Drones, Global Warming, and Other Excellent Topics for Pop Songs

Anohni’s Hopelessness protests America’s sins by pretending to celebrate them.

Walter Bieri / AP

With galloping drums and an explosive chorus, Anohni’s “4 Degrees” almost sounds as though it came out of the same mass empowerment industry that minted hits like Demi Lovato’s “Confident” and Sia’s “Chandelier.” The words of the hook—“I wanna burn the sky, I wanna burn the breeze”—also seem, at first, like the sort of uplifting nonsense Katy Perry might sing.

But the song’s lyrics wishing mass death upon the animals of the earth—rhinos, dogs, fish, “all those lemurs and all those tiny creatures”—probably disqualify the song from rotation on Z100 or KIIS FM.

Cheering for extinction is part of the wicked conceit that Anohni, best known for fronting the beloved indie act Antony and the Johnsons under her previous name Antony Hegarty, executes across the first few songs of her bold new album Hopelessness. She asks: What if Western society embraced, rather than ignored, the consequences of its comforts? What if the Top 40 openly rooted for climate change? Drone bombing? Capital punishment? Surveillance? These questions aren’t in the service of satire, per se. They are pointing out the uncomfortable obvious: If you support the system, you support what the system does.

You could assemble a book of surrealist poetry out of music critics’ many attempts to describe Anohni’s singular voice over nearly two decades. It’s best just to listen and perform your own Madlib, if you’d like. She can simultaneously communicate despair and hope, or vulnerability and strength, and her lyrics are usually about facing the unfaceable. In the past, delicate classical arrangements or velvety throwback disco has backed her, but for Hopelessness, she approaches blunt political issues with the blunt tools of electronic pop and noise created by Hudson Mohawke (a Kanye West collaborator) and Daniel Lopatin (behind the experimental act Oneohtrix Point Never).

Early Hopelessness songs play the same trick as “4 Degrees,” facetiously capitalizing upon the fact that pop works best as affirmative art form, born to cry “yes!” On the opener, she begs to be killed in a drone strike (“after all, I’m partly to blame”). Later, she seductively croons for the NSA (“I know you love me ‘cause you’re always watching me”) and fiends for lethal injection (“It’s the American Dream ... like the Chinese and the Saudis / the North Koreans and the Nigerians”). The words are shocking, but so are the silkiness of the melodies and the energy of the arrangements. You’ll come away humming lines about child molesters and mountainside explosions.

Then comes “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” which on its own would be apolitical but within the context of the album is probably a kiss-off to America. From there, the perspective flips—instead of shiny, happy atrocities, there’s mourning and rage. On “Obama,” her voice is guttural and monotonous as it levels human-rights accusations against the president; the song is so intense, even in comparison to the rest of the album, that it’s hard to sit through. “Crisis” practices empathy as a form of confrontation, asking forgiveness on America’s behalf for the grievances she sees as fueling terrorism. “Why Have You Separated Me From the Earth?,” a brief return to chart-pop form, glitters with yearning as Anohni grieves being made complicit.

If it sounds bleak, well, yes. Protest music can’t only be judged by whether it changes the world. Ideally, its first priority is to effectively communicate the concerns of the person who has made it, and Hopelessness succeeds at that. You hear where Anohni stands and why, and must then figure out where you yourself stand. The extreme specificity of the lyrics throughout wards against listeners who would dismiss her performances as histrionic: What should anyone get quiveringly emotional about if not mass graves and environmental destruction?

Anohni has talked about this album as a Trojan horse into the public consciousness, hence the pop sweetness of the music, and Naomi Campbell starring in the video for “Drone Bomb Me.” But Anohni’s mannered vocals have always been divisive, and prominent placement of lyrics about, say, Guantanamo and decapitation will likely keep this album outside the gates of the mainstream. Of course, reticence to engage with horrifying truths is the very barrier that Anohni would like to tear down. She has, at the very least, performed the crucial first step of helping more people to see that barrier.