How Did I Become a Virus? Anohni’s brave, stark, unsettling Hopelessness

This piece was published on State on May 4th. I’ve edited slightly and added links.

In 2005, Anohni, then known as Antony, released the revered I Am A Bird Now. Antony and the Johnsons’ second album was, we thought then, a hard look at a difficult subject. The songs dealt with existential uncertainty and gender disquiet: “My lady story is one of annihilation / My lady story is one of breast amputation”, went a widely quoted couplet.

It felt raw and unflinching.

With the release of Hopelessness, though, the I Am A Bird Now era seems like innocent times. Anohni’s world view has darkened and it’s hard to see a way back.

Hopelessness is a haunted commentary on Anohni’s adoptive homeland, the USA, which she sees as corrupt and failed.

As an American she laments: We elected a president who was our last hope and who has let us down (‘Obama’); we stand by while children are murdered cavalierly from the sky (‘Drone Bomb Me’); we let state invade our privacy and we jail those who speak out (“Watch Me’); we condone torture because we fail to act to stop it (‘Crisis’).

That’s not to say non-Americans are off the hook.

On ‘4 Degrees’, over an urgent Hudson Mohawke arrangement, Anohni takes on climate change with an inchoate anger. She sings of a planet that is literally in terminal decline, at least as a home for animal life; the song is her taking her share of the responsibility for this. The title refers to the global temperature expected this century, which will bring about mass extinction. Up to 75% of animal species may ultimately die out and credible voices such as Elizabeth Kolbert have seriously mooted the possibility that the extinguished species, over the longer term, will include humans.

‘4 Degrees’ is an impressive display of ethical self-scrutiny. Anohni argues that if she acts in a way that causes extinction, then extinction must be what she wants: “I wanna hear the dogs crying for water / I wanna see the fish go belly up in the sea / And all those lemurs and all those tiny creatures / I wanna see them burn”. It’s moral rigour of a kind that is harsh, unforgiving, and head-turning; there’s no get-out on the grounds that she meant well or lacked power. She doesn’t deserve forgiveness. One has to infer the same for the rest of us. “I have grown tired of grieving for humanity,” Anohni has said.

The hopelessness of this album’s title is not figurative. In ‘Hopelessness’, ‘Drone Bomb Me’ ‘Obama’, ‘Execution’, and ‘Crisis’, as far as I can tell, Anohni has no time for hope at all. The prominent emotions are rage, revulsion, horror, and guilt. ‘Obama’ castigates Barack for failing to live up to his promises but arguably sets him an impossible standard – saving the world – while acknowledging the fatuousness of expecting a president to fix things: “Like children we believed”. ‘Hopelessness’, in an unusual move, contrasts the rapacious lives of people such as herself to the apparently ecologically sound, wise lives of pre-civilisation humans: “I, who curled in cave and moss / I, who gathered wood for fire / and tenderly embraced / How did I become a virus?

Hopelessness is unsettling. We still expect artists to comfort us. Even in apocalyptic art we expect some hope, some possibility for redemption, which we then expect will be ours. Anohni refuses this. She says it’s over: as she told Pitchfork “We’ve only got a few years left. The jig is almost up.”

I’m impressed that Anohni’s art raises these key questions with such stark clarity. But I’m not entirely persuaded of her premise.

Humans have been expecting the end for as long as there have been humans, and awful things have always gone on. In The Better Angels Of Our Nature, Steven Pinker wrote about the pre-civilisation peoples romanticised in ‘Hopelessness’: they were slavers and mass killers. The greatest decline in death by murder has come about since the birth of the all-powerful nation state that ‘Watch Me’ decries.

As time has gone on, says Pinker, humans have become more and more humane and, hard to believe though it might be, now is as good a time to live as there has ever been. This does not negate ‘4 Degrees’ and it is not an argument for state surveillance or Guantanamo, but I’ve had Pinker in my head as a counterbalance all the while that I’ve been listening to Anohni.

I’m reminded here of the dialogue in the late 1970s between Richard Hell and Lester Bangs. Hell was a pioneer of punk and a vocal nihilist. It’s hard to argue with a nihilist but Lester Bangs, a fan, confronted him in a passage of writing that comes to mind now, that I’ve intermittently had occasion to cling to:

Just for the record, I would like it known by anybody who cares that I don’t think life is a perpetual dive. And even though it’s genuinely frightening, I don’t think Richard Hell’s fascination with death is anything else but stupid. I suspect almost every day that I’m living for nothing, I get depressed and I feel self-destructive and a lot of the time I don’t like myself. What’s more, the proximity of other humans often fills me with overwhelming anxiety, but I also feel that this precarious sentience is all we’ve got and, simplistic as it may seem, it’s a person’s duty to the potential of his own soul to make the best of it.

We’re all stuck on this often miserable earth where life is essentially tragic, but there are glints of beauty and bedrock joy that come shining through from time to precious time to remind anybody who cares to see that there is something higher and larger than ourselves. And I am not talking about your putrefying gods, I am talking about a sense of wonder about life itself and the feeling that there is some redemptive factor you must at least search for until you drop dead of natural causes. And all the Richard Hells are chickenshits who trash the precious gift too blithely, and they deserve to be given no credence, but shocked awake in some violent manner.

Hopelessness is an exercise in despair that is brave, bare, and often brilliant, and it asks questions of us in a way that art rarely does. It seems to have made up its mind that there’s no redemption, no way back – well, who knows? Wait long enough and every Cassandra gets proved right. I hear Anohni, but for now, I’m holding on to beauty and bedrock joy.

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