A Woman’s Work: FKA Twigs’ MAGDALENE

FKA Twigs with her sword, Judith. She incorporates experimental performances into her sets, including Wushu sword fighting. Illustration by Pearl McNames. 

In November of 2019, FKA Twigs dropped her sophomore album: MAGDALENE. MAGDALENE is a striking exploration and celebration of female strength, sexuality, and pain, in part through the reclamation of the often disempowered figure that is the titular Mary Magdalene. Contrary to popular belief, the Mary Magdalene of the Bible was most likely not a prostitute. Her legend has shifted over centuries’ worth of attitudes toward women and sex, oftentimes a pawn in narratives put forth by male clergy seeking to erase her role in the Bible. Though the exact origin of the misconception is not entirely clear— possibly arising in later interpretation through conflating Magdalene with one of several other Marys— the invention serves to diminish and discredit her. In this warped image, Mary Magdalene’s overt sexuality is something to be redeemed from, elevated from her prostitution through holy salvation and puppeted as a symbol by centuries of male hegemony. She exists as a polar opposite to the virginal Mary: a weeping sinner, detritus of a filthy world to be swept up and saved by holy male figures. FKA Twigs defies these misogynistic interpretations; she looks to Magdalene as a figure of strength, both subjugated and powerful.

In a video with Google Arts and Culture, Twigs described her connection to Magdalene: “When I was making my own album, entitled ‘Magdalene,’ it was a time of great healing for me. When I was researching about Mary Magdalene and I was looking at a lot of paintings of her, she seemed so poised and so together. But the irony is in finishing my music, I found a deep wildness, a looseness, and acceptance. A release.” 

 The nine-track project was Twigs’ second studio album, and though it received major critical acclaim and a not insignificant cult following (especially for the song “cellophane, which sports an impressive 46 million listens as of January 2022), the album as a whole never received the scale of mainstream recognition it arguably deserved. The album is ethereal and otherworldly, following in the footsteps of the likes of Björk and Kate Bush but unafraid to bend genre and claim new ground, containing a feature from the rapper Future and clear EDM influences. It’s technically classed as dance/electronica, although it’s difficult to imagine FKA Twigs’ haunting vocals ringing out over a club of dancing people.

When listening, it’s clear that what Twigs says about the emotional core of this album is true. It’s an intensely vulnerable body of work, mapping a palpable sense of heartache. It often prioritizes conveying emotion over conventional singing technique, displaying a huge range of vocals that stretch from “home with you’s” gritted rage to “cellophane’s” near-sobbing tone. 

A particularly striking line, again from “home with you, is the proclaimed “Mary Magdalene would never let her loved ones down.” In an interview with Genius, Twigs described this line as referring to the labor women do without recognition. “Throughout history there have been these amazing women that have given so much emotional labor to someone else, and done it for nothing in the end other than, I guess, ironically being part of the backstory,” she explains. “People like Mary Magdalene have had such, such a huge part of history, and they did it selflessly.” The perception of women, the recognition they receive, and the wars they fight are steady themes in this album. 

If one song perfectly encapsulates what MAGDALENE has to say on those themes, it’s fittingly “mary magdalene”, the fifth track on the album. Its opening lines, “A woman’s work, a woman’s prerogative, a woman’s time to embrace she must put herself first,” and lines like “I can lift you higher, I do it like Mary Magdalene,” and “A woman’s war, unoccupied history,” paired with “home with you’s” “I’ve never seen a hero like me in a sci-fi,” make reference to the way women—particularly black women like FKA Twigs herself— are sidelined in mainstream narratives. MAGDALENE paints a picture of unlauded strength: “women’s wars” that never made it to the history books or the big screen. 

A sense of sensuality is also core to this album, fitting to its namesake— or at least to the cultural role she fills. FKA Twigs refers to Mary Magdalene, who has been made over centuries into an avatar for attitudes toward female sexuality to be projected upon, as a “creature of desire.” However, this is never in contradiction to Twigs’ admiration of her. In fact, in this album women’s sexuality and femininity are never contradictory to their strength. Twigs elevates things historically sexualized and discarded as crude to the divine. For example, pole dancing is something that has become somewhat iconic to Twigs as a performer. Both the “cellophane” music video (which has been unofficially credited with inspiring Lil Nas X’s “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” music video) and her live performances feature pole performances— as well as incredible Wushu sword fighting using a sword Twigs named after another biblical woman: Lilith. 

Cellophaneopens with Twigs, the camera following the gait of her Pleaser heels, stepping into a gilded room. Nearly half of the video is devoted to an intricate, otherworldly pole performance before the ceiling opens up and Twigs is spiralled into the heavens, still on her pole, in an ethereal, if cryptic, sequence. Though the symbology of “cellophane’s” music video is far too dense to unpack here, one thing is clear: just as Twigs celebrates a figure minimized as a repentant prostitute, she doesn’t shy away from imbuing a form of art that typically receives a pearl-clutching response with graceful, ethereal divinity. 

MAGDALENE probes the duality of womanhood— the pain, the suffering, and the power it contains. To FKA Twigs, it seems that women are both uniquely connected to the terrestrial and tied to the celestial. Perhaps it’s put best in a statement Twigs made in a 2019 interview with KEXP’s Jasmine Albertson: “I think there’s been a big theme on this record and that’s the idea of the Virgin Whore, the sacred prostitute, and that is an archetype that women have lost in modern day society. As a woman, we can be both things. We can be innocent and pure like a flower and, you know, like a juicy little fruit, like a fresh flower. But we can also be sensual or knowing, healing, strong, powerful. We can be all of these things at the same time, and that’s okay.”

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