I grew up in a Northern California town whose bumper stickers spoke for its citizens, where you were in the minority if your Subaru wasn’t plastered with “Coexist” spelled out in symbols of faith, next to “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” and “Celebrate Your Inner Goddess.” Anohni’s show last night at Park Avenue Armory, part of the the Red Bull Music Academy Festival, felt like tailgating in my hometown, a series of well-meaning political statements whose lack of nuance, already obvious on the artist’s record Hopelessness, was amplified to resonate, hollow, between the rafters of the Armory’s enormous drill hall. Anohni never spoke during her performance, which was essentially a piece of video art with an extravagant soundtrack, rarely exploiting the possibilities of the near-infinite space in which she presented her work.
The night started with video of Naomi Campbell dancing seductively, projected onto a massive screen behind the stage. According to the program it was an outtake from the video for “Drone Bomb Me,” and it lasted for a far-too-long fifteen minutes. When the lights finally came up to reveal the stage, we saw three people: Anohni, in a white robe with a layer of gauzy black fabric draped over her face; Daniel Lopatin, a/k/a Oneohtrix Point Never, who collaborated on the album; and Christopher Elms, who has worked with both Anohni and Björk. The two men stayed put behind their desks, with Anohni moving slowly around the stage, never revealing her face.
That meant the star of the show was the screen, which over the course of the evening featured a series of close-up videos of twenty women lip-syncing the songs. All were artists, most of whom work in New York; Shirin Neshat, Leslie Cuyjet, Vanessa Aspillaga, and Kembra Pfahler made appearances, and the show closed with a monologue, first presented at the World Economic Forum, by Aboriginal artist Ngalangka Nola Taylor. In most cases it was one woman per song, and Anohni herself didn’t appear on the screen until near the end.
This gimmick created an intense focus on the lyrics, which had the unfortunate effect of enhancing their clunkiest buzzwords. “Terrorism,” “child molesters,” “North Koreans and Nigerians,” and the repetition of “Obama” (from the track of the same name) brought down whatever atmosphere the beats and synths created. This is the least appealing outcome of protest music: a sacrificing of eloquence for messaging. Even worse, Anohni was only sort-of saying it herself, having displaced culpability onto the disembodied women towering over her.
To be sure, there were highlights, and they were, not coincidentally, the album’s more ethically ambiguous songs. “4 Degrees,” already an ominous epic, became thunderous in the cavernous space. The song’s title is a reference to the devastating effects of a seemingly small rise in global temperature, seductive in its visceral beat and clever in its death-wish lyrics: “I wanna burn the sky, I wanna burn the breeze/I wanna see the animals die in the trees.” Anohni let her spectacular voice loose to repeat the song’s mantra, “It’s only four degrees,” while reaching both higher and lower in her vocal range than she does on the recorded version. I caught myself feeling uncomfortable for so thoroughly enjoying the adulation of environmental destruction, which is precisely the point of the song.
Wonderful, too, was “Drone Bomb Me,” a slinky dance number about extrajudicial targeted killings that, despite its troubling race and gender politics, successfully demands that the listener consider their complacency about drone warfare. What these songs have in common is their poetry: rather than tackling their respective issues head-on with explicit accusations, Anohni gets a valuable message across by wrapping her critique in the evocative lyrical style that carried her to fame as the leader of Antony and the Johnsons. Stripped of flourishes and down to their electronic core, these tracks sounded fantastic and had an even greater impact last night than they do on record.
As a highly visible trans artist who, like Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, was forced by her existing acclaim to transition very publicly, Anonhi has a fan base with high expectations for her political engagement. She has risen to fulfill those expectations eagerly and broadly, using every opportunity she gets to make big statements about politics, gender, warfare, climate change, healthcare — the list goes on and on. But by hiding in person behind a literal veil and putting her words in the mouths of other women — overwhelmingly of color, which she is not — Anohni displayed an unwillingness last night to do the actual work of activism. Her poor use of the space and lack of performance were disappointing, yes, but her invisibility was the biggest letdown of the night. Despite its flaws Hopelessness is a valuable album; we can only hope that Anohni will one day confidently claim her own work.