by Erin Lyndal Martin
On her debut solo album Hopelessness, British-born transgender performer ANOHNI offers up a veritable sampler platter of songs about atrocities. They cover drone warfare, global warming, capital punishment, the wrongs of Obama’s administration, patriarchy, the spread of Western capitalism, the increasing divide between man and nature, torture and more. If this sounds like an awful lot to insert into a single pop album, it is. ANOHNI barely skims the surface in lyrics that are heavy on didacticism and light on complexity.
There are moments on the album where ANOHNI attempts to share in the responsibility for some of what she witnesses. In “Crisis,” she sings, “If I tortured your brother/In Guantanamo/I’m sorry/I’m sorry.” But for all ANOHNI’s lip service to culpability, she has a blind spot to some of the most problematic elements on her album.
In the cover photo, ANOHNI appears to be wearing a race mask (or otherwise appears to have darkened skin). ANOHNI also puts on a metaphorical race mask on the first song and lead single, “Drone Bomb Me,” which she sings from the point of view of an Afghani girl. But the race problems don’t end there.
But the race problems don’t end there. In an interview with Fader, ANOHNI discusses her decision to address political themes through pop music: “Beyoncé and Kanye have established the contemporary vocabulary for how to communicate,” she explains. “I use some of the tools that are currently employed in pop music and I’ve embedded them with a much more hardcore message.”
So, ANOHNI credits two black artists with establishing the “vocabulary” that she borrows to make a pop album with two white collaborators, Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never. Not only does she pocket that vocabulary, but she claims to have embedded it with a “much more hardcore message.” Given that Beyoncé and Kanye haven’t shied away from hardcore topics and messages in their music, what makes ANOHNI’s album that much more hardcore? The fact that it’s made by a white artist and doesn’t discuss racial injustice?
ANOHNI’s reference to black pop artists evokes bell hooks’ writing about Madonna in Black Looks: Race and Representation:
“And it is no wonder then that when they attempt to imitate the joy in living which they see as the “essence” of soul and blackness, their cultural productions may have an air of sham and falseness that may titillate and even move white audiences yet leave many black folks cold.”
Earlier this year, ANOHNI became the first transgender performer to be nominated for an Academy Award for her song from the film Racing Extinction. But she wasn’t invited to perform at the ceremony, and responded by writing an essay about her decision to boycott the Oscars.
The essay begins as a beautiful testament to vulnerability and the pain of having one’s achievements overlooked. But it quickly becomes an overwrought attempt to connect the Oscar snub to global events, the most egregious of which is when ANOHNI compares her rejection to global warming. From there, ANOHNI indicts not only the Oscars but volleys a general attack against celebrities: “But don’t forget that many of these celebrities are the trophies of billionaire corporations whose only intention it is to manipulate you into giving them your consent and the last of your money. They have been paid to do a little tap dance to occupy you while Rome burns.”
Since it seems as though ANOHNI had planned to perform there had she been invited, one wonders how much of her anti-capitalist rage is really just sour grapes. The essay ends with, “I want to maximize my usefulness and advocate for the preservation of biodiversity and the pursuit of human decency within my sphere of influence.”
What’s stranger than including such a statement in an essay about the Oscars is what’s missing: many celebrities chose to boycott the Oscars this year in protest of the lack of black nominees for major awards. In ANOHNI’s essay, there is not a single reference to the larger boycott or the disparity that caused it. One would hope that anyone who professes to advocate for human decency would offer at least a nod to such high-profile racial discrimination as occurred with the Oscars this year.
Ultimately, we’re left asking ourselves who ANOHNI thought her audience for Hopelessness would be. The subject matter is so wide-ranging, it can only scratch the surface. Can these lyrics really provoke thought? In Fader, ANOHNI says she wrote the lyrics in three minutes. The lack of editorial eye shows, especially in contrast to the strong vocals and music.
But as good as the music is, will pop audiences embrace a middle-aged trans woman singing about televised beheadings? Sadly, it seems that this is another “political” album that will mainly just be embraced by self-congratulatory middle-class white liberals. Those listeners, surely familiar with ANOHNI’s themes, are the only ones not alienated by her avoidance of race and class. Like ANOHNI, they can afford to indict the concept of a sprawling America while overlooking systemic domestic problems and the real Americans who face them daily.
Blessed with a voice that simultaneously haunts and chills and backed by a potent production team, ANOHNI could have done more to make Hopelessness live up to its lofty concepts. “That’s the shock about this record: everyone I’ve played it to is thinking the same thing but no one’s saying it,” ANOHNI told Fader. Remarks like that are either sheer hubris or extravagantly oblivious: of course other people are saying it, and not all of them seem so clueless about racial injustice or so confident in their own ability to shock the very choir to whom they preach.
Erin Lyndal Martin is a creative writer and music journalist. Her music writing has recently appeared in No Depression and Salon.