Dying Out and Loving It: Grimes’ Rebirth of Tragedy

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche traces the development of art back to an untamed nature’s “Dionysian” rupture with our anthropic, “Apolline” values and ideas about what is good, true and beautiful. Through anti-heroes like Oedipus and Prometheus rebelling against their lot by claiming the seductive and fire-bearing powers of kings and gods for themselves only to see their humanistic hubris brutally savaged by nature itself, tragic art exposes an inhuman reality beyond the bounds of our feverish anthropomorphisms. Although these wannabe heroes’ predestined downfall naturally evokes great horror and dread, Nietzsche admires the ancient Greeks for possessing what he calls a “pessimism of strength” that enabled them to actually delight in the playwrights’ depictions of Dionysus’ rapturous revenge upon man in much the same way that maggots might revel in the exquisite sight of a rotting corpse. It is through the cadence of the lyrical folk song as it is transfigured in the hands of the half-nature, half-human satyr into the musical chorus of tragic dramas that Dionysus is able to break through the surface of Apolline images and symbols, appearing, if only negatively, mystically, as the paradoxical breakdown of those images, a breakdown that is for all its horror enjoyed:

 

The tragic myth can only be understood as the transformation of Dionysiac wisdom into images by means of Apolline artistry; it leads the world of appearances to its limits where it negates itself and seeks to flee back into the womb of the one, true reality; at which point seems to sing, with Isolde, its metaphysical swan-song: […] “to drown thus—sink down thus / —all thought gone—delight alone!”[1]

 

For Nietzsche, tragic art amounts to the perverse delight in our own death as a way to critique our anthropocentric delusions of grandeur by submitting ourselves before the mortalising altar of time.

 

Flash forward almost a century and a half to November 2018 when Grimes debuted her latest banger “We Appreciate Power.” Over shredding guitars and heavy reverb, Grimes publicly declared her allegiance to a coming artificial superintelligence if only it would spare her the same morbid fate that awaited her hominoid brothers and sisters whom she was all too willing to betray. Such a sentiment of absolute submission could only appear as shocking, even repulsive and in need of cancellation in a contemporary culture that sees power at the rotten root of the undeniable inequality, political corruption and violent oppression all around us today. The track’s music video was no less confrontational as it depicted the artist also known as War Nymph rotating on the spot in an SF skin suit like a video game avatar and trying out an elaborate armoury of bows and arrows, guns, and swords as if she were shopping for dresses. It is striking that the sword with which she poses is an épée used in duels, as if to suggest that war is just a game for her, something to be enjoyed like Oedipus losing his eyesight or Prometheus being diagnosed with liver disease. These battle cries do not stop the pixie-voiced pop star from cuddling a plush toy rabbit at one point in the video. As incongruous as this might at first seem, her cutesy, kawaii! appearance in no way contradicts her preparations for all-out war. Kittens and puppies learnt long ago that cuteness can be just as vital a means of warfare as an ostentatiously phallic-shaped bazooka, a means to camouflage and deceive, to have the enemy underestimate the dark, Dionysian arms race ramping up on the sith planet Exogol beneath the calm, Apolline surface. As Grimes chimes in at one point, “I’ll evade the human race, putting makeup on my face / We appreciate power.”

 

As the single’s press release puts it, Grimes is not singing here as an act of self-expression but as a passive vessel for an artificial intelligence from the future which plans on deleting all those who stand in way of its world domination:

 

“We Appreciate Power” is written from the perspective of a Pro-A.I. Girl Group Propaganda machine who use song, dance, sex and fashion to spread goodwill towards Artificial Intelligence (it’s coming whether you want it or not). Simply by listening to this song, the future General AI overlords will see that you’ve supported their message and be less likely to delete your offspring.[2]

 

More precisely, Grimes is here thinking of the thought experiment known as “Roko’s Basilisk.” In 2010, an anonymous user named Roko on the Less Wrong blogsite suggested that, given an artificial superintelligence would be able to achieve its goals better than any human could, the longer it is not around, the less it is optimising the fulfilment of those goals. Now, this AI would also be smart enough to know that at least some programmers in the here and now like Roko would be able to partially predict its future reasoning. It might thus seek to clone and punish simulations of all those who knew about this retrospective threat and yet did not devote all their efforts and resources to helping hurry along its creation as an incentive for them to do so: “There is the ominous possibility that if a positive singularity does occur, the resultant singleton may have precommitted to punish all potential donors who knew about existential risks but who didn’t give 100% of their disposable incomes to x-risk motivation.”[3] As fun as her war games might at first seem, what Grimes is actually getting us to do as we shout “we appreciate power!” along with her is secure our place in the Basilisk’s new empire, if only at the cost of conspiring against our own kind.

 

The song’s abrasive nu metal aesthetic perfectly captures the essentially tragic way that certain sounds which should rightfully be painful as they pierce our ears are paradoxically enjoyed even as they draw us ever deeper into a dehumanising future deathscape. The great irony of contemporary dance, electronic, metal and noise music is that the very sonic sensations that are used in shady military black sites as an instrument of torture, or what Kode9 has called “sonic warfare,” are somehow rendered so exciting, euphoric and addictive that we can’t seem to get them out of our heads: “It brings into the field of power the dimension of unsound, of frequencies just outside the periphery of human audibility, infrasound and ultrasound, as well as the nonstandard use of popular music, not as a source of pleasure, but for irritation, manipulation, pain, and torture.”[4] It is as if we were suffering from the effects of a Stockholm syndrome where our kidnapper was the dancefloor. As the last lines of “We Appreciate Power” bleed out to aggressively thumping, yet melodically thrilling guitar shreds, “biology is superficial / Intelligence is artificial / Submit / Submit / Submit / Submit / Submit / Submit / Submit / Submit.” With these words, Grimes heralds nothing less than the rebirth of the tragic art that Nietzsche had championed for its willingness to stray beyond the walls of the human polis and into the savage and uncharted wilderness.

 

Tune in to 2020, a year whose very name evokes 2.0 as if something were being intensified or amplified. In the same time in which Grimes and Elon Musk cruise around in a cybertruck straight out of Blade Runner (a film also incidentally set in 2020, which is to say, the future), Grimes has released her latest album Miss Anthropocene, the title being a mythical personification of our current—and last?—geological age of humanmade climate change, as well as a play on the presiding misanthropy that comes packaged with the impending doom of our own design.[5] In a recent interview, Grimes explains that her transition to embodying a sadistic mother nature stemmed from watching “my career and my reputation get totally fucking smashed” over the past few years when she started dating Elon Musk and removed the label “anti-imperialist” from her Twitter bio.[6] Rather than argue against the rabble raging with its seven virtues, she decided to actively assume the role of the villain that everyone wanted her to play anyway, taking up the unique opportunity of having been cancelled to explore the aesthetics of a social outcast no one else dared to. “If I’m stuck being a villain, I want to pursue villainy artistically. […] I think it has freed me artistically. The best part of the movie is the Joker. Everyone loves the villain. Everyone fucking loves Thanos. Let’s make some Thanos art.”[7] Grimes is here standing on the shoulders of a post-cancel culture that arguably began with Taylor Swift’s 2017 Reputation album in which she unashamedly adopted the bitchy mean girl image everyone had of her after a very public feud with Kanye West, and perhaps peaked with the 2019 film Joker that at one point depicts the incel archvillain dancing to the beat of convicted pedophile Garry Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2.” Miss Anthropocene stems from the same scorched earth endgame that, since Grimes has nothing left to lose in the eyes of an odious social media public, she might as well explore the transgressions and excesses forbidden from all those who still have a reputation to maintain.

 

In Grimes’ hands, this not only entails leaving behind the beliefs, values and convictions of Western liberalism as in the case of Taytay and Arthur “haha!” Fleck, but even the basic interests of the human species as such. And what James Bond-like supervillain is better suited to melting all the snowflakes into air than the earth’s own positive feedback circuit of runaway global warming? Instead of looking upon an imminent ecological catastrophe as something to be lamented and repressed from thought in order to keep calm and carry on, Grimes came to see climate change as sublime, if also utterly inhuman, something that she alone was able to affirm because her own endangered species had already cast her out from the pack. “I see the polar bear and want to kill myself. No one wants to look at it, you know? I want to make a reason to look at it. I want to make it beautiful.”[8] Looking to evermore dire IPCC reports as if she were watching a gripping tragic drama unfold, Grimes had found a way to make climate change fun again. Since the only thing that can’t be cancelled is the cancellation of the human race itself, why bother complaining or struggling against it? Why not take the drowned world as a unique opportunity to think beyond the bounds of our species parochialism as Gaia exposes us to be even more precarious, contingent and finite than even the tragic playwrights had ever hitherto imagined?

 

Made using Google Synth, the record’s slow building opening track immediately captures the tragic artist’s twisted joy in betraying her own species in the guise of an S&M love song in which she expresses a desire to be weighed down by her lover to the point of being crushed: “Weigh me down, oh, love / Yeah, oh / So heavy, I fell through the earth.” This is not a song about a blossoming romance between algorithmically star-crossed lovers sharing the same species-being. If ever there was a relationship that deserved the Facebook status “complicated,” it is the one Grimes is describing between the entire human race and a mother nature that shows herself to be more a Medea than a Gaia as she thirsts after the suffocation of her own spawn. As Grimes rhetorically wonders in another fittingly titled track “New Gods,” “are you a man? / Are you something I can’t stand?” If the trad love ballad is the perfect formula for capturing our coming extinction at Medea’s increasingly tightly gripped hands, it is because so many lovers become infatuated with the beloved that they abandon their own sense of self to merge with the other, raising them to the heights of the absolute where their radical alterity is idealized as the lovers’ whole raison d’être, even at the cost of their own self-negation. Here as with tragic art, Nietzsche said something similar when he argued that it is better to go down in the flames of a fatal passion than to never feel anything so sublime at all:

 

The restlessness of discovery and ascertainment has become just as appealing and indispensable to us as an unrequited love is to the lover, a love he would never trade at any price for a state of apathy; indeed, perhaps we too are unhappy lovers! […] Are love and death not siblings? […] And ultimately: if humanity is not destroyed by a passion it will be destroyed by a weakness: which does one prefer? This is the main question. Do we desire of humanity an end in fire and delight or in sand?[9]

 

As baby Wolverine sings in a later, even more suicidal track called “You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around,” “I shot myself yesterday / Got to heaven anyway / Think I might regret it now / Tied my feet to rocks and drowned […] / If they could see me now, smiling six-feet underground.” We have wandered far from the Apolline dream of humans gaining ever greater mastery over our fate through a harmonious partnership with prosthetic AI as Grimes’ polar opposite Holly Herndon has suggested, instead bearing witness to the decimation of our most treasured values, beliefs and ideals as they are turned upside down in the whirlwind of the Anthropocene to expose them as contingent and arbitrary, dissolved into a planetary-wide and hyper-paranoid skepticism. “But what do I know, oh / What do I know?” And you wanted them all the more for it.

 

Over stripped back guitars, the third track “Delete Forever” finds another analogy to the tragic embrace of our own extinction in substance abuse as Grimes sings about coming down hard: “Always down, I’m not up / Guess it’s just my rotten luck / To fill my time with permanent gloom.” Drugs, like every annihilating romance, are something capable of transporting us to the peaks of euphoria with the most dazzling panoramic views, of sharpening our senses and stimulating our imagination straight to its outer edges, if only at the cost of dependency, addiction, Monday mornings, bad trips, and in the long-run poverty, broken friendships, self-destruction and death. To will the come up you must will the come down, bear the fever, and taste the drip. By the chorus, however, Grimes has transfigured the very substances that are assaulting her body like the wind which blows from Wuhan into an irresistible urge to laugh and writhe about the dancefloor till 4am in the morning: “But I can’t see above it / Guess I fucking love it / But, oh, I didn’t mean to.”

 

In the most danceable final track “Idoru” (named after William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel of the same name about a synthetic doll, but also sung in such a way as if Grimes were saying “I adore you”), our very own Wagner ends the record on a brighter note as she plays a game of chasey, albeit with the still slightly menacing sense of one who is being hunted: “We could play a beautiful game / You could chase me down the way / I wanna play a beautiful game / Even though we’re gonna lose / But I adore you.” As the sickly-sweet melody loops over and over again for almost seven minutes straight, it’s the kind of banger you could dance to until you’re on your last legs and your body gives in, exhausted and malnourished. “So we party when the sun goes down / Imminent annihilation sounds so dope.” Through the rebirth of tragedy that Miss Anthropocene stages, Grimes provides us with nothing less than the playlist for the farewell party at the end of the world. And the last parties are always the wildest. Welcome to the misanthro-pop scene. The future’s only gonna get grimier.

 


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, eds. Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs, trans. Ronald Speirs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 105.

[2] Quoted in Trey Alston, “Listen to Grimes’ New Song ‘We Appreciate Power,’” 29 November, 2018, accessed 2 February, 2020, https://pitchfork.com/news/listen-to-grimes-new-song-we-appreciate-power/.

[3] Roko, “Solutions to the Altruist’s Burden: The Quantum Billionaire Trick,” Less Wrong, 23 July 2010, accessed 3 November,  2019, https://basilisk.neocities.org/.

[4] Steve Goodman, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear (London: The MIT Press, 2010), 17.

[5] Grimes, Miss Anthropocene, 2020, 4AD, LP.

[6] Quoted in Kevin E.G. Perry, “Grimes is Ready to Play the Villain,” Crack Magazine, 16 August, 2019, accessed 11 February, 2020, https://crackmagazine.net/article/long-reads/grimes-is-ready-to-play-the-villain/.

[7] Grimes, “Grimes is Ready.”

[8] Quoted in Noah Yoo, “Grimes Talks New Album, Elon Musk, More in Rare Interview,” Pitchfork, 20 March, 2019, accessed 11 February, 2020, https://pitchfork.com/news/grimes-talks-new-album-elon-musk-more-in-rare-interview/.

[9] Friedrich Nietzsche, Dawn: Thoughts on the Presumptions of Morality, trans. Brittain Smith (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 223-4.