Topic: MusicGrimes, Billie and Lana: the rise of climate superpop

Reflecting on the rise of climate imagery in modern pop music, Arielle Domb reviews Grimes' incendiary new offering Miss Anthropocene.

By Arielle Domb

‘The way I figure it is that climate change sucks,’ Canadian alt-pop singer, Grimes told NME. ‘No one wants to read about it because the only time you hear about it is when you’re getting guilted.’

It’s true. We find it hard to think about climate change. Despite the colossal damage it threatens, climate change remains an abstract sort of challenge; somehow too terrifying and too distant to be comprehended. Part of the issue is the particular cognitive demands it makes of us. Philosopher Timothy Morton uses the term ‘hyperobject’ to describe phenomena that are ‘so massively distributed in time and space’ that they transcend our ability to visualise them. The existential threats posed by climate change cannot be conveyed by graphs and data. Calling for us to see beyond the frame of our own existence, to envision a present and a future that we ourselves do not inhabit, conceptualising the climate crisis requires imagination.

But, Grimes’ rises to the challenge. On 21st February, after nearly a year of teasing it, Grimes’ released her dazzling fifth album, Miss Anthropocene. ‘Everybody loves a good villain,’ she joked to NME pre-release. ‘Maybe it’ll be a bit easier to look at if it can exist as a character and not just abstract doom.’ Reinventing herself as an ‘anthropomorphic goddess of climate change,’ she appears on the album as an alien-like avatar, a visual manifestation of the world’s self-inflicted demise.

The album is a saturated mania of genres and sounds: blasts of drum and bass, interludes of acoustic guitar; frantic Taiwanese rap and blares of Bollywood samples. In its sonic dissonance, Grimes jumps between moods and atmospheres. In Darkseid, Grimes’ languid refrain – ‘unrest is in the soul, we don't move our bodies anymore’ evokes the sluggishness of a culture of instant gratification. The tweeting birds and floaty vocals of Idoru offer a transient utopia, only to be spun round into a whimsical anthem of the apocalypse – ‘this is the sound of the end of the world’ – in My Name is Dark. The overarching loom of destruction is instilled with both ecstatic nihilism and an Edenic glimmer of redemption.

Grimes offers another change of tune in Violence. Here, the palpitating bassline and hyperventilating vocals tingle with erotic energy, blurring the boundaries between pleasure and pain (‘I'm, like, begging for it, baby’) subject and object (‘cause you, you feed off hurting me’) and the personal and the political (‘baby, it's violence / But you can't see what I see’). Blending the outlines of an abusive/BDSM relationship with man’s masochistic abuse of the earth, Grimes’ is able to explore the relation between the micro and the macro, the intersection between the worlds of individuals and the individuals of the world.

The conflation of relationships with climate anxiety is a common trope of climate pop music. In her 2019 album, When We Fall Asleep Where Do We Go, 18-year-old pop singer, Billie Eilish frames the more common themes of pop: parties, ‘bad guys,’ unrequited love – against an apocalyptic backdrop. In Lana Del Ray’s 2019 Norman Fucking Rockwell ‘Hills burn in California / [...] / Don't say I didn't warn ya.’ The metaphorical flames of a summer romance flicker into the literal blaze of a warming planet: ‘LA is in flames, it's getting hot.’ The polysemicality of del Ray’s language means that references to global warming lie beneath the surface of her music. But, even if subconsciously, their cumulative impact is palpable. Heat permeates her lyrics. We feel something burning.

It is worth bearing in mind that these three singers are all white and famous – protected from the consequences of climate change and the controversies of singing about it. Grimes certainly doesn’t help herself on this front when she finds herself confused by her own metaphors, describing Miss_Anthropocene as a ‘pro-climate change album,’ with the goal to ‘make climate change fun (lol..??).’ Throughout the album, climate anxiety is undoubtedly muffled by the sounds of the party. The cathartic drops of drum and bass make the meaning of ‘annihilation’ diffuse. When she ‘party when the sun goes low / Imminent annihilation sounds so dope,’ is she talking about the extinction of the human race or blacking out from a bottle of vodka?

As such, Pitchfork found her ‘rendering [of the] climate crisis as dystopian aesthetic [...] privileged and indulgent,’ whilst the Guardian criticised its vacuity; ‘shame the climate crisis bit isn’t also part of Grimes’s wild imagination.’ Yet to criticise the album for not being enough about climate change or to take distaste in its appearance among everyday issues, is to miss the unique power of climate pop. Because we can no longer afford to treat climate change as something separate from our everyday realities. Because in the realm of the climate crisis, the environmental, political and social are all interconnected.

The fact that these women sing about love as much as they do climate anxiety, does not make their message trivial. Ambiguity opens up the intimate space between binaries, exploring the relation between ourselves and the world. It is through their double-meanings – Del Ray’s ‘I guess that I'm burned out after all’, Eilish’s ‘There's nothing left to save now’ and Grimes’, ‘You’ll miss me when I’m not around’ – that these lyrics are so hard-hitting. Facing the climate crisis means expanding the parameters of our imagination, but also bringing it to the coordinates of our everyday. It means acknowledging, above all else, that the climate crisis is a human crisis. Where these artists succeed is by showing climate anxiety enmeshed in our realities, entangled with our everyday anxieties rather than apart from them.

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