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The Apocalyptic Pop of Grimes’s New Album

On ‘Miss Anthropocene,’ the earth is burning and Grimes is dancing on its ashes

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In May 2018, the internet’s disconnected corners closed in on Grimes and Elon Musk. Worlds collided when the unlikely couple—one, a beloved indie darling; the other, a plutocrat tech tycoon—debuted their new relationship on the Met Gala red carpet. For the next few days, the pop culture discourse included people who like music and people who like space, Grimes megafans and Elon aspirants, those who didn’t care about either party but felt compelled to participate anyway. Horny Reddit nerds asked, “Who’s Elon Musk’s hot goth gf?” My dad emailed me, “Didn’t know Grimes was dating Elon. Fascinating.” Grimes’s camp was divided between amused supporters and disappointed anti-Muskers reminding the singer that her Twitter bio once read “anti-imperialist.” Elon advocates were bemused, but ultimately encouraging (there is some crossover between Elon advocates and Redditors).

This kind of tabloidy attention was new for Grimes. Ten years ago, Claire Boucher’s noisy goth-pop tinkering made her an underground luminary of Myspace and Montreal. The scope of Grimes’s stardom began to expand with each new album—Geidi Primes and Halfaxa in 2010, followed by her 2012 breakthrough Visions—in a trajectory so gradual and subtle that she became a household name right under fans’ noses. (That is, if your household reads Pitchfork.) 2015’s incredible Art Angels rendered Grimes untouchable by critics’ standards. She was followed with an almost protective sense of admiration, a shield of praise. But as the artist revealed more of herself, the quirky blog-born icon vanished. Longtime followers witnessed the dismantling of their relatable genius figure, the hometown hero and internet friend—they were losing control.

Grimes’s fifth album, Miss Anthropocene, released last Friday, is about idolatry during the apocalypse, when fandom looks like worship and pop stars are expected to act accordingly. The ethics of stardom become murky when you consider the chaos it overshadows—systemic oppression, climate disaster, a country careening toward dictatorship. The pop star is no longer just an entertainer. She’s an activist. For years, people begged Taylor Swift to use her platform to speak on political issues until someone on her management team decided that recognizing the gay community might be good for marketing. But Grimes does the opposite of virtue signaling; she milks controversy, defending capitalism and welcoming our AI overlords. She seemed to be poking fun at pop wokery when she announced Miss Anthropocene last year with a singular goal: “I want to make climate change fun.”

Grimes’s public persona is marked by heavy air quotes. Everything she says calls for a grain of salt or a generous sense of humor—a “de-aged digital clone” baby named War Nymph, “experimental” (fake) eye surgery that eliminates blue light from your vision, whatever’s going on here. “I think I’ll kill ‘Grimes’ soon,” she told the Wall Street Journal in March 2019. “It will be a public execution followed by—by something else. I shouldn’t say yet.” It’s unclear whether Miss Anthropocene is Grimes’s funeral. But if it is, Grimes didn’t kill Grimes, she died of natural causes. The album doesn’t deal with climate change so much as it is infected by it. Doom reverberates in canned screams and chainsaw guitars. It lingers around dusty acoustics and pulses with video game bloops. The earth is burning and the ghost of Grimes is dancing on its ashes.

Grimes points to a new genre of apocalypse pop (a-pop-calypse, if you will). In 10 tracks, she mimics a range of pop star styles, processing the end of the world through modern deities and holy grounds. There are allusions to Halseyan top 40 anxiety bangers and club music escapism and blind optimism, à la Ariana Grande. Inspired by the 2015 Indian film Bajirao Mastani, “4ÆM” channels the sound of Bollywood via drum and bass EDM. Grimes’s airy chanting swirls into stabbing synths. The chorus flashes like a possessed alarm clock as her voice switches to monotone, glowing above the fidgety nightlife noise: “You’re gonna get sick, you don’t know when / I never doubt it at 4 a.m.”

On “My Name Is Dark,” Grimes surrenders to insomnia and visions of heaven and hell in a rumbling nu metal dirt cloud. Without a guide or anchor, she flickers between waking life and the dream realm, bemoaning social media in one line (“The boys are such a bore, the girls are such a bore”) and talking to the angel of death in the next (“Paradise on my right, h-h-h-hell on my left.”) “Before the Fever” churns with seductive Lana Del Rey–esque dystopian romance. Grimes spends her last day on earth looking for someone to spend it with, swaying into the darkness: “I’m a little bit in love with you / I can take your picture, baby / This is the sound of the end of the world / Dance me to the end of the night.”

End times primarily play out in Grimes’s head, but “Delete Forever” is one of the few moments on the album when Grimes truly looks beyond herself. The song is about the opioid epidemic, written the night of Lil Peep’s overdose. She strums a banjo and sings, “Funny how they think us naive when we’re on the brink / Innocence was fleeting like a season.” We keep losing young artists to drug abuse, who often have even younger listeners coping with the same struggles. These artists exposed mental health issues and a poison in the music industry. When those voices die, who takes their place?

Grimes calls “New Gods” the thesis of Miss Anthropocene, in which she wonders what beliefs can be built from the earth’s remains, the “Broken glass that shines like Northern Lights,” post-religion, post-pop star. We worship waste, “plastic and pollution and plastic surgery and social media,” she said in an interview with Sean Carroll. God is dead, and Grimes has killed him. “Only brand-new gods can save me.”

Despite her well-established interest in an AI takeover (“My Instagram bio was: ‘I pledge allegiance to the robot overlords’ for, like, two years,” she told Crack magazine last year. “I thought people understood that I ultimately probably believe in an AI dictatorship.”) the album’s apocalyptic sketches suggest a value system ruled by a hunger for companionship and guidance. Unfortunately, our humanity doesn’t make for a very exciting doomsday. Miss Anthropocene’s tracklist is about three-fourths explosion and one-fourth smoke. It’s not that the smoke isn’t beautiful and haunting in its own way, but the album can drag while we wait for it to dissipate.

On Art Angels, Grimes debuted a strain of mutated hyper-pop. She hand-picked and transformed the distinct sounds of surf punk, country, ’90s breakbeat, baroque, and bubblegum. Miss Anthropocene maintains an experimental spirit, but occasionally gets stuck recycling pop tropes without ever fully committing to them.

Miss Anthropocene closes with signs of new life—chirping birds, trembling fingers, and lilting horns. “IDORU” zooms out and Grimes is left singing atop a pile of metal scraps and detritus, nobody’s hero: “I wanna play a beautiful game / Even though we’re gonna lose.”

Julia Gray is a Brooklyn-based music and culture writer. Her work has appeared in places like The Washington Post, Playboy, and Stereogum. She makes chaotic tweets at @juliagrayok.