I’m a child of MuchMusic, but even in the nineties, music videos seemed “iffy” – something apart from The Art, which threatened its integrity. Now, people are used to getting their music as part of an audiovisual onslaught. The song is part of a grid of associated projects. This is marketing, but the difference between art and marketing is indistinct: Beats by Dre ads are also music videos, Saturday Night Live specials promote the latest Arcade Fire.
Videos sell albums, but the album isn’t necessarily the point; sometimes the marketing is the art, and the artist is a flavour available in cake, pie and muffin. But beneath all that, the artist needs a persona interesting enough, or absent enough, to fascinate consumers with a million other bids on their attention and little intention of paying much for music. This goes for acts large and small, though very few acts, large or small, have pulled it off as well as FKA twigs, who’d made herself iconic before releasing her first LP this Tuesday. (More on her in a second.)
For acts with limited resources, branding is both a creative endeavour and a necessity. It’s also an ideological pose, a repudiation of the old taboo against trying. Liberated, indie acts sometimes make a point of chasing stardom. Two years ago I watched John O’Regan, a.k.a. Diamond Rings, a formerly independent act who’d recently signed with a major, and his creative director, Lisa Howard, who is also his cousin, work on the visual campaign for his upcoming record in her basement apartment. Howard is a makeup artist, while O’Regan has a degree in fine art; for them, hype building was a project, and a challenge, to see how big they could make themselves with a small machine.
Their ambition was part of the show – an earnest pose, shared by artists such as Claire Boucher, or Grimes, who recorded her last album, 2012’s Visions, in her Montreal apartment. “I really hate being in front of people,” she told Pitchfork’s Carrie Battan around its release. “I’m also obsessed with becoming a pop star.”
Last December, Boucher announced that she had signed a deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, whose website refers to Grimes as Boucher’s “multimedia project”; in June, she released a song that had been written for, and rejected by, Rihanna. The track was underwhelming, but that seemed beside the point.
Small acts take cues from huge ones, just as huge acts ape the small. Artists whose show is the work of many hands have to project a sense of creative control, and stand out in a precarious marketplace. The most obvious example is Lady Gaga, whose solid pop hits earned her an audience while her team of creative collaborators made her a living parade float. Two of its most essential members quit before the release of her most recent album, ARTPOP, which was launched with an “artRave” at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. There, Gaga took a ride in a hulking “flying dress” designed by her tech team, and performed in front of a Jeff Koons sculpture in her likeness, flailing from side to side in a wall-socket mask and inflatable suit like a drunk accosting a pedestrian.
The effect was blue-fluorescent and blinding, making it hard to tell where she was coming from: Gaga may well have good ideas, but she tends to throw money at them until they’re buried under giant piles of it. It’s nice to get a multimedia display along with your radio single, but the spectacle does risk swallowing up the music. Which brings us back to FKA twigs: one of very few artists to make her own spectacle convincingly. Twigs is a sensibility that flows across disciplines, and the aura surrounding her has grown so naturally that it’s no surprise her album, LP1, meets all expectations – not that LP1 needs to be the focal point for what she is.
Born Tahliah Barnett in Gloucestershire, in 1988, twigs (she spells it lowercase) started out as a dancer, appearing onstage and in videos for major pop acts, before realizing that, as she told Zane Lowe of BBC, she loved dancing to music more than dancing itself. In 2012, she released a video for the song Hide: Co-directed with a friend, the filmmaker Grace Ladoja, it showed her torso in black and white, hyperreal against a red background, hands creeping toward, but never touching, the tip of the anthurium between her legs. (A literal anthurium, not an awful metaphor.)
Her music has been filed under trip-hop and alternative R&B, but from the beginning, twigs seemed to come with her own genre: high, trembling vocals exuding both vulnerability and strength; shifting tempos and disappearing melodies; sound effects as cryptic and precise as machine guts. More videos, created with Ladoja and the stunning Jesse Kanda – the best friend and roommate of producer Arca, with whom she’s also worked – made her seem like a subculture unto herself, a foregone star. Without a full-length under her belt, she was filling venues, including New York’s Webster Hall and Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall, where, from reports, she was as transfixing as everyone hoped she would be.
It isn’t just her music, or her videos, or her movement – or her style, or her beauty. It’s the fact that all of it, even her face, seems to come from the same mysterious place. The work is excellent, but just as impressive is the fact that it all manifests the same arresting sensibility. Twigs pulls this off far more professionally than most independent acts, and with far more integrity than most superstars. Her show is more than music because she’s more than a musician.
To mention “integrity” feels square – it smacks of the old attitude that sees the well-presented as phony, and the phony as impure. But it’s still important that a spectacle feel organic, the outgrowth of a real idea. An audience needs to trust the figure throwing abstractions – to have faith that she’s tapped into whatever makes it make sense.
You could say that twigs’s success is a triumph for DIY – she’s made herself a sensation with just a small community of well-chosen collaborators – but artists are rarely ingenious enough to pull this off. For me, twigs is a cause for optimism, proof of how pop is evolving. What I love about music, or any art form, is the sense of a world I want to spend time in; twigs, like Bjork or David Byrne before her, shows how expansive a world can be.