In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means.
Back in February, I had the opportunity to speak on the subject of privacy with London pop singer FKA Twigs. I was sitting across from her in a restaurant in Chelsea, at the tail end of an intensive, 4-day reporting trip in preparation for last Spring’s FADER cover story. At the time, Tahliah Barnett wasn’t really famous yet. She’d only spoken to two journalists before, and was still more than half a year out from the release of her career-catapulting debut, LP1. A string of fantastically strange videos and songs had already made her something of a critical darling in the music press, but I don’t think she or I or anyone really knew what would happen after she released it. As we settled the bill and got ready to part ways, I decided to ask her a final question, one that I like to ask artists when we’re already pretty comfortable together because it’s a pretty deep and personal one. I asked her to tell me what she was most afraid of. Here’s what she replied:
“I'm a very open person. I'm sure you've seen that of me—I've invited you to come and live my life like 100% honestly—but at the same time, I spend a lot of time alone. And I spend a lot of time staying inside my own skull. And I don't want to have to change that, you know? I love everything about what I do, but there's one sacrifice, which is that you sacrifice an element of your privacy. And I don't know, that's just something I'm learning to deal with in a very sort of calm, polite but strict manner, of what I am willing to do and what I am willing to give away, and what I'm not willing to give away. Within my privacy is where I find my creativity, so if too much of that goes, I’m done. No more talks. If I lose too much privacy, that's it: I'm gone. I would still want to create, but I'd just create quietly. I'll just go and live somewhere where nobody gives a shit about FADER and Pitchfork or Dazed. I'll go somewhere were no one cares about those sorts of things.”
Fast forward to this week, and while it would have been impossible for her to predict what turns her life would take in the months that followed, her fears seem alarmingly founded. If you log on to US Weekly right now, you can see grainy paparazzi photographs of Barnett driving around Los Angeles with Hollywood actor and rumored boyfriend Robert Pattinson. Like other tabloid items that have appeared on the subject in recent weeks, the article is peppered with observational details speculating as to their supposed budding relationship, Pattinson’s first since splitting with ex-girlfriend Kristen Stewart: Twigs seen “resting her head upon the Twilight hearthrob’s shoulder with a grin”; the couple “snapped holding hands” on Venice Beach. By way of an introduction to Twigs, it also excerpts a few quotes from my FADER cover story. One of them is a quote about “her love life prior to Pattinson”: “I think I’ve had very interesting relationships with men, both romantic and not romantic. I'm always quite curious about male energy, even within females as well. Like how I react to a male energy within a female. I always find that quite interesting to think about."
Although they make for a perfectly juicy tabloid story quote, Twigs’ words are a whole lot less juicy when you consider them in light of their original context, which was a discussion of her lyrical and visual inspirations. As I indicate in the story, Twigs kept pretty mum about her love life over the course of my visit, offering the odd personal detail (such as the one above, about masculine energy) as a means of shedding light on songs like “Papi Pacify” and their surrealistic exploration of gendered power dynamics. This sort of out-of-context quoting pretty forcefully explains why a private person like Twigs might decide to refrain from talking with the press: just as she probably wasn’t aware that she was being photographed when she decided to rest her head on Pattinson’s shoulder, she couldn’t have known six months ago in London that her words would end up in a celebrity tabloid, fodder for speculation about her personal life instead of context for understanding her work. In the age of pageview-driven journalism, the famous opening words of Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer are as alarming as ever, but they hit closer and closer to home: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
Of course, Malcom’s words are in some ways true of every journalistic act, no matter how conscientious and well-intentioned its perpetrator may be. There is an irony in Twigs’ confession to me, over the span of her longest interview to date, that her biggest fear was losing her privacy: with her decision to speak with me on the record, she was giving some of that privacy away. As sensitive as a given journalist may be to the extremely vulnerable position that puts a subject in, there’s always a kind of latent betrayal that occurs whenever you decide to quote somebody else’s words: you’re working to earn their trust and then using the things they say that paint a picture of them as you see them, one that might not necessarily match up with how they see themselves. It’s an ethical conundrum that’s inextricably bound up with the practice of quoting itself, one that will exist for as long as journalism does. But one unfortunate truth of our evolving media landscape is that success (in numerical, traffic-based terms at least) seems to reward those who pretend it isn’t there, publishing hyberbolic headlines that push the limits of facticity and taking words so far out of context that they begin to signify whatever the person who quotes them wants them to. It’s like the artists of today are in a double bind: stay out of interviews entirely and forfeit the ability to steer one’s own narrative in the press, or speak on the record and watch their words being flipped into erroneous click-bait. The title of the piece you’re reading is a case in point: I tried to get you to believe that you were about to read another news story about Twigs and Robert Pattinson, because it’s my job to write pieces that people will read, and I knew that would grab your attention.
This past summer, I interviewed Inga Copeland for a GEN F profile. The former Hype Williams member was on the cusp of releasing the eerily titled Because I’m Worth It—her first solo album since the dissolution of the sonically shape-shifting, prankster duo—and it was strange that I was interviewing Inga Copeland, because I don’t think she’d ever willingly had an extended conversation with the press before. Hype Williams was notorious for its trickery with the music industry at large—spreading conflicting information about themselves online, speaking cryptically with journalists and staging performances so full of sensory overload that you sometimes couldn’t tell if they had even showed up. Interviewing Copeland wasn’t fun. Rather than give straightforward answers, or even fancifully fictitious ones (see: Dave Keenan’s recent Dean Blunt story in The Wire), she seemed to stab at each of my questions like a specimen on a dissection table. When I asked her what sort of work she was interested in creating when she first started playing with Hype Williams, she insisted that it was “very much a kind of no plan situation.” When I asked her what she was thinking about when going into the studio to record her first solo album, she critiqued my question on the basis of its reflexive assumption that by putting out a solo album, she was “turning over a new page” artistically: “First I don’t really feel like there is a new page thing as a concept; obviously things change about that as time goes on, but they would have changed regardless.”
What was originally meant to be a 30-minute interview dragged out to an hour and a half, as my attempts to collect any information about her at all—any positive declarations as to who she was or what she was interested in or what inspired her to make the music that she made—were met with one negative statement after the next. No, she never had any particular interest in music growing up, or any particular interest in critical theory when she moved from Tallinn to London to study it at Goldsmiths. No, she didn’t identify as a Londoner after living in that city for over a decade, because feeling that kind of romantic attachment to a place “becomes borderline nationalist or patriotic.” At first, I became paranoid that I was asking all the wrong questions; after getting past my initial frustration, though, I began to suspect that she simply didn’t want to be known. Question by question, she was letting me know that every single journalistic angle I could try was a false lead—maybe a false attempt at simplifying her work into a single, SEO-optimized thesis, at reducing her life to the sort of clean-cut meta-narrative that can be packaged and sold. “I know you’ll write it into your story and that’s your job,” she said at one point, seemingly confirming my hunch. “What I’m saying now isn’t going to be what is there. It’s going to be a different thing.”
More than an interview, it felt like a performance, one completely in line with the impossible-to-pin down nature of her musical work, with its aleatoric succession of dub rhythms, circus melodies and mechanical sounds. That’s the thing about our current media landscape: as reductive, voyeuristic and exploitative it can be, it’s also a field for an independent artist to play in. As the Robert Pattinson/FKA Twigs paparazzi photography somewhat disturbingly suggest, retreating behind a shell of privacy and hoping to let one’s work do most of the talking may be a losing battle in this ultra-mediatized world. The trope of faceless, anonymous producer that proliferated in independent music a few years ago (think: How to Dress Well, Evian Christ) doesn’t really hold any water in the age where most fans watch festival shows through the viewfinders on their iPhone screens; it feels like a false conceit, which is maybe what Burial was getting at when he finally decided to share a selfie of his face earlier this year.
Still, just because it’s impossible to stop your photographic likeness from proliferating on the internet, and just because whatever you end up saying to a journalist isn’t necessarily “going to be what is there” when the article comes out, doesn’t mean than an artist can’t mess with that state of affairs. Inga Copeland showed me that she wasn’t going to be turned into an SEO headline without putting up a fight, and I’m beginning to sense a similar spirit of subterfuge in the work of fellow London producer Sophie, whose over-caffeinated, hyper-digital, fucked up kawaii productions feel somehow all the more thought-provoking and strange in light of his recent admission to Billboard that he’s working in the “musical genre” of “advertising.” Along with his misleadingly feminine sobriquet and circulation of press images that never actually feature him, it’s as much a gesture of participation with the mechanics of internet fame (he is, after all, answering what is probably the most banal interview question in the book) as it is a refusal to be known. In a mainstream music ecosystem that has become increasingly receptive to avant-garde sounds—to the point where it seems to embrace any statement that might possibly have previously antagonized it—navigating the press may be less of a necessary chore than a site of creative possibility, a means of disrupting the system while simultaneously exposing its inner workings. In an era where music and cult of personality have become one, it might even be the most exciting political frontier.