2014 Artists of the Year | No. 2 | FKA Twigs
How FKA Twigs is changing the game with her vision of a new female eroticism.
THUMP is celebrating 2014 in tracks, albums, artists, events and moments with our first annual yearbook, #YRBK14. Our Artists of the Year include well-established acts alongside some exciting newcomers. No other act in recent memory has managed to capture our hearts, minds, and groins quite like FKA Twigs—a former backup dancer turned Mercury Prize-nominee. THUMP's Features Editor Michelle Lhooq explains why FKA Twigs represents a new kind of eroticism that is darker, weirder, and ultimately far more authentic than the pop feminism we've gotten accustomed to. It's about damn time.
The creepiest thing I saw last Halloween didn't come in the form of a movie screen, haunted house tour, or even some poor creature sprawled out on the sidewalk the morning after. It was the latest music video from FKA Twigs, "Video Girl."
The black-and-white video was released in late October, and centers on a chilling execution procedure. The half-Jamaican, half-British artist—born Tahliah Debrett Barnett—gazes through the window of a lethal injection chamber. A struggling man, presumably her lover, is strapped into a chair. The poison goes into the man's veins. His skin turns black. Barnett casts her hooded eyes downwards, her voice flutters like falling rose petals as she sings, "I love another, and thus I hate myself." That line, taken from a Sir Thomas Wyatt poem, is also the underlying theme of her debut album, LP1.
Then it happens. Barnett appears in the execution room, draped in a strange, otherworldly costume. Her lean body jerks in twitches and spurts; her dark eyes seem possessed by a demonic intensity. She climbs on top of the dead man. Straddling his corpse, she gives him a lap dance—yes, a lap dance—as she coos into a mic hanging above the execution table.
Watching this erotic dance of death, I was mesmerized, saddened, creeped out, and maybe even slightly turned on—a grab bag of conflicting emotions that speaks to the power of "Video Girl" as a work of art. But what really struck me was how FKA Twigs' portrayal of female erotic desire is far more complicated than any narrative that's usually told by the pop culture machine.
We're used to seeing divas like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry flaunt their libidos, charged with pop art feminism, declaring their flawlessness—"I woke up like this!"—while shooting fireworks out of their tits. On the other end of the spectrum, we're also used to shock-loving singers like Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj and Madonna, selling sex as an act of titillating transgression. FKA Twigs goes darker and deeper. In fact, her erotic desire in "Video Girl" is predicated on a series of dichotomies: fragile lover and goddess of death, human and alien, strength and vulnerability, attraction and repulsion. This kind of conflicted ambiguity ultimately feels far more authentic to any woman who's ever grappled with her own feelings of love and lust.
Many critics have called LP1 the sexiest album of the year. Ironically, FKA Twigs' erotic appeal comes from her not trying to be appealing. Her songs stem from a place so intimate and inward-facing, it feels like you're eavesdropping when you hear her moan lines like, "If you want to touch me you can do it with the lights on." Her productions are stark and minimalistic, relying more on negative space than in-your-face maximalism. When she performs, instead of selling her body for the audience's pleasure, Twigs relishes movement as a form of artistic expression—something she picked up as a former dancer. Molly Beauchemin of Pitchfork even proclaimed FKA Twigs the face of a new feminist (dance) movement, praising her powerful assertion that it's enough for women to just be themselves on stage, for once.
"There is never the suggestion that she is seeking the audience's approval—she's never selling it," Beauchemin writes. "Her able and athletic manipulation of her own body is disengaging from the very idea of being our fantasy; it's mere expression."
Nisha Kunte, a pop culture critic with a PhD in American Studies from the University of Southern California, also sees FKA Twigs' jerking, vogue-inspired dance moves as a form of critique. "There is a subversiveness in her performance. In [her choreography's] stuttering repetition, she draws our attention to the ways gender and sexuality can become stuck in a limited kind of eroticism," Kunte told THUMP. "By twisting those very limited tropes, her performance of feminity critiques the limited eroticism of most pop."
Whether it's through straddling a dead body, shaking her joints like they're made of broken bones, and controlling her body with utter control and precision, FKA Twigs turns the idea of sexual performance on its head—cutting it loose from the shackles of our prurient gazes, delving deeper, and splitting it open to reveal something far more freakish, ambiguous, and intelligent than any of us could've hoped for.
Finally, a pop star who not just gets it, but owns it.
Michelle Lhooq is the Features Editor at THUMP - @MichelleLhooq