocent to be angry. She’s just absorbed that into her consciousness and sees the power of that man in the sky. She’s translated that brutality into a kind of love. It’s dysfunctional, it’s heartbreaking, but it’s how children survive. You have to be adaptable. If you’re fed only one thing, you have to learn to love that thing. It is a love song, but it’s a terrible love song.
Someone described “Drone Bomb Me” to me as a metaphor for your experience as an out transgender woman, yet you’ve never mentioned that in interviews. How do you feel about people potentially applying this subtext to your work that you didn’t intend?
It didn’t occur to me for one second. At the same time, I have explained the impulse to make yourself very vulnerable in a situation where you’re confronted with perpetrators whom you can’t overpower. That feminine impulse to use vulnerability to confound a perpetrator or disarm a perpetrator, that’s a skill set I learned as a teenager trying to defend myself on the streets.
Having said that, the song is very much about drone warfare. But then again, it’s really just about taking whatever it is that’s useful to you from a song. I hate art where a person tells you, “It’s a fact that it’s about this.” If it’s meaningful to you in that regard, just use it as a Rorschach [test] and make whatever you want out of it. I remember listening to the Kate Bush record when I was seven years old, but I didn’t understand three-quarters of it. I memorized the songs phonetically and was singing gobbledy-gook, but they were so meaningful to me. Something intuitive was being communicated to me. It was just as valuable as if I’d understood the specific poem that was being sung. I would never undermine a person’s interpretation of a creative work.
What struck me about this album is that, even when you’re speaking very explicitly about political issues, these songs still feel very emotional and vulnerable. How do you boil down your message into an effective pop song?
For me, it was about keeping the focus on myself and describing feelings from my own point of view. There are some cases where I veer away from that on the album, but in most cases I try to keep the focus on the first person. That tends to be how we relate to the world. I tried to find the emotional narrative and spiritual narrative through the idea: What’s my relationship to this stuff? How am I complicit in some of these things? In the past I was a passive bystander. It’s taking a different kind of responsibility for my relationship to governance, the impact of my government, and a whole range of ideas.
Will listeners feel hopeless after listening to Hopelessness?
There are two things I wanted to do in my mind: support people who are already in this mindset and give them a galvanizing soundtrack to continue with their work and take action. I also wanted to model an investigation into my own complicity and start to to investigate that chasm of denial within me that allows me to continue to be a passive participant in destructive systems. I wanted to model that and articulate it, hopefully as useful research that other people can do what they want with.
Do you think of these songs as dance songs even though the subject matter is so serious?
I do. I hope people dance to them. They deserve to be dance songs. I dance [when] I’m having a strong feeling: to jump for joy, to jump in anger, the ecstasy of telling the truth. Participation in and of itself is an act against hopelessness. Speaking up is a gesture against hopelessness. It’s the denial and the silence that was making me feel hopeless.