Away From Being Told Who I Am

on FKA twigs, double-standards of online pop feminism, and transcendent art

it wasn’t until i watched Tahliah Barnett a.k.a. FKA twigs’ latest EP/short film M3LL155X that i started to understand what i’d begun to miss from pop music.

NME prefaces a review of the video by saying: “In an age where a poor-taste Rihanna promo can launch multi-thousand-word think pieces, Twigs has conceived (and directed) a daring and provocative piece of capital-A Art.” a weird and reductive comparison, certainly, especially coming from a white male NME writer. on the other hand, he might have accidentally stumbled onto a point about double-standards at the center the mainstream internet feminist discussion of pop depictions of (particularly black) female sexuality.

much feminist pop writing eschews taking on nuance and dealing with potential contradictions in its analysis, maybe a side-effect of existing in an age of social media dominance, where every little point must be scrutinized for its correctness, divorced of context, and retweetability. or maybe it’s because we’re still fundamentally bad at taking on abstraction in media, or talking about art in a non-fetishistic way — as a product of flawed and complex human beings, not as a media spectacle. instead, most feminist pop writing these days draws its line in the sand at the right for women express and own their sexuality, a right to exist as a powerful sexual being and be recognized as such. it is directly a product of women born and raised in an age of Britney Spears videos and mass spectacles of female sexuality aggressively plastered across all forms of media.

Nicki Minaj’s song/video “Anaconda” was a perfect target from both sides of the feminist social media sphere, from those who found it an empowering vision of her owning her black female sexuality while subverting the male gaze, to others who thought she was merely complicit in her own sexual objectification. Nicki Minaj has a way of presenting herself in a powerfully blunt but alluring way, attracting an equal number of admirers and detractors. but “Anaconda” in particular was perfect because of how one dimensional and transparent a commentary it is. it only makes more explicit the sexual dynamics that exist for all female pop stars, and particularly the role Nicki Minaj will always be put in as a mainstream black female pop star. which doesn’t particularly make it a new or cutting commentary, or excuse it for being complicit in those dynamics — nor does it mean it should be singled out for criticism ahead of a Miley Cyrus or Iggy Azalea video either (which are in many ways much worse and less self-aware, and grotesquely co-opt images of black female sexuality).

during high “Anacondathinkpiece season, my twitter timeline was filled links to Jezebel-style byte-sized writing endlessly scrutinizing each part of the video for its feminist credentials and its secretly intelligent, subversive commentary. but there was something very empty about all this analysis — one rooted in an intense, compulsive desire on the part of the authors to project themselves into the sexy, candy-coated dream reality of stars like Minaj, and ignore any cognitive dissonance about whose and what agency might have really put her there in the first place. renowned black feminist author and activist bell hooks (a.k.a. killjoy hooks), this time weighing in on Beyoncé’s video for “Partition”, brings us back to reality:

“If I’m a woman and I’m sucking somebody’s dick in a car and they’re coming in my mouth and we could be in one of those milk commercials or whatever, is that liberatory? … Or is it part of the tropes of the existing, imperialist, white supremacist, patriarchal capitalist structure of female sexuality?”

she also specifically takes “Anaconda” to task for its unoriginality:

“That’s one of the things that struck me about ‘Anaconda’ … I was like, this shit is boring. What does it mean? Is there something that I’m missing that’s happening here?”

hooks asserts that our cultural fascination with stars like Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj is connected more to their desirability as status symbols of wealth than as women who exert power over the presentation of their own sexuality:

“There’s a lot of booties out there that are glamorous but not connected to the fantasies of wealth — and we equate wealth so much with freedom.
…I mean, try to imagine Beyoncé with some nappy dreads. Would she have the money that she has? Is there a kind of blackness that isn’t marketable?”

those who might want to suggest that bell hooks is out of touch with current generation of young feminists might want to consider FKA twigs’ image:

FKA twigs is called “daring and provocative”, maybe in part for just being allowed to exist as herself, as a black female artist who wears dreads and is trained in modern dance and directs her own videos. she is praised as a “visionary” and for “reinventing what it means to be a pop star”.

but twigs pays the price for it.

she pays the price for allowing herself to be delicate and vulnerable and embody her own contradictions both inside and outside her music, for being largely ignored for her actually deeply important, substantive commentary by the same pop feminism zeitgeist that mercilessly picked apart “Anaconda” (because let’s face it, swallowing down a high-concept, bitter pill of a FKA twigs video is far from binging on the sugary sweet feel-good candy of a Minaj video), for being much less likely to be the seen as an empowering image of a black woman to young girls as a Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj. she pays the price for being treated like it’s such an unusual, freaky thing to expect or want this level of artistic sophistication from a black female pop star. she pays the price for being an artist, and a woman, and black.

one look at “M3LL155X” (a variant of Michelle, a transcendent spirit she refers to as her “personal feminine energy) and all the discussion about female pop stars owning their sexuality and subverting the male gaze seems pretty quaint. while her performances are obviously often very sexually-charged, twigs always uses dance in a way that’s first and foremost expressive. in the past, she seems to have struggled a bit more with finding ways to marry her style of modern dance into a sound and visual sensibility — the videos for “Water Me” and “Two Weeks”, while establishing her as a highly original and unique performer, don’t develop much beyond their initial imagery. this time her work cuts deeper, particularly in the second and third segments.

“I’m Your Doll”, the second segment, is about as blunt as a hammer to the skull. twigs, dressed a pigtailed schoolgirl, dances seductively for an older white man in much the same way as Scarlett Johansson dances for her unassuming prey in the film Under The Skin — except instead of using her sexual prowess to lead him into a swampy abyss, she leads him to a situation where she has no power.

in a very disturbing sequence, her head is attached to a blow-up sex doll which he grotesquely makes love to, slobbering all over its plastic body. it’s almost as if it’s a ritual rape, one she enters into knowingly as a pop star — knowing she must literally become detached from a manufactured body that is not really hers to own. her expression comes off to me like a grotesque version of some of the doll faces Nicki Minaj makes in her video for “Stupid Hoe” in particular, which is what makes it even more disturbing to me. at the end, her body is deflated and she’s left on the bed, trapped in that same position. she still seems unable to process it in a naive way, like it was all just expected. at the end of ritual sexualization, we’re left feeling empty and deflated, stewing in the profound emptiness of what just took place.

the scariness of this whole scene is reflected in her thoughts about the genesis of this song, which she wrote when she was 18, in Complex:

“It’s going back and getting into the mindset that I was in when I was 18, when I didn’t have a clue about what I was talking about. I didn’t have a clue about relationships, I didn’t have a clue about my body, I didn’t have a clue about how I thought or what I wanted to say. I was just writing something sad, and lonely, and vacuous, and hopeless, and it’s a part of me that I can only enter into when I’m in a really sad place of not valuing myself.
…I realized that I’d been brainwashed and preconditioned to write a pop song and write it from that point of view. I found it almost horrifying that I’d even written it, because it’s so the opposite of who I am now as an artist. It’s completely submissive in a way that I don’t even understand or connect myself to anymore.”

it’s not hard to imagine if twigs had found success at 18 she would’ve ended up in the same position of a Nicki Minaj or Rihanna other pop stars who find fame at an early age, are pushed to rebrand and change herself around and become a status symbol for fame. it’s also not hard to imagine someone like Miley Cyrus singing this song without a trace of irony, which makes it all the more scary.

the point this segment makes about young female pop star sexualization is obvious, but at the same time, pretty hard to come by these days in a pop context. for all the talk about re-centering the male gaze, there’s very little about how that re-centering is ultimately directed and signed off on by white men with the endless power to use and abuse it. CEOs, directors, businessmen, A & R men, photographers, music critics, other more successful artists. how much is anything made in that context not made to be idealized, fetishized, and commodified by these men? how much can you ever control the gaze fixated on you?

aren’t these men really just there to take everything from you and destroy your sense of self, in the end?

she wakes up from the nightmare of “I’m Your Doll” in the middle of a sparsely lit black and white platform, pregnant and wearing a maternal white, while staticky whooshing sounds swirl around her.

a black man sits hunched over in a chair and looks down on her from an abstract crystalline shape floating above her head. twigs describes this song, “In Time”, as being about wanting a bad relationship to change. he seems to represent this distant lover — and also a sort of vague paternal figure (perhaps representing her own estranged father), forever isolated from her. occasionally the video cuts to shots of him, but he never changes position nor do the two ever meet face to face. he remains an idea more than a reality.

she alternates between nursing a pregnant chest and another much more outwardly confident version of her wearing denim and dancing with her other female friends. he looks intently at the screen, at first with an amused look. while he doesn’t stare at her in nearly the same creepy way as the salivating white man of “I’m Your Doll” it becomes more obvious he is suspicious of her femininity as the video goes on. towards the end of the video, as her water breaks and she starts bleeding rainbow liquid out of her uterus, his look turns to one of outright disgust and shame. while she becomes extremely intense and stamps her feet violently and the song hits an emotional climax, almost as if pleading for his understanding, he shakes his head in utter disapproval. all this makes me think of a line from Björk’s bleak breakup song “Black Lake” from this year — “you fear my limitless emotions”.

but in the end, she still enjoys her violent emotional outburst and transcends it. she takes on a new form that is both powerfully sexual and maternal. twigs adds, talking about women as a whole:

“…imagine if we actually just thought about what incredible creatures we are, and the true bond between a man and a woman — what an amazing partnership that is. Now it’s just like crude porn and all these terrible things that have completely screwed up the true, wonderful partnership between a man and a woman and the fact that you can make babies. It’s amazing.”

her comments, while perhaps hetero- and cis-normative, do reveal a deep yearning for a form of self-expression that is much more wild and robust and powerful than just ‘owning her sexuality’. it is about exploring herself fully — without shame, without limits. this is something the mainstream pop feminism seems profoundly uncomfortable with engaging in, because there’s a great deal of internalized shame about expressing an unhinged, undisciplined femininity in our culture. it’s too powerful, too strange, too raw. it’s “irrational”. it has the power to implicate many of the existing structures our society is built on.

the man in the video feels this shame too, and can’t really make sense of what she’s about. she takes on a much more powerful form than he can understand. this also perhaps suggest a lack of intersectionality on his part, and the difficulty for female empowerment and self expression to gain any kind of real respect or traction in black culture. the unique combination of inter- and intra-racial oppression black women face from both white and black culture ultimately reinforces a dynamic of white supremacy — a phenomena recently dubbed “misogynoir” by black queer scholar Moya Bailey.

the last section, “Glass and Patron”, is about self-empowerment. it most readily resembles a pop music video of any of the four segments, which is why it’s perhaps the least interesting to me. twigs says:

“‘Glass & Patron’ is my conclusion that, for now, all you can really be is yourself, and all you can really do is step outside yourself and realize that there’s a bigger picture… It’s a reference to people not really talking to each other anymore, with everything being so much on the Internet. It’s us and our busy little thumbs all day, typing into nothing…
“We wait all week for some empty celebrity to tweet or say something when we’ve got a front row seat to the stars, we can get outside, we can actually be living our lives. That’s free. It doesn’t cost anything. It’s about getting out of this weird Internet thing you get sucked into, where how many likes you get forms how good your day is. Like the line, ‘Away from being told who I am’ — it’s the perception of yourself online, and how people perceive you to be versus the person who you actually are. For me, they’re two worlds apart.

her sentiments about the mass media culture of the Internet, while nothing new, still feel more vital than ever to hear from a prominent artist in the age of social media dominance.

like The Knife’s 2013 album Shaking The Habitual, the video for “Glass & Patron” flirts with queer imagery, in this case voguing. The Knife was very up-front about using genderfuck ideas in everything from their performances, music videos, and PR in a way that could either be read as a complex artistic statement or an appropriative idealization of queerness (or both). here, it’s more innocuous — the dancers in the video are her real-life friends, and they’re on a runway in the middle a dark a forest. the forest presumably represents a reconnection with nature and the body, away from technology. the voguing represents re-establishing their connections to their bodies as an expression among friends and peers, not just to show off 2-cool-4-u fashion trend.

the video still puts her at the head of this group of queer people, though, the one cis woman — and she has them literally all hold her up, like she was the queen all along. it feels a bit like the old dynamic of extolling the virtues of taking from a marginalized culture you’re not part of in order to enrich yourself, ala Madonna. it’s of course, a dangerous dance anytime this happens in pop music and the lines aren’t so clearly drawn between appropriation and appreciation. but i have a harder time embracing this last bit, for that reason.

from Tale of Tales’ Sunset

all of this discourse on art and looking for an expressive feminine transcendence just brought me across forms of media to a recent videogame, Sunset, by the now-defunct (ed: at making games, anyway) artgame company Tale of Tales:

the game spends a lot of time with its black female protagonist, Angela Burns (modeled after Angela Davis, in part), reflecting on the nature of art and love in the midst of societal upheaval. she’s a woman from Baltimore set at a distance from the rest of her culture, stuck in the fictional South and/or Central American republic of Anchuria as it falls apart politically. she’s having to forge her own connections with the space around her, if only out of boredom. there’s a history of colonial European art in the swanky apartment she works at as a housekeeper, owned by an influential art collector, and she admires the beauty of but doesn’t really understand it. it’s all a curiosity, far away from her own struggles, yet it’s something stimulating. there’s a feeling that art touches her but also betrays her revolutionary blood. she feels complicit as her literal brother leads a social revolt and is jailed, awaiting execution. there’s a naivety and a domesticity to exploring art, or exploring love, but that naivety seems all the more fragile and meaningful when social upheaval threatens to destroy it completely.

Sunset feels more deeply relevant to today’s social reality than any videogame i can think of. unsurprisingly, it was a commercial failure, calling an end to the company and provoking finger-wagging editorials from people eager to reframe the entire debate and tell Tale of Tales literally what really happened with their game — and what they were really about. it was too long, too repetitive. it wasn’t engaging enough. these people seemed generally a lot more concerned about everything the game wasn’t, rather than what it actually was: an engaging and thoughtful piece of art (though maybe not a perfect or mechanically-complex one). they wanted it to be exactly what they expected it to be, not what it wanted to be.

why am i saying all of this? upon telling her that i was writing this essay on FKA twigs, Auriea Harvey of Tale of Tales tweeted back to me:

“any time a black woman steps out of line you get a reaction. and it’s baffling. I mean, there is a repression of her actions. A lack of expected response… she’s saying things in a different way and maybe pop culture can’t parse that because there is no way to package her sincerity. after the 70's Nina (Simone) had to almost be ashamed of her pro-black songs. they didn’t have a place anymore, they didn’t make her money. I know twigs is doing something else entirely. But expect her to go through hard times. the world doesn’t let a black woman do what she really feels for long.”

i can see twigs trying to embark on the difficult task of marrying all these disparate parts of herself together in her work. marrying high-concept performance art with hip-hop style dance. marrying her classical training from old Europeans into pop and still being primarily referred to as an “R&B” artist. i can see her moving towards the universal into the personal — not just because it is closer to her, but because it’s actually more powerful.

online mass media culture, largely the product of the same corporate giants that support the online thinkpiece industry, feed off ideas of the universal, the declarative, the definitive, the rational. they shirk at the idea of the abstract, the strange, the indefinable. they might admire their “artistic merit”, even their “genius”, but these kind of works will never have a large part of that mainstream conversation, for exactly the reason that they are much stronger and more self-sufficient than the mainstream conversation could ever be. recognition of someone much more genuine out there creates a feeling of deep resentment, one that wants to send us back into the mode of creating new, more violent justifications for indulging in vices of self-projection and fantasy. one that wants to construct more involved arguments than ever before for never having to swallow that bitter pill and be made to feel bad about ourselves by a piece of media for a split second ever again.

i keep thinking about a quote from Sunset, something Angela writes in her diary:

“Do we secretly hate art because we know that it is going to survive us… are we really that ashamed of who we are?”

Tahliah Barnett a.k.a FKA twigs is a black female artist and human being who is not merely a mass media pop spectacle. she is aiming to be a strong and genuine person and explore herself; and to create that kind of work which will survive us, the kind which our culture both admires and deeply hates. and i’m positive many of us will spend the next several years ignoring and resenting her deeply for doing it.