Music

Miss Anthropocene: Grimes’ Pop Apocalypse

Joel Mayward

Darkly gothic, synth-laden cyberpunk, Grimes’ latest album—Miss Anthropocene—is reminiscent of artists as wide-ranging as Enya, M.I.A., Feist, Metric, and Taylor Swift. It’s Blade Runner meets Sailor Moon meets John the Seer, a techno-pop bubblegum apocalypse.

The fifth album from Canadian musician Claire Boucher, Miss Anthropocene is an ambitious concept project about the urgent dangers of climate change and unrestrained technological expansion. Grimes’ website has been taken over by the album’s eponymous deity, the self-declared “Goddess of Climate Crisis.” There’s a poetic manifesto declaring “Global Warming is Good,” as well as links to what are deemed the “new gods” of this age: social media, artificial intelligence, political apathy, gaming, addiction, digital lust, and so on. Even with a cursory listen to the music, you can’t help but pick up on the religious language and symbolism, as well as a semi-cynical campiness. Angels, demons, heaven, hell, aliens, cyborgs—all of these are apparent in what Grimes calls her “ethereal nu metal” artwork.

The dramatic piano ballad “New Gods,” for example, is about as theological as pop songs come. She pleads with the “new gods” to save her as the sad world burns, even as she recognizes that they cannot ultimately give her (or anyone) what she wants. Grimes unpacks her thesis in an interview at Apple Music: “It’s about how the old gods sucked—well, I don’t want to say they sucked, but how the old gods have definitely let people down a bit. If you look at old polytheistic religions, they’re sort of pre-technology. I figured it would be a good creative exercise to try to think like, ‘If we were making these gods now, what would they be like?’ So it’s sort of about the desire for new gods.”

So how are we to respond to this worship of techno deities? If I’m listening correctly, Miss Anthropocene suggests that we’ve already embraced these novel pseudo-gods to our immediate pleasure but ultimate downfall. Akin to the Tower of Babel, we’ve tried to reach into the heavens via technology and declare our worth, only to crash to the earth, spreading ripples of chaos. The final song on the deluxe version of the album, “We Appreciate Power,” is a propaganda praise song, celebrating the coming reign of artificial intelligence as the ultimate “new god,” pledging allegiance to the computers who enslave us, all while backed up by driving crunchy guitars and a catchy pop melody. Like Aaron’s golden calf, we’ve knowingly made our own idols, the song suggests, so let’s just enjoy them until they bring about our destruction.

How are we to respond to this worship of techno deities?

The song “Violence” paints the human treatment of the earth as one marked by abuse and dominance, with humanity taking advantage of the natural order even as the latter croons, “I like it like that.” So, is this an abusive relationship or cosmic erotic role-playing? The tone feels purposefully ambiguous and provocative. In a subsequent song about insomnia and depression, “My Name is Dark,” Grimes offers up a crass prayer in the bridge:

Paradise on my right, and h-h-hell on my left
The a-a-angel of death, right behind me
Paradise on my right, h-h-h-hell on my left
And the angel of death, she said to God,
“Un-f*** the world, un-f*** the world
You stupid girl, you stupid girl.

With allusions here to both Nietzsche and the 1996 song “Stupid Girl,” by Garbage, there’s an attitude of playful cynicism. The entire album is emblematic of this paradox: it is both frolicking and forbidding, optimistic and pessimistic. Since Boucher’s current beau is rocket-building billionaire technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, there must be some self-aware irony happening here. (Will the first AI “new god” be named “Tesla,” after his brand?)

To draw a biblical link, John the Seer’s apocalypse at the close of the New Testament is certainly musical: there are songs of praise and worship, as well as laments and dirges, all in response to the majesty of the heavenly King and the bringing about of righteousness for the created order. One might not initially think of Revelation as an “uplifting” biblical book, with its vivid imagery of beasts and plagues, lakes of fire and cosmic violence. Yet beneath it all lies a remarkable tone of hope, an underlying hymn of divine grace praising not the “new gods” of our own making, but the one true God who makes all things new.

And this is perhaps Miss Anthropocene’s most urgent insight: it directly confronts our human proclivity for self-deification and where such hubris ultimately leads. God gave human beings dominion over the created order in Genesis 1, but “dominion” does not mean “domination” (or, to allude back to the lyrics of “Violence,” a dominatrix). Where Grimes’ pop apocalypse can only go so far in reminding us of our innately worshipful tendencies and our propensity for idolatry and self-destruction, John’s apocalypse can take us the rest of the way towards redemption, pointing us to a new heaven and new earth beyond any computer’s algorithm.

Instead of hubris, both Genesis and Revelation remind us that we are humus, the Latin word for “earth” or “dust.” This is where we get the words “human” and “humble.” The angel at the end of Revelation tells John to stop worshiping the angel, who is a “fellow servant,” but to “worship God!” Which brings me to the final words of Grimes’ final song on Miss Anthropocene, “IDORU.” Despite all of the prior chaos and darkness, the wistful love song features bird calls and a repeated refrain: “I adore you.” Grimes has described the song as “heavenly” and “something hopeful” to conclude “this mean album.” Such adoration for another person suggests a possible shift towards selflessness, perhaps the turning of one’s gaze from the mirror of “new gods” towards a hopeful beatific vision focused on a heavenly Other.

Topics: Music