We pride ourselves at The FADER on scouring the globe to introduce you to some of the most left-field music around. But in our monthly column Popping Off, Aimee Cliff takes the temperature of mainstream pop music.
“Fuck alternative R&B!” FKA Twigs told UK newspaper The Guardian last month. The popstar was clearly distressed by the journalist’s question of how she felt about constant comparison to other “alt R&B” singers such as Banks and Kelela, insisting that her music has more in common with “punk” than it does the neo-generic term that’s been applied to any 2010s R&B-related music that indie publications feel comfortable writing about. "When I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like: 'I've never heard anything like this before, it's not in a genre,'” she continued. “And then my picture came out six months later, now she's an R&B singer. I share certain sonic threads with classical music; my song “Preface” is like a hymn. So let's talk about that. If I was white and blonde and said I went to church all the time, you'd be talking about the 'choral aspect'. But you're not talking about that because I'm a mixed-race girl from south London."
“Alternative” or “experimental R&B” is a term that needs to die, and that’s why I cheered when I read these words from Twigs. It’s not a genre, but more like a door to condescension. By adding the prefix, it sidelines R&B itself by implying it’s not experimental, boundary-pushing or intellectual. It throws side-eye at the genre, while at the same time claiming to have discovered something worthy within it. To call someone “alternative R&B” is pretty much the ultimate musical negging: it feels like it’s not so far away from saying, “This is innovative… for R&B.” It allows curious outsiders to have their say while still maintaining a spectre of segregation. It keeps R&B perpetually in another room.
Twigs is fiercely on-point when she notes that this segregation is racial, stemming all the way from R&B’s invention as a record industry marketing term for popular music made by and promoted to African-Americans back in the 1940s. Rolling through jazz, blues and '50s rock, the sound never stayed static, devouring funk, pop and hip-hop influences in the late 20th century. In recent years its cultural and commercial dominance has been repeatedly proven by the sheer number of emerging indie artists who are influenced by it, and who have combined its raw, emotional spirit with electronic trends—but the relationship has been problematic, and coverage of it even more so.
White artists making R&B, like How to Dress Well and Banks, are frequently cited at the forefront of the “movement” of “alternative R&B” alongside black artists like Twigs, Kelela, Sampha and Frank Ocean. It goes without saying that all of these people are making vastly different music. How to Dress Well, Banks and Frank Ocean all quite explicitly write R&B songs, but each with production techniques and lyrical styles that couldn’t be more different; Kelela cites superstars Beyoncé and Aaliyah directly as influences, but brings her vocal to Fade To Mind’s club contortions; Sampha writes piano-heavy, soul-soaked songs and Twigs drifts between countless genres, time signatures and vocal styles, encompassing (but not limited to) trip-hop, pop, UK garage, punk and the “choral aspect.” Were “alternative R&B” a term that had a solid definition with regards to its sound, this would be a different discussion. In a piece for the New Yorker earlier this year, Sasha Frere-Jones highlighted how R&B’s underground stars—specifically Twigs and Kelela—were more focused on intimacy than their stadium-filling contemporaries, yet even he fell short of describing precisely how Twigs can be classified as R&B (“The sounds on the album span such a wide range that it’s hard to know what to call any of it”). Both artists clearly count R&B as an influence, as do all of the artists listed above: is this enough of a reason to create a genre around them? As it stands, “altR&B” seems to be a term for anyone making R&B in 2014 who is not at the top of the charts, or anyone making difficult-to-classify pop music who is not white.
In a super incisive article for Thump UK earlier this year about dance music’s problematic relationship with R&B vocalists, Sophie Kindreich wrote of the historical relegation of R&B to the realm of “guilty pleasures,” and spoke to Fade To Mind boss Kingdom about his work with Kelela. Speaking of the trend for anonymous retro R&B samples in contemporary dance music, Kingdom said, “They feel safe if it’s like a throwback, but the idea of actually being a fan and researching what’s actually going on with the artist now would be too much. It gives them a distance from it, and allows them to package it in a certain way.” By talking about “alternative R&B,” we create that same distance. We imply that there is a more palatable, white-washed variation on a lesser genre: one which is confined to the past and to pop culture and not permitted to be a serious part of highbrow discussion.
This is an outlook that’s been especially frustrating in the wake of Beyoncé's world-slaying VMAs performance, as the same old “Is Beyoncé Really a Feminist?” slander has been doing the rounds. Even at the peak of her (and everyone’s) game, Beyoncé unbelievably still catches critique for standing in front of a huge neon sign that declares her a “FEMINIST” when many of her contemporaries are uncomfortable about even saying the word (here’s looking at you Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and very recent convert Taylor Swift). To my ears, this is proof that even when she’s one of the richest and most successful performers in the world, Beyoncé's genre is one that is inherently seen as being of less worth to cultural commentators. Her feminist message has been deemed disingenuous because she looks hot while preaching it: last week Milo Yiannopoulos wrote a blog post for UK newspaper The Independent that claimed, “sexual titillation for men and ego boosts for the sisterhood are perhaps the least effective route to female empowerment imaginable. In Beyoncé, it is the male idea of female beauty that finds its highest and most perfect expression. She is what men demand of her, less than the sum of her body parts.”
This kind of outlook is a trumped-up version of a base form of misogyny—the kind that assumes that if a woman looks good, she can’t be smart too. A misogynist watches Beyoncé holding an incredibly difficult pose on a chaise lounge for “Partition,” or Beyoncé wearing her trademark stage costume that shows her flexing quads as she beasts her way through her dance routines, or Beyoncé surrounding herself by athletic backing dancers who part their legs agonizingly slowly in a feat of grace, and thinks: if a woman does this, then she can’t also be a feminist. Surely, if a woman does something that’s sexually attractive, so thinks a misogynist, she must be doing it for me(n).
The best rebuttal of this kind of Bey-bashing came from writer Tamara Winfrey Harris in Bitch magazine last year: “Through a career that has included crotch-grabbing, nudity, BDSM, Marilyn Monroe fetishizing, and a 1992 book devoted to sex, Madonna has been viewed as a feminist provocateur, pushing the boundaries of acceptable femininity. But Beyoncé's use of her body is criticized as thoughtless and without value beyond male titillation, providing a modern example of the age-old racist juxtaposition of animalistic black sexuality vs. controlled, intentional, and civilized white sexuality.” You don’t even have to look so far back in pop history to find equivalent white popstars who get away with as much: how many times does Gaga have to get nude before anyone accuses her of hindering the feminist cause?
Both Twigs and Beyoncé are currently making adventurous music that defies categorization, yet critical discourse is having a hard time doing them justice. On the one hand, you’ve got a rising mixed-race popstar struggling to define herself outside of a boxed-in alt-R&B narrative, and on the other you’ve got a major superstar struggling to push her agenda because the press don’t think it fits in with their—again—boxed-in R&B narrative. Yet both women have made albums that are not only challenging sonically, but actually have a lot in common in terms of their themes of sexuality, control and identity. While crowds of eyes are out to objectify them, both albums stare fiercely outwards with strong individuality; gratification is theirs for the taking. Both women have taken their visual identities by the horns, too, with Twigs having built her name on the arresting, surreal videos that accompanied her every track, and Beyoncé creating her “visual album.” For Twigs’ “Kicks,” where she sings frankly about masturbation, you’ve got Beyoncé's “Blow,” a song all about oral sex. For Beyonce’s brazen slogan of sexual confidence—Yoncé all on his mouth like liquor—you’ve got Twigs’ I can fuck you better than her.
Twigs’ message has been lost in translation as critics have brushed over the nuance of her music to make it into something they understand, aka “alternative R&B,” aka “it’s sex music, but it also sounds weird!” LP1 is definitely about sex, but on the whole I don’t know that I’d call it sexy: it deals largely with the juggling act of learning to understand yourself while also desiring others. In the album’s sleeve, she quotes 16th century poet Thomas Wyatt with the line “I love another and thus I hate myself.” As she’s saying she can’t fill up your gaps in “Pendulum,” and as she’s telling you you’re lying about recognizing her in “Video Girl,” she’s piecing together a whole sense of herself that’s independent of the lust she feels and the images of her that you see. It’s the most important pop narrative I’ve heard since, well, since Bey-day last year. And yet these empowering themes have been glossed over. There have been some incredible exceptions—check Jessica Hopper’s review for Wondering Sound, which details the ways in which LP1 is about fantasy and internalized desire far more than it’s about consummation—but on the whole, Twigs’ music has been reviewed as some kind of acceptable, “experimental” variation on a marginalized form. Perhaps I’ve got a bad taste in my mouth because of the 34 online LP1 reviews listed on Metacritic, 26 were written by men. For a ground-breaking album about female sexuality, that feels at best a bit negligent, at worst a bit male gaze-y. It feels like the male-dominated critical discourse is happy to marginalize music with terms like “alternative R&B” until it becomes apparent that that music is world-changing: then they become the authority on it.
In the forlorn final lines of Twigs’ “Video Girl,” a song about the disjuncture between the understanding you have of yourself and the understanding other people think they have of you by merely looking at you, she whispers, I can’t recognize me. In “Pretty Hurts,” a song about the disjuncture between the pressure on women to look a certain way and the effect it has on their internal happiness and well-being, Beyoncé belts, Are you happy with yourself? These two lines form the clearest parallel I can draw between these albums: it’s not about sex, though that’s obviously a large part of it. It’s about self-reflection and self-idealization and the building of an identity, particularly as an oppressed or marginalized person in a world that’s trying its damnedest to objectify you. It’s about doing what makes you happy above and beyond what society says you should be doing. That’s a message I want to hear blasted on BBC Radio 1 playlists and to see illuminated in neon lights on the MTV VMAs stage. Whether they call themselves R&B, pop or nothing at all, FKA Twigs and Beyoncé are the most powerful, innovative and feminist voices we have in music—fuck an “alternative.”