"Higher than a mutha fucka"

taking back the racialized gaze in FKA twigs's Two Weeks (2017) 

higher than a mutha fucka dreaming of you as my lova 

At first, it looks like a sand dune. As the camera slowly pans down and out a red hanging cloth, striped with gold and burgundy, is revealed. Languorously swaying in a heavy movement of air, the cloth’s motion reveals that the dunes are not sand, but a canvas roof. Smoke rises, although its source is unseen. More is revealed: a quivering halo of brush, jewels balanced on dried stems. This halo sits atop a diadem of crystals. Behind this halo four windows offer a sense of place, of interiority. And finally, a face. A black woman; edges perfectly laid, braids down her back, lips lined, a golden ring in her nose and crosses hanging from her ears, the halo-like crown framing her. She gazes directly at the camera—she gazes down at us—a head floating in a desert landscape. Over this continuous panning-out shot we hear:

 

higher than a mutha fucka dreaming of you as my lova

higher than a mutha fucka dreaming of you as my lova 

higher than a mutha fucka dreaming of you as my lova[1]

 

This three-time repetition is sung by an acousmatic voice that although undoubtedly human in origin, has been digitally processed to be deep and distorted. The effect of the repetition is impacted by the internal repetition within each line. Each syllable is intoned on the same pitch, and each syllable is given equal rhythmic weight and equal stress. The effect is a robotic digital stuttering. This vocal pulsing is rhythmically doubled by a throbbing overdriven synth bass on the same pitch. The music is rhythmically driven, in a 4/4 meter, slow at 54 bpm, with a reverberating emphasis on the first and third beats, as is typical in EDM and EDM-inspired pop music. This digital soundworld, familiar and yet still new enough to be uncanny, is reminiscent of dystopic cinema, of movie trailers, of that point in the club where the bass becomes tactile rather than auditory, and reverberates through you. This sound world contrasts with, but has the same flatness as, the muted brown and golden tones of the visual presentation of Two Weeks. What is heard and what is seen together combine to suggest a collapsing of the present and implied future onto a mythical past.

This is the first fifteen seconds of the 2014 music video for the song “Two Weeks” written and performed by British singer, songwriter, and dancer FKA twigs. FKA twigs’ music video Two Weeks consists of one continuous, though impossible, panning-out shot.[2] This visual continuity echoes the weight of historical continuity, and the idea that art is always experienced through a web of experience and interpretations made possible through our ideas about the past. Despite being a mixed-race British woman raised in a white, rural, English environment, twigs, like all pop artists, is able to use visual and audio signification that represents an imagined Blackness to her audience. The imagery of Two Weeks, which evokes a feminine, idealized, African or Middle-Eastern mythical past connects twigs to the larger, nebulous concept of African diaspora. Through these visuals, combined with a digitally processed track which while familiar remains uncanny and unnerving, twigs demonstrates her own agency as an artist labelled as boundary-defying. In Two Weeks, twigs’ artistic agency allows her to question the ideologies behind the boundaries of genre, through the merging of myth, technology, and suggest the possibility of a representation of racialized female sexuality outside of the male and industry gaze. This paper unfolds alongside the gradual revealing of the music video – the impact of using one lingering, long shot puts onus on the viewer to reflect on the meaning behind twigs and director Nabil’s decisions. The bite-size reflections in this paper are designed to reflect the fragmentary, multiple, intertextual, and outward-reaching minute worlds of music videos.[3]

I can treat you better than her

The camera remains focused on twigs’ face. As she begins to sing she looks down at the viewer, the camera shooting from below her. The shot gradually pans out over the course of the first verse, revealing her torso—she wears a cream breast-plate-like bra-top edged in thick golden braid. Although her stature remains upright, she expresses with her arms while she sings, first clasping her hands together, then fanning them slowly out. These fluid movements contrast with twigs’ regal and expressionless face throughout the song.  twigs’ stillness is powerful; her stuck-up presentation grants a depth to the somewhat unsubtle lyrics of the song, a second-person admonishment of her object of desire in which twigs dreams of having the “you” as her lover, fantasizing about what they will do to each other and positing her sexual superiority to the current lover of the person she desires.

The unveiled sexuality of twigs’ lyrics gain power through their presentation in the video. The setting of Two Weeks, although unspecified, has been widely read as ancient Egypt. The sandy color palette, geometric patterns, and Afrasian furnishings and costumes evoke an Egypt and middle East of the racial imagination. Ancient Egypt has been a powerful image in the African diaspora (particularly in the West) as a pinnacle of African history before transatlantic slavery. But this imagery has a counter history that can be traced back to orientalist colonial discourses.[4] As a black artist twigs has access to both of these imaginaries of blackness. As a mixed-race British artist, she is read as black, and is aware of how her blackness effects the way in which she is listened to and categorized.[5] In particular, she has spoken out in the past about her discomfort about being referred to as “alternative R&B,” a designation that only occurred after it was revealed that she was mixed-race.[6] A comment that twigs makes in a 2014 interview illuminates the multiple racial imaginaries that she can potentially embody, which often run counter to the way she identifies herself. twigs’ own relationship to blackness is also revealed to reside in the space between how one is perceived, and an imagined African blackness reminiscent of Afrocentric desires:

 

“I look like an anime character, but inside, I feel like a warrior. Like a female mother-earth warrior in a tribe in Africa or a rainforest that we haven’t discovered yet. […] I feel like I’m really quiet and really tall, six foot, and when I scream, all the leaves rustle and I can throw spears. I have all these big scars all over my face from where jungle animals have tried to fight me, but I’ve won. I’ve had loads of children, so my bones are strong, but my skin is all weathered.” She smiles. “That’s how I feel. I was just put in a manga character by accident.”[7]

 

twigs’ comment demonstrates the complexity of understanding identity through stereotypes. She counters the stereotype with which she is read (petite, oriental, feminine, girly) with another stereotype of wombanly African mother goddess. Although twigs’ portrayal of herself as “female mother-earth warrior” may seem reductive and stereotypical in itself, reducing Africa and womanhood to a heteronormative monolith, her use of a racialized and gendered imaginary figure to counter another racialized and gendered imaginary that she wants to resist, shows how deeply colonial discourses run in how we identify ourselves and others. In Two Weeks, twigs plays upon these discourses. Yes, she relies on the racial imagination to portray herself as queen, but by continuously holding the gaze of the viewer, and by the unconventional use of one continuous shot, twigs shows that she is in control.

pull out the incisor  

give me two weeks

you won't recognize her

As the camera pans out further, by 1:03 the audience is aware that twigs is not the only person in the film. By 1:17 any eagle-eyed viewer would notice that the miniaturized dancing figures flanking twigs on each side are also twigs. This effect was created by shooting every version of twigs’ character for the full length of the song, which were then digitally overlaid.[8] Like many music videos, Two Weeks blurs the line between production and post-production, a characteristic that can be said to be the major identifier of contemporary audiovisual work.[9] An impressive “real” technique (twigs ability to perform sixteen characters’ individual dances each in one take, so that they would be perfectly aligned when put together) is combined with the equally impressive digitally composed end product. Production and post-production, real and digital, is further blurred because the background to the video is a digital painting by Spanish artist Ignasi, based on his idea of a Moroccan harem.[10]

By presenting a video with multiple representations of herself, twigs is not only contributing to a history of orientalist representations of all-female spaces, but also into a history of many black women artists who multiply themselves, as clones or as glitches in the system, in their music videos. Janelle Monáe’s Many Moons (2010), a short film to accompany the song of the same name, takes place in the universe that Monáe’s alter-ego, the rogue android Cindi Mayweather, inhabits. In Many Moons, which is set in a dystopic future the cloning of Monáe stands as a critique of the historic oppression and fetishization of black women.[11] In Beyoncé’s Countdown, the multiplication of Beyoncé contributes to the unstoppable drive of the video, as ten dancing clones of Beyoncé sync up one-by-one to the countdown of the song’s title.

 

The multiple twigs in Two Weeks are not operating in the same ways as the clones in either of these videos, but music videos are always self-reflexive, and both artists and audiences are playing the game of knowing their music (video) history.[12] One only needs to look at any music video on YouTube to see that the act of interpreting music videos and revealing their allusions plays out in the comments section. Despite there being 6,821 comments attached to Two Weeks on YouTube as of August 19, 2017, a very small proportion of the comments that I looked at noted that all the dancers in the video are twigs.[13]  A comment from 2016 by user Renata Alfaro, “look at all the dancers … they’re all her!,” has 41 replies and 1280 “likes,” with twelve of the respondents saying that they had not noticed this. The lack of comments suggesting interpretations of the meaning of the multiple twigs, despite many comments on the Egyptian setting, illustrates how multilayered music videos can be. As there is no immediate direct correlation between the scene that is played out in the video and the lyrics it is ripe for interpretation from scholars as well as YouTube commenters, as well as the possibility that the commonalities between these two types of interpretive writing may not be entirely dissimilar.    

One academic interpreter, sociologist Alexa Derbas, uses corporeal feminist theory and posthuman notions of the cyborg to suggest that twigs’s 2014 videos occupy Thirdspace—a theorization that refuses dualisms.[14] Derbas argues that twigs’s corporeal subjectivity refuses dualisms of “Mind–body, inside–outside, intellect–emotion, masculine–feminine, organic–artificial.”[15] However, the music video for Two Weeks does not continue the visual discourse of “the feminine as a marginalized subject position.”[16] Instead, I would argue that the opposite is at play; in Two Weeks women (by which, read a multiplicity of twigs) rule. Whether one interprets this as a utopian matriarchal society, or a representation of the inner workings mind is not important. Part of the draw of Two Weeks is that it denies the possibility of one correct interpretation, as neither FKA twigs herself nor Nabil have proffered a meaning. Instead, viewers are left with the freedom to make sense of the relationship between elements of the video, the music, and the persona of twigs herself.

My thighs are apart for when you're ready to breathe in

As the camera pans out further more is revealed. The throne-room is elaborate – golden columns, arabesque screens, and marble steps leading to a pool of water. The original queen-like twigs is surrounded by miniaturized versions of herself playing many roles: water bearers, bejeweled dancers, and ambiguous white-shirted figures milling about in the background, each with their own individual movements. However, the seated twigs is the only figure who sings in this video. From the first verse of Two Weeks, the viewer is made aware that twigs is lip-syncing. Lip-syncing is the norm in almost all music videos, but the degree to which this is emphasized varies widely.[17] In Two Weeks the director Nabil draws attention to the disconnect between sound and image, as we hear twigs’ voice over her own voice, the common practice of overlayering. In the bridge of the song overlayering is used a s a technique not just for melodic lines, but also as a way of representing acousmatic audible breathing. As in much EDM-inspired pop music, timbre, rather than tonal shifts or harmonic language are important in Two Weeks. The song is broadly in A minor throughout, but this is less important than the quality of twigs’ voice. twigs has a breathy, and yet heavily digitally processed voice, which adds to the heady sensuality of the video.[18] During the bridge a simple synthesized countermelody in the same vocal range as twigs voice as well as the additional sounds of deep inhalation of exhalation adds to the effect of overlayering. 

This combination of digitally processed human sounds with familiar synthesized beats emphasizes the overt sexual nature of the lyrics:

 

[Bridge] Feel your body closing, I can rip it open

Suck me up, I'm healing for the shit you’re dealing

Smoke on your skin to get those pretty eyes rolling

My thighs are apart for when you’re ready to breathe in

Suck me up, I’m healing for the shit you’re dealing

High motherfucker, get your mouth open, you know you’re mine

 

twigs does not shy away from her own sexuality. Many of twigs’ other videos explore areas of sexuality that are taboo even in the highly sexualized world of music videos; she depicts pleasure in being sexually dominated  (Papi Pacify, 2013), gyrates over a man being executed by lethal injection (Video Girl, 2014), and equates male desire for child-like women with sex dolls (M3LL155X, 2015).[19] However, in Two Weeks she sings about a more common desire—her lover going down on her—a mainstream sexual activity that has a long, though sometimes hidden history, of being represented in pop music.[20] By layering the sound of deep breathing over the lyrics of the bridge, twigs is doubling down on her desire for, and access to, pleasure. This pleasure is also emphasized visually, as accompanying this part of the song the enthroned twigs feeds one of her miniature dancers with milk spurting from her own fingers (see image above). This strange imagery can be interpreted in many ways; as a representation of self-pleasure, as a visualization of oral sex, or as an allegory for twigs’ sexual prowess. However one chooses to interpret this image, it would be difficult not to understand it as twigs expressing her right to desire and be sexual on her own terms. There are no men in Two Weeks, and though lack of representation does not necessarily mean lack of presence, the all-female, all-self, world of Two Weeks appears as a space where female pleasure as well as female control over male sexual pleasure is paramount.

 

I interpret Two Weeks as answering bell hooks’ call to black women artists a quarter of a century ago: 

 

[understanding dominant representations of black women’s sexuality] is certainly the challenge facing black women, who must confront the old painful representations of our sexuality as a burden we must suffer, representations still haunting the present. We must make the oppositional space where our sexuality can be named and represented, where we are sexual subjects—no longer bound and trapped.[21]

 

In the diegesis of Two Weeks twigs has created the type of representation that hooks demanded, however, the nature of music videos in the twentieth-century, viewable at any time to anyone with an internet connection, has opened up new possibilities of how representations of black women’s sexuality can be “bound and trapped,” even as black women artists such as twigs often (though not always) have more control over representations of themselves. Since the 2016 release of Beyoncé’s audio-visual album Lemonade questions about the relationship between image, music, and representation of black women, have become some of the key questions of contemporary cultural and political criticism. Scholars are also paying more attention to the relationship between representations in music videos and neoliberalism.[22] Throughout these debates, I think that the career and videos of FKA twigs show the importance of giving full weight to the agency of female artists who carefully control their image through music videos.

mouth open

you're high

In the final 25 seconds of Two Weeks a new image is revealed. Up until this point the video has been entirely focused on twigs’ throne room. However, at 3:46 the camera slowly pans down to reveal a second scene. The entire throne room sits atop a watery space (see above). In this submerged zone the multiplicity of twigs are reduced to one figure: twigs alone, suspended in water, draped in red cloth. Many commenters on the video on YouTube have interpreted this final scene as a homage to the late artist Aaliyah as it mirrors the final shots of Aaliyah’s final, posthumously released music video Rock the Boat in which she is shown swimming underwater in similar drapery. Although twigs has said that any similarities to Aaliyah’s work in Two Weeks are purely accidental, it has been widely read as an homage to Aaliyah.[23] That the author is dead in interpretations of music videos is not surprising, but it does also speak to the gender politics inherent in determining meaning when the producer is a woman. twigs has spoken about how as a woman, she is often reduced to being called a singer in the media, when she prides herself on taking an incredibly active role in creating and producing her music and videos.[24] In Two Weeks, the decision to have three and a half minutes of the video as one lingering shot, giving the viewer no choice but to focus on twigs’ own outward gaze, foregrounds the strangeness inherent in the act of looking in music videos and instead emphasizes twigs’ gaze. In combination with twigs’ trademark digitally-processed vocals, this effect grants twigs a transcendence and power that is mirrored in her own investment and power in her creative work. Two Weeks may superficially look simple, but as one looks closer, layers of complexity are revealed, making multiple interpretations possible. Nabil and twigs play with myth, technology, and ideas about female sexuality that are always racialized, to posit a world where there is the possibility for women to pursue, and be in control of, sexual pleasure without judgement. 

 

 

NOTES

[1] All lyrics for “Two Weeks” are taken from the liner notes to FKA twigs album, FKA twigs, LP1 (London: Young Turks, 2014).

[2] In this paper I follow Diane Railton and Paul Watson’s referencing solution to this issue of how to differentiate between songs and music videos that share the same name and yet are different products. In this useful system, songs are referred to in the usual way with their titles enclosed in quotation marks, but music videos are presented in small capitals. See Diane Railton and Paul Watson, Music Video and the Politics of Representation (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 12; Andrew Goodwin, Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture (London: Routledge, 1993).

[3] Although space does not allow me to engage in detail, this short paper owes much to the diverse flowering of writing about music videos since their emergence in the 1980s. This literature can be broadly divided into postmodernist studies of the MTV era of music videos, and more recent literature which focusses on the digital and youtube world. See, for example, Carol Vernallis, Unruly Media: You Tube, Music Video, and the New Digital Cinema (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Steven Shaviro, Digital Music Videos (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2017); Railton and Watson, Music Video and the Politics of Representation; Goodwin, Dancing in the Distraction Factory.

[4] For the ways in which colonial discourses of the raced female body persist in music video see Railton and Watson, Music Video and the Politics of Representation, 11; Furthermore, Edward Said argues that Egypt was the central point of all Orientalism; that Egypt was "the focal point of the relationships between Africa and Asia, between Europe and the East, between memory and actuality." Edward W Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 84–85.

[5] For more on the history of the relationship between race and genre in popular music see David Brackett, Categorizing Sound: Genre and Twentieth-Century Popular Music, 2016.

[6] Aimee Cliff, ‘FKA Twigs Is Right, “Alternative R&B” Must Die’, The FADER, 12 September 2014, http://www.thefader.com/2014/09/12/popping-off-fka-twigs-beyonce-alt-r-and-b; Ben Beaumont-Thomas, ‘FKA Twigs: “Weird Things Can Be Sexy” | Music | The Guardian’, 9 August 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/aug/09/fka-twigs-two-weeks-lp1.

[7] http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/fka-twigs-opens-up-interview-20141120

[8] Reggie Ugwu, ‘This Perfect Music Video Is Basically A Moving Painting’, BuzzFeed, accessed 17 July 2017, https://www.buzzfeed.com/reggieugwu/queen-fka-twigs.

[9] Shaviro, Digital Music Videos, 10; Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, ‘What Is the 21st Century?: Revising the Dictionary on Notebook’, MUBI, accessed 23 July 2017, https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/what-is-the-21st-century-revising-the-dictionary.

[10] Dazed, ‘Behind the Scenes of FKA Twigs’ New Video’, Dazed, 24 June 2014, http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/20462/1/behind-the-scenes-of-fka-twigs-new-video.

[11] For more on Janelle Monáe’s Afrofuturist aspects see Daylanne K. English and Alvin Kim, ‘Now We Want Our Funk Cut: Janelle Monáe’s Neo-Afrofuturism’, American Studies 52, no. 4 (2013): 222–24.

[12] Vernallis, Unruly Media, 227.

[13] For an exploration of the problem of doing musicology with the vast amount of material on YouTube see Nicholas Cook, ‘Video Cultures: “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Wayne’s World, and beyond’, in Representation in Western Music, ed. Joshua S. Walden (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 95–97.

[14] Alexia Derbas, ‘Female Corporeality in the Thirdspace Music Videos of FKA Twigs’, Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 5, no. 2 (2016): 188.

[15] Derbas, "Female Corporeality."

[16] Derbas, "Female Corporeality," 189.

[17] Shaviro, Digital Music Videos, 69.

[18] For an excellent succinct description of how FKS twigs’ voice operates in relation to bass-heavy electro-instrumental tracks see Ibid., 58.

[19] I am far from the only person to discuss FKA twigs’ particular feminist portrayal of female sexuality and sexual pleasure. Around the release of LP1 and M3LL155X in 2014 and 2015 this was one of the man focal points of blogs about twigs, and an issue that she discussed readily in interviews. For example, but not exclusively see Emilie Friedlander, ‘How FKA Twigs Is Pushing Female Sexuality Beyond Miley Cyrus and Sinead’, The FADER, 14 October 2013, http://www.thefader.com/2013/10/14/miley-cyrus-sinead-o-connor-female-se; Emma Garland, ‘FKA Twigs Is the Only British Popstar Changing Attitudes About Sexuality - Noisey’, 5 September 2014, https://noisey.vice.com/en_us/article/657da6/fka-twigs-is-the-only-pop-star-who-knows-what-sex-is; Hayden Manders, ‘FKA Twigs - Feminist Sexuality, Music Artist’, 2014, http://www.refinery29.com/2014/06/70358/fka-twigs-ode-to; Stephanie Watson, ‘The Surreal and Startling Power of FKA Twigs’, Bitch Media, 27 August 2015, https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/surreal-and-startling-power-fka-twigs; Liz Ryerson, ‘Away From Being Told Who I Am’, Liz Ryerson, 18 August 2015, https://medium.com/@ellaguro/away-from-being-told-who-i-am-f38fbc3fa9db.

[20] There are few academic explorations of this subject, but plenty of online listicles, should you want to create your own playlist. See, for example Jayna Brown, ‘Hip Hop, Pleasure, and Its Fulfillment’, Palimpsest 2, no. 2 (2013): 147–50; Stratton J, ‘Coming to the Fore: The Audibility of Women’s Sexual Pleasure in Popular Music and the Sexual Revolution’, Pop. Music Popular Music 33, no. 1 (2014): 109–28; Missy Nelson, ‘Cunnilingus and Cunts: A Study of Female Oral Sex in Pop Music | PIC: Issues In Pop Culture’, PIC: Issues In Pop Culture Exploration into the Other, Less PICturesque Side of Pop Culture, 5 December 2013, http://michaeljfaris.com/fall13/engl372/cunnilingus-and-cunts-a-study-of-female-oral-sex-in-pop-music/; Sarah Sweeting, ‘Songs NSFW: The Female Artists Celebrating Cunnilingus’, HUNGER TV, 8 May 2017, http://www.hungertv.com/feature/songs-nsfw-the-female-artists-celebrating-cunnilingus/; Tracie Egan Morrissey, ‘20 Songs About Cunnilingus’, Jezebel, accessed 20 August 2017, http://jezebel.com/5264674/20-songs-about-cunnilingus.

[21] bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston, Mass: South End Press, 1992), 77.

[22] For the most extensive look at feminism and pop videos in a neoliberal world through the lens of “resilience” as the commodification of female labor see Robin James, Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism (Alresford, Hants: Zero Books, 2015), 86–87.

[23] Eons Galaxy, FKA Twigs Speaks on the Similarities between Two Weeks and Aaliyah, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTsN7l3ZQMc.

[24] Beaumont-Thomas, ‘FKA Twigs: “Weird Things Can Be Sexy” | Music | The Guardian’.

© 2020 by Maria Ryan. All photos by Maria Ryan unless otherwise noted.