The costly aversion of the eyes from death—
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.

– Philip Larkin

Until last fall when she was accused of technofascism, I had only a vague familiarity with Grimes, whose 2012 hit “Oblivion” had come to me a time or two from Spotify’s all-knowing algorithm. She didn’t seem to have the overlord vibe. But after nearly a decade of producing weird indie synth-pop, Grimes began making some controversial statements. This spring, she released “an evil album about how great climate change is,” titled Miss Anthropocene. A pun on “misanthropy” and the epoch we unofficially live in, it’s named after the beauty-queen goddess of the climate crisis who is “made out of ivory and oil.” Each song is “about a different way the world could end.”

A concept this decadent would never play well with an audience concerned primarily with social inequality. On her Spotify “About” page, Grimes confesses that she “recently had experimental eye surgery only available to the upper class.” These types of tongue-in-cheek remarks have become fairly normal since she showed up at last year’s Met Gala with Elon Musk; last week, she gave birth to their child, X Æ A-12. Should anyone fare well in the Anthropocene, it would be these people, in space colonies and gilded bunkers.

Even so, I can’t help loving this album. There’s something delicious about the concept, at least to me. That’s not to mention its prophetic timeliness. Released on February 21, Miss Anthropocene features at least two songs that reference illness: “Before the Fever” (“this is the sound of the end of the world”) and “4ÆM” (“you’re gonna get sick / you don’t know when”). In the video for an early single, “Violence,” Grimes wears a face mask, like so many of us today.

The album conjures a pantheon of new gods which includes not only Miss Anthropocene but also the goddess of gaming, the demon of AI, and the goddess of simulation (to name a few). In an interview with Lana Del Rey, Grimes explained where this idea came from:

I think we’re inherently religious, even if we’re not explicitly religious. We get emotional about things that feel religious. Even the way people feel about you, it’s a form of idol worship. I don’t know what else you would call it. If there’s an artist I love, I see them live and I cry, and I’m like, “Man, I’m acting like some 14th-century farmer right now.” I feel like some pilgrim seeing a holy relic or something.

But more prevalent than the new gods might be the destruction they wreak and Grimes’ giddy conception of it. From the clangorous “My Name Is Dark,” a telling lyric emerges: “Imminent annihilation sounds so dope.” In that music video—which she disclaims as “NOT thee OFFICIAL VIDEOOO, just a cute vibe”—the demon of political apathy snacks while the galaxy explodes around her.

Of course I wonder at Grimes’ dark preoccupations, and my own enjoyment of them. I’m reminded of what literary critic A. Alvarez called an “innate destructive force” in the human psyche. In his 1970 book The Savage God, Alvarez likened the human mind to a “baby screaming with hunger and frustration”: “In the adult,” he wrote, “traces of these primitive experiences remain, buried like fragments of a prehistoric settlement far below a modern city, but emerging when the elaborate superstructure is shattered by some psychic explosion.”

Alvarez’s book was a study of literary suicide, and one of his more compelling theories involves Freud’s death instinct. In Freud’s thinking, we seek to return to our “most archaic” state: inanimate, in the womb. Notably, on a track titled “You’ll miss me when I’m not around,” Grimes threatens suicide with an almost childish tenor (“I’ll tie my feet to rocks and drown / you’ll miss me when I’m not around”).[*] If the death instinct aims to “undo connections and so to destroy things,” it is the force underlying this kind of art.

For many psychologists, though, the death instinct theory fell out of fashion; perhaps too bleak, or unscientific. Lacan developed the concept of jouissance—a self-shattering drive beyond pleasure—which works particularly well in the case of Miss A. But whatever you call it, Freud felt that this desire for “undoing connections” was stronger and more widespread than even he had imagined. Alvarez again:

…the death instinct was not just a question of “primary aggression”; it entailed also the primary pessimism of a supremely civilized man who had watched, appalled, while the whole civilization he so passionately believed in began to fall to pieces.

…the theory of a death instinct working constantly away to disrupt and destroy has gathered considerable power as a kind of historical metaphor. Sixty-odd years of genocide and intermittent war between superpowers which, like Freud’s diseased superego, have become progressively harsher, more repressive and totalitarian, have made the modified ego gratifications of civilization seem peculiarly fragile. The response of the arts has been to reduce the pleasure principle to its most archaic forms—manic, naked, beyond culture. The new strategy of aesthetic sophistication is primitivism: tribal rhythms on every radio, … concrete poets grunting and oinking beyond language and beyond expression, avant-garde musicians exploring the possibilities of random noise, painters immortalizing industrial waste, radical politicians modeling their behavior on the clowns of a Roman Saturnalia, and a youth culture devoted to the gradual, chronic suicide of drug addiction. As the pleasure principle becomes less pleasurable and more manic, so the death instinct seems more powerful and ubiquitous …

Elements of Alvarez’s diagnosis haven’t aged particularly well (“primitivism,” “tribal rhythms”), but it takes only a small leap to find today’s equivalencies in widespread cynicism, bitter politics, and AI, which is the death instinct epitomized—the replacement of human life altogether.

Through Miss Anthropocene, Grimes taps into something true and terrifying about human nature: that destruction can be alluring, even fun. Acknowledging this fact leads to a deeper acknowledgement of one’s spiritual condition: total depravity (total as in holistic, not absolute). Alvarez believed that patients would struggle to relinquish their illness because part of them actually loved it. As psychoanalyst Bruce Fink once wrote, “Most people deny getting pleasure or satisfaction from their symptoms, but the outside observer can usually see that they enjoy their symptoms, that they ‘get off’ on their symptoms in a way that is too round about, ‘dirty,’ or ‘filthy’ to be described as pleasurable or satisfying.”

But as you probably know, self-destruction is not always this way. There comes a point, which many call rock bottom, when the allure dissipates and the demons are seen for what they are. Such is represented in “Delete Forever,” Grimes’ heartfelt response to the opioid epidemic. She describes it this way:

I was deleting files on my computer. It was like, “Delete forever?” And I was like, “I guess so,” like f***. But the song is actually quite dark. I’ve had six friends who’ve died from opiate related deaths, really good friends. So it’s dealing with the aftermath emotionally of that. It’s literally like the black plague. … There’s just this demon out in society and it’s super scary…

On that track she sings, “I can’t see above it / guess I f***ing love it / but, oh, I didn’t mean to.” That final turn, the “oh,” signifies the moment of clarity, however brief: the “jouissance crisis,” when extinction seems no longer fun.

Certainly anyone who believes human beings to be innate lovers of life will recoil from the anarchic snares of Miss Anthropocene. On the other hand, a concept like this might help us look at what could be otherwise too dark—ourselves.

“I want to make climate change fun,” Grimes once said, and was panned for it. But her subsequent remarks aren’t wrong: “People don’t care about it, because we’re being guilted. I see the polar bear and want to kill myself.”

Considered that way, Miss Anthropocene is the opposite of suicidal. It’s an attempt to lift off the yoke of guilt; to, amidst this apocalypse, look more squarely at life and claim it as something worth living. Maybe even enjoying.

[*] The music video for “You’ll miss me when I’m not around” features a green screen and little else; follow #GrimesArtKit to find user-modified videos, the best of which feature Grimes as the melancholic goddess of Toys R Us (RIP) and toilet paper.