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Grimes against humanity: 'Miss Anthropocene' upends the myth of the girl savior

Grimes' fifth album, <em>Miss Anthropocene</em>, pushes the pleasure buttons of mainstream pop while also appearing to critique it.

Grimes' fifth album, Miss Anthropocene, pushes the pleasure buttons of mainstream pop while also appearing to critique it. Mac Boucher/Neil Hansen/Courtesy of the artist

Two weeks before the release of her fifth album, Grimes shared on Instagram an illustration of a taloned hand signing a document with a fountain pen. “I, poet of destruction, hereby declare that global warming is good,” it read. “You humans have carved your existence into the earth … Be who you are. Embrace your demise, for you are the architect of it.” The declaration was signed and sealed with the name Miss Anthropocene, the album’s eponymous villain: a feminine personification of global warming, and the gleeful herald of the post-industrial end times.

Grimes, the stage name and public persona of Claire Boucher, has for the past decade woven together new age ambience, ’80s new wave, and the blunt, ecstatic gestures of J-pop and K-pop into music that feels singularly indebted to the omnivorousness of the streaming era. All her albums have some kind of fantastical bent, whether she’s singing about Dune or stylish subterranean vampires, but Miss Anthropocene is the first to apply her sci-fi flourishes to a concrete geopolitical drama. Claiming to desire climate change is one way to defang the cosmological horror it presents. If we’re facing the inevitable end of all things, why not pretend it’s exactly what we wanted all along?

By casting herself as a villain, Grimes resists the ways many of her fans have interpreted her as a force for good: a de facto feminist from Montreal’s DIY scene who produces all her own independently released music; an environmentalist who declined to take the Ice Bucket Challenge due to concerns about wasting water mid-drought; and a self-described anti-imperialist who pledged to match $10,000 in donations to the Council on American-Islamic Relations in the wake of Trump’s travel ban.

When, at the 2018 Met Gala, Grimes revealed her romantic partnership with Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, she faced public blowback for entangling herself with a notorious capitalist. (“I didn’t realize everyone thought I was such a by-the-books socialist,” she told Crack last year, in response to the reaction. “My politics are literally insane. I’ll probably go down for it in the end.”) Miss Anthropocene and its surrounding promotion play with the villainy cast over Grimes’s image, an attempt to tame the negative social media storm. If Grimes is no longer fit to save the world, she might as well relish in destroying it.

Miss Anthropocene isn’t the first album to take a desirous stance toward mass destruction. In 2016, Anohni released Hopelessness, an electronic record that reckoned with the same doom. “I wanna see this world, I wanna see it boil,” she sang on the single “4 Degrees,” so named for the amount of warming (in Celsius) that over time “would render the planet unrecognizable from anything humans have ever experienced,” as environmental journalist Gaia Vince notably put it. Anohni wanted to interrogate her own complicity in the planet’s spoiling. But she—who, like Grimes, has a history of meshing her work with ecological activism—doesn’t occupy the role of apocalypse-hungry villain throughout all of Hopelessness. As much as she acknowledges her particulate responsibility for what happens to the world, she also traces lines of escape from the present nightmare. Elsewhere on the album, she makes a solemn pledge through an icy prism of vocal processing: “We will never, never again/Give birth to violent men.”

In a 2019 essay advocating for climate rage, environmental journalist Amy Westervelt challenged the “we” that’s often invoked in discussions of humanity’s role in global warming, most notably in a recent crop of books on the topic authored by men—“specifically literary white men, for whom climate change is the ultimate epic saga, in which all of humanity is both villain and hero,” Westervelt writes. “‘We’ had a chance to act on climate decades ago and blew it, the story goes, and now ‘we’ must rise to the challenge and save humanity. If we don’t—and we’re unlikely to—‘we’ will have only ourselves to blame.”

Using the first person plural conveniently brushes aside those members of humanity who have, over generations, made concerted and communal efforts toward preserving the environment, who risk their physical safety to block the construction of new oil pipelines and mining operations. It situates oligarchs like Musk as humanity’s last great hope and fails to challenge capitalism as a toxic, Earth-destroying process in and of itself. In the literary saga Westervelt describes, individual men must innovate their way out of hell. Humanity’s saving grace is rendered in the form of buying the right products—shelling out for a new Tesla instead of a used Chevy—rather than imagining a world where cars are not needed.

In this story of heroes and villains, another figure emerges: the young girl. Recently, the media has focused on teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. Though she’s inspired legions to leave their classrooms and protest global warming in the streets, Thunberg is most often portrayed as a solitary figure pleading with adults to do something about her rapidly evaporating future—one girl against the world. This reduction of her message makes her a convenient symbol for both her allies and her enemies. For the latter, she’s merely a teenage girl, a frivolous person with no political heft, easy to dismiss. For the former, she’s something of a teen idol, a brave young face who marks the entryway to a new way of being, a new world that ensures continued human survival. Either she’s nothing or she’s everything; in neither case does she get to be a person among many who desire above all else to live.

Thunberg slides easily into the archetype of the young girl as a beacon of what’s to come. “The child is potential future ... so many of the mythological saviors are child gods,” Carl Jung wrote. “[The child] is therefore a symbol which unites the opposites; a mediator, bringer of healing, that is, one who makes whole.” The young girl, with her potential to become a woman and a mother, doubly stands in as a symbol of the new, and of the reparation of a world mangled by careless, greedy men.

With the high, ethereal register she uses in most of her songs, Grimes’s vocal presence maps more cleanly onto the archetype of the girl than that of the woman. Her physical presentation reinforces the idea that she’s younger than her 31 years: She’s often depicted with long hair in candy colors, her eyes exaggerated to Disneyfied proportions, staged against a crystal-studded fantasy landscape or wearing literal fairy wings. In multiple photos, she wears armor and wields a sword, like an internet-age Joan of Arc. The image she puts forth is not so much one of a human adult as an ageless and heroic being lodged in perpetual feminine youth.

“Unfuck the world, you stupid girl,” Grimes seethes on “My Name Is Dark,” a towering single from Miss Anthropocene. She’s speaking in character as the Angel of Death, mocking a god who’s rendered as a girl. In the album’s mythology, Miss Anthropocene also gets to be a girl, a trickster goddess depicted on the cover taking a selfie while burning her own nipple. Here, a girl is the world’s potential savior and its potential destroyer. Men get no say in what’s to come.

In the lyric video for “My Name Is Dark,” Grimes sneers through layers of augmented reality effects. Interspersed are clips from The End of Evangelion, the 1997 finale to Hideaki Anno’s anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion, which follows a group of teens using volatile mech suits to protect the world from invaders. While deflecting one apocalypse, though, the shadowy organization that developed these robotic suits is secretly plotting another. They aim to subsume all life on Earth into a single collective consciousness, putting an end to all human loneliness, via a teenage girl named Rei, a clone bioengineered by scientists to end human life and engender a new form of being. In the movie’s visually astonishing climax, Rei towers over the Earth, grinning as she kills every human being. Then she herself appears to die, split in half and collapsed over the newly barren planet. The ending is notably ambiguous: Two teens survive, alone in a horrifying landscape. The world has ended and begins anew at the hands of a girl turned into a god.

Between releasing singles from her new album, Grimes interspersed another kind of reveal. In early January, she posted two pictures of herself visibly pregnant on Instagram, one with a CGI fetus overlaid on her abdomen. In most contexts, gestational imagery is inseparable from optimism. In Beyoncé’s own Instagram pregnancy announcement, from 2017, she is kneeling amid ferns and roses, wearing lingerie and an organza veil, fully embodying fertility. Grimes’s pregnancy photos, shared amid promotional material for her apocalyptic album, have a different resonance. In one, she glares at the camera forebodingly; in the other, her downward glance carries an air of melancholy. In both, her abdomen is marked with red scratches that seem to spell out letters or trace an obscured sigil.

Grimes’s video for the song “Delete Forever” depicts her sitting on a ruined throne, wearing a red dress in a crumbling stone plaza set against a sky mottled with planets. The image parallels a famous scene from the 1988 anime film Akira, where the power-hungry character Tetsuo finds that his body has begun to mutate and grow beyond his control. Like most body horror, Akira contests the supposedly inviolable male form, depicting Tetsuo’s body as it changes of its own accord like a pregnant woman’s. By ascending the throne herself, Grimes completes the metaphor. She deploys images of her pregnancy not as a gesture of hope for a new world but as a nod to a legacy of horror that draws on pregnant bodies as sources of chaos, mutability, and fear.

The earliest photo on Grimes’s Instagram feed is a drawing of her, presumably in character as Miss Anthropocene, driving a sword into a miniature Earth. The planet, which bleeds from the wound, hovers in front of her abdomen, as if she were pregnant with it and cutting it out from her own belly. Nature and the Earth have long been characterized in popular culture as feminine or, more specifically, as mothers. In the visual material surrounding Miss Anthropocene, Grimes casts the climate apocalypse as a mother in her own right, an unpredictable and ultimately vengeful being unleashing destruction on the world.

If in the first chapters of her career Grimes occupied a position comparable to Thunberg’s, as a young woman uniquely capable of righting wrongs and a vessel for the hopes of her fans, Miss Anthropocene is a steadfast refusal to assume a savior’s role. The world is too much for one girl to carry. She drops it, lets it shatter, watches where the pieces land. Proximity to wealth and power make such an aesthetic stance an easy one to take: Climate change has already killed people—lots—and none of them billionaires. But even in the darkest sources of Grimes’s imagery, the most brutal apocalypse stories, there is some room for hope. Teenagers survey the wreckage of the Earth, and quietly wonder what they should do next.