One of those conversation pieces about a topic, featuring a conversation between me and “contributing editor” gallons. Maybe it will become an ongoing thing if we don’t get bored.
BTBT – FKA twigs is a famous human who confuses me. Critical authority “gallons” calls her approach to “the bodily and the sexual” “more nuanced, aggressive, disturbing, and deranged than pretty much anyone else out there right now.” Idk about deranged, but nuanced and disturbing are definitely on target. For some reason the general discourse on her stops at “she is a feminist” or “she is confusing.” This seems to be pretty lazy to me – It’s not my place (or anyone’s place, I guess) to say something is or isn’t feminist, but it seems to me like the video for “FKA x inc.” is no type-uh normal feminism. She’s doing something next level and I’m not sure what.
Despite her claims to the contrary, I think it’s sort of silly for twigs (aka Tahliah Barnett) to distance herself from R&B. She calls racism in her interview awhile back with the Guardian, but honestly I think her closest antecedent, visually and musically, is Ciara Princess Harris. I’d call her bizarro-world Ciara, but she’s really not that bizarro – both young women, both calling their own shots and writing their own music, both collaborating closely with innovative producers (twigs’s Arca and Dev Hynes to Ciara’s Jazzy Pha and Lil Jon), both mixing aggression and sexuality in a way that makes it incredibly hard to claim them for any one feminist camp. And despite all the (deserved) Weeknd and triphop comparisons, “LP1” sounds a whole lot like a hypothetical really, really, really good Ciara album. “Two Weeks” could have been on “Goodies.” Listen to it next to “Oh.” It’s all the same vibe.
I think this comparison is important because Ciara, despite being a perfectly fine singer and an occasionally incredible songwriter, is first and foremost a remarkable dancer. I feel the same way about twigs – her voice is great and she uses it well and her songs are awesome, but if she didn’t do what she does in her music videos then I wouldn’t have a whole lot to say about her right now. Like Ciara, the focus of twig’s art seems to be the (i.e. her) human body – what it can do, how it can be controlled, what it can touch, how it can be touched. Whatever twigs’s answer to that is, it’s incredibly complex and almost impossible to sum up in an 850-word think-piece. This makes me think that the best person to turn to in this conversation is Jean-Luc Nancy, whose (much longer than 850-words) essay “Corpus” strikes me as one of the better things ever written on the body and what a weird, scary, incredible thing it is.
GALLONS – I think I’m with you on all this, but I don’t know how useful I can be. I don’t know Ciara at all really, and I don’t know Nancy. I will definitely agree with you, though, that twigs’s main thing is visual/bodily/movement oriented, and that the music would be pretty unremarkable without it. Have you seen that Google Glass thing she did? Or this?
BTBT – Ugh [name redacted], you are the worst at this. You are supposed to “dialogue” with me, not put it off. I say something insightful and then you work off it by saying something more intelligent. Or you be like – hmm, that’s interesting. I don’t know Nancy very well though, what’s his deal? And then I’m like well here’s this helpful quote I have waiting for you – COME ON.
GALLONS – Sry, didn’t realize we were dialoguing yet. We’ll edit for clarity/function. But now I’ve had some time to think and I believe I can actually make some intelligent responses, so –
I can’t say much about twigs’s relationship to Ciara, as I feel probably incorrectly that I’ve pretty much never heard a Ciara song in my life. “Body Party,” right? That was definitely sexy, though in a way that felt more straight-forward R&B sexy to me than twigs does. “Oh” certainly doesn’t strike me as anything revolutionary.
That said, I can totally speak to her relationship to trip-hop. I think the press is focusing a lot on the sonic similarities, the darkness, the drugginess. But that’s ignoring the sex. Out of the Bristol trip-hop triumvirate of Portishead, Massive Attack, and Tricky, Tricky is by far the most relevant. “Maxinquaye” is made up almost entirely of louche bedroom songs, and those made in collaboration with his then lover Martina Topley-Bird are some of the more disturbingly sexual songs I can think of. “Suffocated Love”? “Overcome”? Yeah, could easily be twigs tracks. Portishead, too, though, hit on some seriously intense feminine sexuality on “Dummy” with songs like “Glory Box” and “Biscuit.”
Point being, if you want to say that twigs’s lineage is something like the creepy, almost motionless sexuality of trip-hop filtered through the dance-oriented, physical sexuality of Ciara, I’d say you weren’t far from the mark.
BTBT – Nothing about “Oh” is revolutionary – it’s just really good. Super dark, super menacing, bizarrely cold – but somehow it ends up as sexy dance music. This more or less describes that early 2000s era of R&B and hip hop. Ciara barely even mutters the lyrics (which are basically just long lists of things having to do with the Atlanta projects) and it comes off as empowered and aggressively sexual. Maybe a better example is “Goodies,” which is basically the only single about sex from that first album – and it centers around the line “you lookin’ for my goodies? Keep on lookin’ ’cause they stay in the jar.” But I guess that’s preceded by the line “got you all hot and bothered.” So in a lot of ways I think it’s about alienating you, viewer – “I am beautiful and I am aggressively sexual and you can’t touch me.” The production is the perfect compliment to it – spooky and distant, but so beat-oriented that it can’t be anything other than a club song. It forces you onto the dancefloor and then makes you think, what the hell am I doing? How can you grind to “Goodies” any way but ironically? I think “1, 2 Step” pushes the absurdity of it all to the peak – it’s the lyrical equivalent of “The Locomotion” over a crunk beat. What are you supposed to do with that? What a weird time to have been in middle school and learning how to dance with girls.
So I guess I think twigs is pushing all of these things up to the forefront. “LP1” is like deconstructed “Goodies.” If a Polow Da Don beat is dark and alienating, what do you call an Arca beat? If Ciara’s vocals are cold, twigs’s are – very cold. And if Ciara presents her body in a difficult-to-objectify way, I don’t even know how to begin to describe what twigs is doing.
And you’re right, she’s doing all of it using the tools of English trip-hop. The alienation and the “motionlessness,” as you said, are all there and taken for granted in Portishead and Tricky. But I think they’re all – in a strange, subtle way – present in Ciara as well, just hidden behind Benny Boom videos. So twigs’s contribution is to dig that weirdness out of Atlanta crunk. Which is totally not what she’s trying to do, I don’t think, but I think she wants people to feel weird in The Club, Drake version, in the same way they used to feel weird in the club, Bristol version.
GALLONS – Alright, solid. I don’t know to what degree trip-hop was ever about feeling weird in the club as opposed to feeling weird in the boudoir, but yeah, I gotcha. In any case, though the sexual component of FKA twigs’s stuff is major and crucial to understanding her, I think pulling back a bit and looking at the bodily more broadly is a good move. I know my, and I think many people’s, first encounter with twigs was the video for “Water Me,” which is absolutely about the body but not the least bit sexual.
BTBT – Yes, that’s a good point, which is why I’m thinking about Nancy. Three quotes that really stand out to me while re-reading “Corpus” –
(Maybe – maybe this word [body] could be saved by beautiful geometrical designs in three or n dimensions, with elegant axonometries: but then everything would have to float, hanging in mid-air, and bodies must touch the ground.) (9)
A body’s always ob-jected from the outside, to “me” or to someone else. Bodies are first and always other – just as others are first and always bodies (29).
A body only ever “penetrates” the opening of another body when killing it (which is why the sexual lexicon is completely meager, a lexicon of nothing less than murder and death . . . ). But a body “in” a body, ego “in” ego, doesn’t “open” anything: it is at the very opening that the body already is, infinitely, and more than originally so; this crossing takes place right there, without penetration, this melee occurs without mingling. Love is the touch of the open (29).
Throughout “Corpus,” Nancy repeats that the body is the thing that cuts us off from the world while simultaneously connecting us with everything else. As bodies we can never be **entered** and never **enter** anything else, but we can – and this is important – **touch** each another.
It seems to me that twigs – who is so absolutely comfortable in, but nevertheless makes me feel really uncomfortable about, her body – is trying to force us to acknowledge how incredibly separate we are from one another, but without denying the intimacy of that separateness. I’m alienated by her intense otherness, but I still get a sense of intense closeness when I watch and listen to her. Does that make sense?
GALLONS – I have no idea what an “axonometry” is, but I think you’re on to something. Twigs’s relation to her own body – proud of it, flaunting it, but also letting it be distorted and messed with – seems to be asking us, viewers to involve ourselves somehow. She wants to touch through the screen. (I think this is most obvious in the “Papi Pacify” clip, where she’s letting her body be manipulated pretty severely the entire time, but also staring straight into the camera, simultaneously inviting and accusing you, viewer.) Her body is brazenly, totally open, but also totally sealed off.
This brings to mind the thing that’s at the top of my head these days – giving. To quote myself – “To give of oneself is utterly terrifying, and it’s equally terrifying to receive another’s self. If you find your own self confusing, hard to deal with, fucked up, complicated, disturbing, and scary, imagine someone else’s. That said, your weird, fucked up self is probably your most prized possession, and so to waste some of it by giving it is counter-intuitive and terrifying. This is why the gift of the self is the most enormous generosity.” To me, twigs seems to be giving herself, via her videos, via her performances, as a body. What is dancing if not presenting the body as a piece of art – a gift? She’s putting forth her body as a glorious thing (see: “Two Weeks,” any clip ever of her dancing), thus forcing us to try and receive her. We’re put in the position of having to take her in, and we can’t even try to make it easy on ourselves via reciprocity because of the barrier of the screen/the stage/the body.
At the same time, I have to keep thinking of the “Papi Pacify” clip – twigs submitting herself to the gagging fingers and apparently indomitable will of another. This looks sort of like the flipside of the gift coin, the Ariadnean component. Deleuze, working from Nietzsche, writes –
Dionysus needs Ariadne. Dionysus is pure affirmation; Ariadne is the Anima, affirmation divided in two, the ‘yes’ that responds to ‘yes.’ But divided in two [dédoublée], affirmation returns to Dionysus as the affirmation that redoubles [redouble]. (“Essays Critical & Clinical,” 105)
FKA twigs is saying yes to the other’s positive will – her stare into the camera, and her own scrubbing manipulation of the footage, are the Anima’s affirmation. They are acknowledgments that she is separate from the other but simultaneously united with him. More directly, they also put her in charge of a situation in which, at first glance, she is very much the object.
Or something? Right?
BTBT – Yeah, that makes sense. I don’t know, existence is a crazy thing right now – we’re so totally aware of the appropriation and objectification we experience every single minute, but we’re also aware of the totalizing power of our own individual will. How do you be whoever you want to be in a world that by default always blocks you in? Or, in feminist terms, how can you be sex positive when the only result of sex positivity is further objectification? It’s an impossibly fine line, and there’s no easy answer. Sure, the “Papi Pacify” video shows a totally dominant (in the Ariadnean sense) twigs, but it also shows a woman who’s put herself in a position where her life could end with the thrust of a couple fingers and a flick of a wrist. That’s a terrifying position to be in – but I guess it’s the position one has to be in if one is truly going to **give** oneself, which I think you argue – and I think I agree – is the only way one can truly exist as a fully autonomous, self-fulfilling, non-objectified person. This is the space that twigs exists in, and I think that’s why she’s so thrilling to watch.
BTBT – Yeah, I suppose you’re right. In the words of another cool chick who Pitchfork likes, maybe you just have to be a body. Everything’s an object already – we might as well get excited about that.
I think that solves enough of the world’s problems for one post. All of it does nothing to explain whatever the hell is happening in the “Video Girl” video. But that’s for another day.