On January 14, 2022, FKA twigs dropped her first mixtape. “CAPRISONGS is my journey back to myself through my amazing collaborators and friends,” twigs declares in an Instagram post from January 6th. At the end of the post, twigs explains astrology’s importance for this project of reconnecting with herself:
it’s my stubborn caprisun ass telling me to work thru my pain by delivering at work, don’t think just go studio and create
my saggi moon being the enigmatic temptress craving the club, to dance and to be social
and my pisce venus hot mess disastrous heart falling in love all over again
but this time with music and with myself
In this excerpt, twigs lays out her astrological landscape: her sun (sense of self) is in Capricorn, her moon (how she experiences emotions) is in Sagittarius, and her Venus (how she connects with others) is in Pisces. Known as the hardest working and most goal-driven sign in the Zodiac, Capricorns are Earth signs who ground themselves in their bodies and their work. As twigs also mentions in the IG post, “it’s my stubborn caprisun ass telling me to work thru my pain by delivering at work, don’t think just go studio and create.” In other words, when we work on and through ourselves, we can again find love. CAPRISONGS signals towards how astrology might provide a space for queer, feminist and people of color communities to navigate the emotional trauams of both sexual violence and the ongoing long pandemic. More than that, CAPRISONGS amplifies how we as individuals—and how we come together with friends, family, lovers, and partners—drive the direction of our healing from abuse.
I come to FKA twigs’s CAPRISONGS as a Capricorn rising who is also healing from abuse. For the past year and a half, I’ve written amply on this blog—and talked extensively with those closest to me—about the extent of this sexual and emotional violence. Like twigs on this mixtape, I’m not interested in continuing to hash it out over and over again, especially when I’ve gotten to such a different place with it at this point. But I do think it’s worth pausing here and quickly recapping the year that twigs had leading up to the release of this mixtape, which I don’t think is being discussed enough in any of the coverage of this musical release. The past year+ in FKA twigs’s journey towards healing has been highly publicized, particularly since news of her suing ex-partner Shia LaBeouf for physical, mental, and emotional abuse went live on December 11, 2020. (I distinctly remember this day since it was one when I (again) ran into the ex who I would continue to see right up until I left New Orleans at the end of May 2021.) Since then, twigs has become a spokesperson for these issues, from raising awareness about legislation in the U.K. to raising (more) money for sex workers in London and beyond. Although she has not necessarily talked in great detail about how her identity as a mixed race woman might have left her more susceptible to this kind of physical, emotional, and sexual violence, her comments on the racism she experienced from Twilight fans while dating Robert Pattinson addressed this more explicitly. For those of us who are sexual violence survivors, FKA twigs’s noting how emotional abuse can be just as—or even more—harmful than physical abuse was a massive moment of pop culture recognition and new entry point into the conversations of the #metoo era, one for which I will always be grateful to her.
But that’s not what this mixtape is about. Rather, CAPRISONGS is about what happens after you get away, even if your flashbacks and points of (re)activation sometimes send you crashing back into these originary traumas in ways that make you feel (momentarily) trapped. The lead single “tears in the club” featuring the Weeknd (which I disliked at first but has grown on me considerably since then) set the tone for this before the mixtape was even released. “tears in the club” is a synth-y pop song that might crack into the Top 40 if it wasn’t, in the words of my friend Mac, so lyrically “morose.” As twigs sings on the first verse, “I wanna take my clothes off, wanna touch/ My hips, my thighs, not yours, all mine, yeah.” Beckoning back to when she first sang, “When I’m alone/ Don’t need you/ I love my touch/ Know just what to do,” on “Kicks,” the hard-hitting emotional closer on LP1, twigs here looks to take things into her own hands and “Listen to the rhythm and make no compromise/ ‘Cause you hurt me.” In the physical and emotional absences of our past and/or potential lovers, we turn to our mental imaginations and touch ourselves. This is what masturbation is, after all; this is a practice that many of us who are sexual beings engage with on some level of regularity. But after you’ve been sexually abused, masturbation can feel different. After the dissociative experience of surviving sexual violence, you’re left trying to get back to your body, to the rhythms on which you used to groove as a solo sexual traveler. As someone who’s had sex a handful of times with someone else (one person) since being raped 1.5 years ago, this getting back to my sexual self has been almost entirely through—and by—myself. And, as someone who has sex just as much for the emotional and intellectual connection as the physicality of it, this has been really hard, albeit also empowering in its own way (for not having to rely so much on someone else for it). And even as I begin to feel (in) my body again, I still never lose this huge sexual trauma lurking nearby.
CAPRISONGS additionally lands at a moment in time when we are constantly figuring and reconfiguring how to be intimate (sexually or otherwise) with anyone at all as we approach year three of the COVID pandemic turned endemic. Far beyond the question of whether we will or will not get COVID (because Omicron), we’re now faced with additional quagmires about what it means to be a body when we’ve been shutting ours down so much, on and off again, throughout the course of the past two years. Back/on Hinge for the first time in LA, I have been amazed by how little the queer women creators, activists, and intellectuals in my dating app purview have to say about their bodily desires in this moment. But who can blame them (us)? And so when I listen to “papi bones” and hear Shy Girl rapping as twigs alternately sings “Strong grip gripping on my body/ You can hold it/ Never stop, I ain’t met no body no/ Who control this,” I laugh out loud and then immediately crash into melancholy as this kind of seuxal choreography feels so out of reach in this moment. Back in New Orleans, when I was living life at my most precarious, I had a semester-long period of just going home from the club or parade with anyone I had ever felt attracted to (and still have zero shame about any of that). And despite making jokes about stocking up on boxes of black dragon gloves with friends and colleagues at a virtual symposium last spring, this kind of nerd girl fall (as a friend and I started referring to my fall 2019 semester) feels far away at this point, because the pandemic makes it harder to just meet (and leave with) people like that—and, more importantly, that my newfound life stability means that I also want something different from sex now.
In my experience, listening to CAPRISONGS is a dance around what sex used to mean for me in the past and what I want it to do for me in the present—and future. For a mixtape that’s supposedly about twigs coming back to herself, there sure is a lot about sex and romantic relationships on almost all of these songs. But then again, for those of us who are sexually and/or romantically inclined, both of these things are a component of who we are. More than that, they are also the things that we share with friends, as twigs and company demonstrate on “pamplemousse.” On a song named after the popular La Croix flavor, twigs sings, “Me and the girls out with our phones (know)/ Eight Simi-Haze, looking Girl Scouts, wow/ Weave smells like La Croix, pamplemousse” over synths sputtering up to the point of a can of fizzy water about to explode. The inclusion of “weave” here signals that this is a gathering of women of color, of women friends gathering around a shared racial and gender identity. Although I’m not Black or a person of color, what I always connect to most strongly in FKA twigs’s music are these moments of emotional intimacy. She doesn’t just sing out intimacy but embeds it in her songs’ vibrations, affectively channeling that intensity through the embodiment of shared sensual experience. When I listen to “pamplemousse,” I remember that this kind of connectivity is still possible, even across the many challenges of the endemic.
I was in one of these periods of intellectual and emotional intensity quite recently—and it was an even bigger deal than I realized at the time. Feeling fully seen and heard is something I’ve rarely felt in my life. As a highly intuitive person, I feel things deeply; as an affect theorist, I spend my days pouring over our felt intensities, writing and theorizing through how they unfold in our lives. In both my academic work and music criticism, I write about what I feel most deeply, beginning on the levels of sound and vibration. When I listen to “careless,” it brings me back to a felt moment, to how by the end of last semester I felt closer to you than I’ve felt to anyone in a long time. I then think of all the things we don’t say in a particular moment because it’s not the right time, because it may never be the right time (and by “time” here I mean something that we intuit as we move through it). But then again, these are all the things you fully realize in the silence, in the break. This song isn’t about the break but rather about the moment before the break, about the back and forth that happens before you ultimately table something. “You gotta make up your mind somehow/ Take me now,” twigs sings at the end of the first verse as the instrumentation drops down in volume. It’s the ultimate moment of vulnerability right before you realize that it’s not going to go the way you want it to—and it is heartbreaking in a way I don’t have words for.
But, at the same time, you still feel the urge of “I wanna scream it all out to you,” as twigs whispers near the end of the song. Every day, I wake up and somehow resist the urge to send you a screaming email about everything that has felt set off—and that I’ve been processing—in the past month. Instead, in the weeks since, I’ve cried and screamed and written my way through how absolutely awful both the thing at hand and the feared loss of all the workings together that might have been feel. These things always have input from both sides, of course; this is also what this song is about, particularly when Daniel Caesar comes in for the second verse and sings, “Don’t know where you’re goin’? Well I don’t either/ That could be your problem/ I could help you solve ‘em/ Is that of any interest to you?” Sometimes, we gravitate towards people who are going through a lot of the same things as us, both in terms of life lines and healing lines. Sometimes, when we stand with another in our traumas, we end up (unintentionally) reactivating them for the person on the other side. Having lost my shit on people enough times in the past, I’ve been trying really hard not to do that this time. Because, when I step back and really think about it, I realize that I’d be screaming at you for every last thing in my life that’s ever hurt me—and that that’s not your fault. I don’t know where any of this leaves you and me, as we’re each taking the time and space that we asked one another for. The scariest thing of all is that I don’t (yet) know what will happen.
To simultaneously hold these two kinds of feelings for one person you care deeply about is always the hardest thing.
In our mid-30s dating lives, we all come with ghosts. To call all of these ghosts “trauma” would be a bit dramatic, although some of these ghosts definitely are. Whether these ghosts come in sturdy suitcases or porous purses is a result of time, space, and the amount of work we’ve actively done to facilitate our own healing. I’ve long stopped expecting that any of us, including myself, will show up unscathed. When you’re queer and career-driven, this part of your life often gets put on hold—or at least delayed. From my seven years in the Deep South, I have too many sad stories about people met in other places or met in the place from where I was about to move to even begin to try to recount them here (and besides, most of those are tucked away in suitcases, on the backburner, under the bed). This delay—and the subsequent longing from having to wait —is sometimes the biggest ghost that we bring with us. And/or, perhaps it’s also a sign of our unwillingness to settle, to give up on our individual and partnership dreams when faced with less than ideal situations. On the phone with a dear friend with whom I’ve had a porous intimacy over time, she asks me what it is that (still) makes me want to be in a romantic relationship. I answer the way I’ve answered for most of the past decade: to individually live my life yet come together with a partner to share experiences, push each other to grow, and engage in physical intimacy with one another. Minus the sex, it’s not that different than any of my closest friendships. Nevertheless, the ghosts of romances past register differently due to their sexual energies—and the breaks in them (often) require a coming back to myself that’s notably different than what’s required of lost friendship alone.
On “darjeeling,” FKA twigs, Jorja Smith, and Unknown T all sing about their first moments of arriving in London, of their first moments of arriving in(to) themselves upon reaching the place they now call home. The ghosts that they’ve brought with them mix with the ghosts of the imperial empire, of the darjeeling tea that Britain once colonized from India. In yet another great guest verse from Smith, she sings,
Ran towards the lights, thought I could find (yeah)
Somethin’ bigger than the town I had left behind
I remember packin’ up my bags, not sayin’ my goodbyes
Walsall used to be a place that only ever stopped my dreams
And my home is where my heart is
Feel so alone in a city so big
Singing back to Smith later from the bridge, twigs affirms, “The world is right there, I hear it calling/ But home is a place that makes my heart sing.” As they sing, a sonic synth lullaby ebbs and flows, intensifying up to the sharp, ragged sounds of UK drill for Unknown T’s verse before dipping back down again. This song brings up so much in me, from hitting the job market lottery by ending up in LA to the comforting, albeit also frightening, reality of being able to slip into anonymity here, just like I used to in NYC. Although I rarely venture west of Western Ave without a purpose, the bright neon lights that line the street all the way from South Los Angeles to Thai Town make me feel at home (again), even as I live my life to the east, in the dimmed down lights of radical queerness. The “somethin’ bigger” that I feel in LA is not only the city itself but all the relationships and relationalities that feel possible within it.
I come to a new city—and to my dating life here—in a new place, as I keep both refining my poly politics and sitting with identifying as both a woman (always) and a genderqueer person (that’s newer). While I don’t love “poly,” I dislike “non-monogamous” (or non-anything) even more, so I keep trying to rework the former to something that works for me. A new city is always a good place to do this, when you don’t have the expectations of people who knew a previous version of you weighing down on you too heavily. After not doing a great job of explaining what polyness is to me on my first date with the person I dated last semester, I’ve been really trying to plug into what the rhythms of it are for me. Most days, being poly increasingly feels like more of a political orientation for me than anything else, a stand against absolute monogamy, codependency, and limiting love to romance. At this point, the best way to describe myself seems to be that I’m a relationship person who has some poly tendencies, that I need to feel some breathing room for my expressions of both physical and emotional intimacy across a spectrum of relationalities. When I think back to all the truly terrible experiences I had with poly people in New Orleans, sometimes it feels incredulous to even try to hold onto some version of this identity for myself. But now, when I see comments like “no poly situations” or “I only do monogamy” on someone’s dating profile, I immediately swipe left. (It comes close, although does not quite reach, the pit that I feel in my stomach when someone who doesn’t know me calls me “Ms.” or defaults to “she/her” without asking.)
Alongside all this, I’m also feeling through what it does to who I am to use she/her and they/them pronouns now. I keep thinking about how much gender can be an out of body experience, how what it means for you can be so different than what other people perceive it is for you. Such as: when queer friends use they/them pronouns for me (often to overcompensate for the straight people around us just defaulting to she/her), it doesn’t immediately register that they’re talking about me. As my best friend and I talk about all the time, sometimes I wish we just didn’t have pronouns at all—even as I am, simultaneously, hard-pressed to believe that eradicating the gender binary would make anyone who was previously woman-identified or female assigned at birth automatically equal to those formerly known as “men.” Besides, I feel deeply attached to and invested in the herstories of what those of us who have identified as women have done, even as I also experience a genderqueer identity in addition to—and sometimes in excess of—so-called (white) womanhood. This is always the place where I most disidentify with FKA twigs, especially the moments when her identity as a woman feels grounded in her sexual and romantic relationalities with men (“I was on his side, fifty-five to making a prof’/ Body hot like cookin’ for long”). But that might also just be heteronormativity at play. In my LA dating life so far, part of “the lights” has been people accepting my gender identities and me not needing to explain it to them. And given all the moments of twigs clowning with her (queer) dancers on the mixtape, those moments are there too, even if they’re not the main focus that they are in my LA queer academic east of Western life.
So I guess in this second half of this post I’ve landed more in writing about dating, the other side of the coin that can often—but not always—accompany sex. But then again, dating, like sex, is another social way in which we attempt to come back to ourselves, the long-standing theme on this mixtape. On the second-to-last-track “christi interlude,” we get a bizarre, sort of astrological moment when “Fragrance Composer and Creatrix of House of Matriarch” Christi Meshell exclaims, “And how delightful, you were born on a New Moon. That gives you such an optimistic energy. You believe anything can happen, the world is your oyster.” While the connection to astrology on this song—and CAPRISONGS at large—seems loose at best, the spirit of this response speaks to me—and us—in our long pandemic moment. More than that, the mixtape format—and the many different directions (pop, R&B, electronic, piano ballad, UK drill, Afrobeats, reggae) that it travels over the course of its 48 minutes—underscores how neither trauma nor the healing around it work in any kind of linear fashion. In the long pandemic, we are all trauma survivors; we are all always emotionally readapting to a so-called new normal on a daily or weekly or monthly basis. In this sense, CAPRISONGS is a soundtrack for sitting with traumas of all kinds during our warped present. As I hear it, it is a healing space that reminds me that love is still (always) possible.