FKA twigs: Against a Musical Vocabulary of Phallocentrism

29 Sep 2014 — Jennie Freeburg

As a girl, we sat along the wall under the barre and played a back scratching game in between ballet class: inscribing words, letter by letter, on a back while we simultaneously absorbed and read the letters being pressed into our own. My younger sister, grown now and still dancing, once conspiratorially confessed to me that the feeling of letters on her back and shoulders often created a line of sensation down there.

Dancers are acutely attuned to how down there is bound up with a host of sensations and processes— sinewy ligaments transmitting messages through body, mind and space. Moving is thinking is feeling is speaking.

I dance feelings like they’re spoken

How does it feel to have me thinking about you?

The artist FKA twigs—Tahliah Barnett, her nickname bestowed by her body, “twigs” for her cracking joints—was the daughter of a dancer and grew up in Gloucestershire taking ballet and attending Catholic school. She has recently released her first full-length album to general acclaim and another few consensuses: She is mysterious. Her music is sexy. She is (alt-)R&B, whether she likes it or not.

A few matters not so agreed upon or even addressed: What does it mean for music to be about sex? To be sex as one review declared? How might that meaning be different for a woman? For a dancer?

The Internet informs us that sex is about the right rhythm. Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” And a recent study shows that music with heavy bass makes us feel powerful because we associate power with men’s deep voices. Instead of male ejaculation, twigs’ music is about sex and power in a musical and lyrical language centered on female pleasure. This vocabulary, and the very concept of female pleasure, is somewhat of a befuddlement to popular culture and its critics.

General reaction to this disorientation has been to circumscribe the music and maker within reductive genre borders and comparisons—R&B and trip-hop, Aaliyah and Björk—and when those fall short, to declare twigs herself as cultivating a sense of mystery, likely for marketing purposes. Her songs are often called contradictory and she is accused of deliberate misreadings—by those for whom trust and sex, sexual appeasement and knowing that you can count on your lover, are separate things. Conversely, female listeners likely understand those connections and cannot help but recognize in the ways that blood, ripping someone open, and sex are not contradictory or easily separated in “Two Weeks”.

Twigs (despite her mysterious ways) has spoken out on the more insidious aspects of genre labels:

When I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like: “I've never heard anything like this before, it's not in a genre.” And then my picture came out six months later, now she's an R&B singer.

Certainly categorization can have its utility, but genre and sub-genre designations have not only replaced substantial criticism to the detriment of general music knowledge and listening abilities, they have also been doled out and defended with a zeal that uncomfortably approaches colonial and eugenic impulses. A musician is only as good as her lineage. The talk of twigs as mysterious and sexy can sound like a thinly veiled way of calling her exotic, further reducing her to an offensive cliché instead of a distinct artist worth being judged by her art.

When twigs points out other influences that might be getting more attention if she were white and blond—church hymns, classical music and opera—and repeatedly implores us to “talk about the actual music,” The Guardian’s Ben Beaumont-Thomas describes her demeanor “as if I've asked her to take the restaurant's bins out.” Seemingly unwilling to accept that assumptions based on race are offensive and can lurk in unexpected places like convenient genre labels, he mollifies an irrational pop starlet: “In an attempt to placate her, I ask if she feels singular.” She may feel singular, but we know what sub-genre she really is.

LP1 (even the album titles—EP1, EP2, LP1—ask us to focus on the content and not the label) opens with a hymn. The melodic and harmonic intervals hark back to Gregorian chant and medieval counterpoint, but where hymns are straightforward and driving always homeward, “Preface” loops back upon itself. Choirboy vocals swirl around the cathedral dome and introduce various imposed rhythms and sounds that add to the dizziness—at times aligning with the melody, other times ever-so-slightly out of sync. The church pipe organ one would expect to accompany the hymn appears instead on the next track (and an even more traditional hymn structure and lyrics come later in the album, on the song "Closer"). It is an appropriate introduction for the sounds to follow.

“I love another, and thus I hate myself,” a line in “Preface” is from Sir Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet which describes seemingly contradictory states as not just coexisting within the poet, but also causing the other. I love another and thus I hate myself. They are not contradictory, they are inseparable.

“Preface” opens with a technique of percussive vocal staccatos that are employed elsewhere on LP1 as well as on both of the EPs. This motif technically and symbolically calls attention to the relation between rhythm and melody, between the individual notes that connect to form musical ideas. It calls to mind “Hocket” by Meredith Monk where two singers sustain the eponymous musical technique of splitting a single melody line note by note. Elsewhere, like on “Water Me” and “Weak Spot” off twigs’ first two EPs, her vocal staccatos come closer to the more computerized “ha ha ha ha” of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”. All of these works address the ways music and people come together, the connections formed, and what can come in the spaces between.

Discussion of FKA twigs’ music cannot ignore that she is writing about sex more directly, effectively and consistently than any popular music artist of the last few decades (other than Prince). Twigs would likely agree with Wilde that everything is about sex. As such, everything cannot be expressed with just words. Discussion of sexuality in her music should therefore not be reduced to only lyrical content. Rhythm, movement, melody and lyrics interact to create the overlapping arcs of desire, pain, trust, power, loss and anger that create erotic space. This is music for when the lights are out, indeed, but if we trust her, we can do it with the lights on and “it” is so much more than fucking.

Twigs brings the body into her music through rhythm, and she knows that to do so masterfully is to create much more than a beat one can dance to. Oftentimes it is the absence of such a beat that gets her message across: “Hide” is an unraveling tango of absence—of space—where the metronomic percussion becomes subsumed and slowed in the course of the song, disorienting and separating from the melodic rhythm and accompanying guitar. The beats wind down as twigs finds satisfaction elsewhere: “I found another way / To caress my day.”

The negotiation of multiple contrasting and/or ambiguous rhythms is at the heart of twigs’ work. This is the language of interplay between bodies, thoughts and one another (not just where you bump and grind it). The best composers for dance are the ones who understand this language. In a scene from the ballet Petrushka by Stravinsky the ballerina is performing a waltz; when her would-be paramour joins in, their incompatibility is apparent by his clunky insistence on dancing to a slow duple meter against her triple waltz.

Compare this to “Breathe” from EP1. The rhythms here convey not just divergence but also the struggle to regain synchronicity. Twigs protests, “All I see is the reflection of who you are not,” the melody races to try to catch the drumbeats until she comes to focus on the unconscious rhythm of breathing, “I breathe easily in your arms.” The music slows and the beat lets up for a moment as she tries to gather the rhythms together: “Just breathe / Breathe in / Just breathe / Breathe in.”

These complexities and nuances of rhythm haven’t been mined to such depths in pop music since Radiohead. Björk too uses rhythm to express emotion and states of being. Twigs’ rhythms add a distinct awareness of the body and intimate relationships that is decidedly feminine. She is knowledgeable and wary of how one’s personal rhythms can be overtaken by seemingly more powerful, deeper voices: “Your love / Made my heart go boom / So I might lose myself in you”. But she is also aware of how one can learn to incorporate those opposing forces within oneself: the expansive gesture of dance counted “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight,” and the mathematical motion of music, “one, two, three, four” (or even, “one-e-and-a-two-e-and-a…”) alongside the linguistic common meter of hymn, the iambs and anapests of speech.

One of twigs’ most powerful and stimulating (erotically, intellectually, viscerally) tracks is “Two Weeks”. The song is a major convergence of rhythmic, harmonic and emotional elements. Lyrically, twigs is at her most explicitly desirous and commanding, and yet music and lyrics together make it clear that her lover is already gone—there are no disparate rhythms to gather, the loss is clear and acute. Beyond the math and theory of rhythm and harmonies, there is something inexplicable at work. It has something to do with the particular sharp physical desire felt in times of loss and the ecstasy of a sorrow that reaches full expression.

The electronic vibrato of keyboards in “Two Weeks” gradually swell and abate (in a way that recalls the first movement of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3), but the song doesn’t wait for abatement before it ends—as twigs' songs often do—seemingly unfinished. While this has proven noteworthy in pop music, it is less remarkable in the realm of female desire.

“Kicks” directly acknowledges the inherent difference in male and female approaches to, and definitions of, pleasure. Common interpretation of the end of LP1 finds twigs alone “giving up and having a wank”. But there is so much more happening here than simply an ode to masturbation. By the close of her album, we know twigs better than to believe she needs to “take your lead” in order to learn how to get herself off. She is experimenting with more than mechanics. No longer feeling for someone else, no longer waiting, she finds her rhythm in accepting absence and asking, “What do I do when you’re not here?” Until now, sex involved another person—even just their absence. It accommodated multiple rhythms and spaces. But here, to go her “own damn way” and “get her kicks like you” is simply to touch, to define getting her kicks as just that, separate from the ambiguous unfinished stuff of life.

Twigs’ voice is often described as airy and delicate, even too pretty (apparently vocal as well as physical beauty distracts from what a woman is saying). Her range is impressive and, as is often the case with sopranos, much is lost in the compressed digital translation. To hear her live is to understand the presence and force of a controlled, impeccably pitched soprano that resonates through the concert space, down through your toes, leaving goose bumps in its wake. That’s sex. That’s power.