FKA Twigs @ Webster Hall, NYC 8/6/14
To dance properly to FKA Twigs, you need to hunch, to pull your shoulders inward until you collapse into yourself. As a former professional video girl, I can’t imagine Tahliah Barnett didn’t think about how people would move to her music, so I can only venture to guess that this was her intention. Back arched, as if you’re about to be swallowed up by it all.
LP1 is all about fantasy, the desire for something that’s not there. Twigs played with expectations purposefully in her show at Webster Hall, finding strength in withholding. After all was said and done, I turned to my friend and said, “There has to be an encore. She hasn’t even sang ‘Video Girl’ yet!” But the lights came on and it slowly dawned on me that it was never going to happen, that Twigs had defied even the presumed singer-audience contract of playing all of the hits. Her music is the same way: these songs could be big, chart-topping barn-burners. But she’s a master of restraint. Every song feels as though there’s a hit peeking out from underneath, but she pares it all back until we can only grasp at wisps of what could be, which is an apt metaphor for how disheartening life can be. The only time she really leans into her pop sensibilities is on “Two Weeks,” which gives itself over to the hook and manages to craft a pop song around desperation that’s catchiness is only justified because it’s perhaps the saddest, darkest track on the album. “Pull out the insides,” she moans, begging for people to tear her apart.
When she played that song live, it was the only time you really noticed the lights surrounding her: they became bright, almost blindingly so. It’s the one time that she completely escaped from her shell and gave the audience exactly what they wanted. Jessica Hopper wrote about Twigs’ refusal of expectation beautifully for Wondering Sound: “FKA Twigs has given us a very sexy album about the absence of sex, and about the tenacity and uncertainty of longing. Rather than turning us on, it illuminates the grotesque vastness of our own need; LP1 drives us to examine the depths of our desires, and refuses to ever satisfy us.”
I was curious to see how this refusal to cater to our every whim would translate live. The main pull of a performance is to please your audience. There’s a certain amount of pressure to satisfy everyone while under the bright lights. So how can you stay true to the insular feeling of an album while outwardly projecting all of the emotion conveyed within? The easy answer is to put on a front, construct a persona based around faux bravado and make up for your anxieties by shutting everything out. But what makes Twigs so captivating as a performer is that she never gives into that. She lets her vulnerability consume her and turns it around until it becomes an asset. She owns her awkward sense of self until it becomes empowering. And it’s a magnificent thing to watch.
Twigs has gone on record saying that she’s a loner, more comfortable spending a night in rather than being out at a club. That comes through in her music, the way her beats stretch out as if she’s always looking around and longing to be somewhere else. But it’s even more obvious on stage, the way her body jerks around as if being controlled by some unseen, malicious Geppetto. LP1 is about being uncomfortable in your own skin. Or more specifically, it’s about floundering when you’re outside of your comfort zone. We’ve all had that moment when we stand in front of the mirror before we go out: “Do I look okay? Yeah, I look good,” we tell ourselves. But the minute we leave the house, it all shrinks away. We walk past someone who we know deep down probably doesn’t give us a second glance, but we lose our breath. The anxiety is enough to completely overcome you and it often does and you retreat into yourself. We’re all a bundle of our own neuroses. LP1 is absorbed in its own fantasy world, imagining yourself at your best but knowing that you’re far from that ideal self. So what happens when you return to reality? Are you happy? Can you be happy?
Twigs was forced to change her name at the beginning of her career due to legal issues. I’ve always found that funny, as if the name that she chose herself was not acceptable, a simple noun was deemed too much of an identity. The person who felt so much ownership over the name probably never even listened to her music, but it’s nice to wonder for a moment if her music was too powerful, too in your face to be allowed. Twigs was named as such because of the way her bones cracked when she danced. Something that is so physical, so intrinsically part of herself, was co-opted by the outside world. Perhaps it’s a cruel twist of fate that she was made to change her name so that she could hide under yet another layer and let another prism refract the nakedly open emotions that she displays in her music. She must forever be a “formerly known,” as if her mere existence has created some crack in the space-time continuum where she has already succumbed to her inner self and been destroyed.
LP1 examines both sides of a shadowy anonymity that we all desire. “Is she the girl from the video?” versus “Was I just a number to you?” We all want to be ignored, until we want to be wanted. Midway through “Papi Pacify,” Tahliah Barnett put her mic down on the stage and soaked it all in. The crowd was rapturous, applauding and hollering so loudly that it filled every corner of the room. It was one of the few times that she let her true self show, let a huge smile wash across her face. She was overwhelmed by it all, the girl from the video transforming into the main act. She was wanted in that moment, felt what we all inherently desire. But then she picked up her mic and dived right back in, channeling all of her insecurities into a magical performance.