The Surreal and Startling Power of FKA twigs

On the 14th of August, trip-hop artist FKA twigs dropped a big surprise: She released her EP M3LL155X (“Melissa”) without even a prior whisper to fans or critics. FKA twigs’ first album, LP1, came out last year and quickly made a mark—in addition to snagging a Mercury Prize nomination for Best British Album, FKA twigs became known for her surreal, startling music videos.

On the new EP, FKA twigs does herself one better: Four of the EP’s tracks are featured in a jaw-dropping 16-minute short film. The film and EP are cerebral and dazzling to say the least. The music industry isn’t short on praise: Noted music critic Anthony Fantano, aka TheNeedleDrop, gave the EP 9 out of 10 with some very positive comments. Pitchfork, too, was very excited about the film and tracks, giving the EP an 8.6 out of 10 and calling it “mind-bending.

Unfortunately when discussing M3LL155A, many publications have been failing to discuss the social issues within the piece. FKA twigs brings bold feminist sensibilities to her lyrics and visuals. The short film is a goldmine of creative interpretation, so I ask you to take this journey with me as I solve the puzzle that is M3LL155X.

The film opens eerily with a small glimmer of light in the darkness, as the first track of the EP, “Figure 8,” begins. We are shown an old woman in Gothic attire and jewelry (Michèle Lamy).

To me, this part of the film speaks to twigs' attempt to challenge the way we see beauty and sexuality. The woman is not someone you'd generally see on magazine covers: she's older, wearing more old-fashioned clothing, and she doesn't have straight, white teeth. The woman, however, is very glamorous and gives off a strong sense of self-confidence. She also seems very aware of her body. People, particularly young men, may look away from the overtly sexual vibe to this part of the film. FKA twigs hasn't given them the image of typical music video sexuality. Instead, she's given them someone with substance, mystery, and a deep kind of beauty.

Which brings me to part two of the film. As the track “I'm Your Doll” begins, an inflatable sex doll emerges from a glowing orb. The doll soon turns into twigs herself. A man worships her from afar and soon he climbs on top of “his doll” and has sex with her. twigs' face remains stoic and still as he has his way with her plastic body, almost ignoring her face entirely. We can look into this in many different ways, but one way to look at it is as a commentary on sexual objectification—how gross it is to pursue an artificial, plastic form of beauty and sexuality. twigs sings over and over that she wants to become his doll, but does she? The lyrics read of wishing him to stop looking at other girls and to focus on her. From the sounds of it, he isn't making love to her but merely having sex with her body. She wants to be noticed and respected, not toyed with. She doesn't want to be one of many women who are constantly sexually objectified by the men of this world. It's no coincidence that he deflates her after he has her way with her—it's also unclear how consensual this sex actually is. After all, we all feel deflated when the focus of strangers and lovers—and music industry media commentators—is just on our bodies.

Something that troubles me about how the film has already been perceived is how some critics focus solely on the sex doll aspect of the video. A Cosmo UK tweet about the album, for example, read just, “Here’s FKA twigs dressed up as a sex doll.” The surprise drop, the skilled cinematography, and the talented music production play second fiddle to a sexual scene. FKA twigs is proving herself to be a master of boundary-pushing, surreal music videos—she should be seen and respected as an artist, not used as sexy clickbait. 

As soon as “I’m Your Doll” ends, we are brought into the fourth song “In Time.” As sometimes happens after sex, we see twigs has become pregnant. She looks around for her lover and—surprise, surprise—he isn't there anymore. He's left behind a life that he should be responsible for. This isn't too difficult to interpret, but it's important to note that this segment doesn't only need to represent the countless single mothers and irresponsible accidental fathers out there, but can also be seen as words and actions having consequence in any situation. While a pregnant and non-pregnant twigs dance to the track, rapping and singing about such issues as commitment and disrespect, we see the disapproving face of a man in a crystal, floating around the scene. It feels to me like he’s emblematic of the general disproving attitude society has toward single mothers, women who engage in regular sexual activity, and women who follow their sexual desires.

This segment is also astoundingly visually powerful: It’s not often that we see pregnant women dancing or performing in any kind of way. Viewing a pregnant person performing in this manner is extremely liberating for pregnant individuals everywhere, of any gender and of any age.

So now it's time for twigs to give birth. As her colorful waters break, the man in the crystal looks disgusted by this natural occurrence. twig's soon gives birth—in a blank void that reminds me of the setting in Under the Skin—and it’s not a human baby that comes out of her but sheets upon sheets of colorful fabric and a handful of dancers. The beautiful and diverse dancers look so fresh that although they are clearly adults, they do look brand new. I interpret this as being a fresh start for gender: FKA twigs has essentially given birth to a range of people she would like to see take over the misogynistic patriarchy.

Which leads us to the final portion of the film. The dancers are now on a catwalk, dressed head-to-toe in outfits that defy gender norms entirely. Some are in dresses, others in more traditional “male” outfits with a hint of femininity. All their outfits ask the viewer the same questions: Why bother? Why bother with male and female roles? Why can't men be feminine but still keep their masculinity? Gender presentation becomes blurred and meaningless in FKA twigs' world, as does the vile hyper-masculinity seen in the first half of the film. The dancers have claimed their bodies for themselves; Women, queer folks, and people of color are at the center of twigs’ show.

The feminist issues brought up in M3LL155X are a breath of fresh air. FKA twigs told Complex Magazine that the name “Melissa,” for her, represents her personal female energy. “It’s a lot to do with more openly female energy, and things that affect that balance. That’s why I wanted to be pregnant in the video,” says twigs. “I’ve never called my personal female energy ‘Melissa’ before the EP. It’s not a weird alter ego. It’s just my way of separating it from myself.” In her music and videos, FKA twigs is on an exploration of gender, identity, and sexuality. How lucky we are that she’s decided to take the audience along on the journey. 

by Stephanie Watson
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Stephanie is a journalist, editor, budding author, and poet from Scotland. You can find more of her work at Fembot Mag and Hello Giggles

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