FKA twigs’ MAGDALENE: biblical allusions and the public eye

FKA twigs’ 2019 album MAGDALENE has been highly acclaimed as a cinematic masterpiece that combines soft operatic soprano vocals with kaleidoscopic club beats to create an original futuristic sound that resists confinement to one musical genre. Existing on the very tip of what we may confidently regard as pop music, mixing classical techniques with the ‘sounds of tomorrow.’ Floating between hymn-like medieval melodies and modern ticker-tape beatboxing, the album creates a spiritual catharsis which perfectly fits the album’s biblical concept. The title MAGDALENE alludes to the biblical figure Mary Magdalene, a mythical feminist icon in modern day cultural portrayals. Existing within the ‘Shadow of Christianity’, the Mary Magdalene persona of the repentant whore who has been speculated to have had romantic relations with Jesus has circulated in countless modern day feminist portrayals. This persona emerged from Pope Gregory 1st’s misreading of three different biblical women as the one Mary Magdalene in 581. Thus, illuminating Magdalene as a figurehead for women’s misrepresentation in the media, becoming an icon for the ‘reclamation of the sacred feminine and a reinvigoration of spiritual life.’


Although religion itself does not stand as a focal point in the album, twigs’ lyrics do express a firm belief in the image of the Magdalene character. The lyrics of the album envision twigs’ own experience as a reflection of the slander on Magdalene’s name throughout history. At the time of writing the album, twigs’ relationship with Twilight star Robert Pattinson was collapsing under the scrutiny of UK tabloids and fans who targeted twigs with masses of racist and sexist abuse. Additionally, during the creation process of the album twigs received surgeries to remove six fruit-sized tumours from her reproductive organs, something that left her with ‘no option but to tear down every process i had ever leant into.’ Thus, greatly hindering the creative process for someone who combines her music with visual artwork, such as expressively pole dancing to devastating piano ballad ‘cellophane’ or traditional Chinese sword-fighting in music videos. In the album announcement post on Twitter, twigs directly addressed the creation, saying ‘it was only when i offered my own sometimes fruitful, often poisoned teat to raise you that you would look me in the eye,’ again expressing the difficulties that twigs’ experienced both during and within creating the album. Drawing attention to how twigs infused the album MAGDALENE with the experiences of her own suffering, using Mary Magdalene as a ‘mirror of cultural transformation’ to explore the experiences of the modern-day oppressed woman in her musical composition.


In the song ‘a thousand eyes’, twigs opens the album with her fear of public scrutiny, creating a prologue that encompasses repetitive, hymn-like church music with layers of multiple voices which seem to drown twigs’ independent voice; highlighting how overwhelming it was to be involuntarily placed in a crowd of judgemental onlookers. The ‘thousand eyes’ watching her serve as a metaphor to exhibit the masses of people judging both twigs and Magdalene without either women’s consent. By using medieval church music and the sounds of modern-day pop music, twigs emphasises how despite the major difference in time period, these two women have experienced a similar kind of unwanted public scrutiny. Likewise, in the headline song of the album ‘cellophane’, twigs combines austere piano chords with layers of electronics that rest above a whispered beatbox, creating a raw emotion that feels intimately close to the listener. The soft soprano vocals make the song entirely vulnerable, highlighting the fragility of a relationship protected only by fragile and transparent cellophane, thus, the musical composition mirroring the lyrical intentions of the song.


The allusion to the distorted figure of Mary Magdalene becomes especially interesting in the song ‘mary magdalene’ which again opens with a hymn-like introduction shifting into the sounds of the modern day. twigs uses this song to allude to the works of Kate Bush, who at the time was arguably another under-rated and misunderstood female voice in the music industry. Having earlier being compared to an ‘afrofuturist Kate Bush’, twigs’ decision to subvert this comparison into her own sound whilst making a direct allusion to Bush’s song ‘This Woman’s Work’ again highlights the theme of femininity and fertility across the album. The choice to repeat the lyrics ‘a woman’s work’ in the song drawing attention to Bush’s song about the unexpected and frightening crises experienced during childbirth whilst twigs was personally undergoing surgery on her reproductive organs cannot go unnoticed. Additionally, the choice to lean into Bush’s work within the song titled after the album’s figure of inspiration is especially interesting, as in 2019 Bush’s work was still considered too futuristic and abstract for the majority of listeners (the newfound success of ‘Running up That Hill’ encouraged by the song’s feature in ‘Stranger Things’ was yet to happen). More allusions to Bush’s work are found in the song ‘home with you’ where the lyric ‘running down the hills to you’ directly opposes Bush’s ‘Running up That Hill’ to exemplify the shocking demise of twigs’ relationship under the spotlight. The song contains bursts of noise which resemble gunshots layered beneath a whispered piano-ballad rap, adding a futuristic element to the sound whilst again highlighting the continuity in the scrutiny faced by these women.


Further exploration of the sounds in the album reveals FKA twigs ‘singing at the altar of Kate Bush’, with the minute long wait for the drums in ‘sad day’ building a mellow atmosphere which is destabilized by the sudden disruptive bursts of noise throughout the song. These bursts of sounds are then disrupted by the isolation of twigs’ voice floating in the air above them. This dark cinematic song is finalised with the haunting and vulnerable soprano, accompanied by quickened background vocals that spotlight the raw emotion of the repeated lyrics ‘You’re running / And I tried.’ The album is also home to a number of musical collaborations, with Future’s feature on the song ‘holy terrain’ creating a psychedelic chant that samples a typical trap beat and a choir of Bulgarian voices to add even more desperation to twigs’ sound. The song also clusters the work of multiple producers, combining the sounds of twigs herself, Skrillex, Jack Antanoff, and benny blanco into one musical composition. The collaborative effort of the album is just another way that twigs achieves the perfect balance of past, present, and futuristic sounds to again exemplify this continuation in female oppression.


Overall, the sounds of the album include passionate vocals which float over complex production techniques to emphasise the raw emotions experienced by twigs at the time of MAGDALENE’s creation. The comparisons that twigs draws between contemporary women in the media and Mary Magdalene create a compilation of female experiences that all express resistance to the involuntary scrutiny and observation continually forced upon women in the public eye.

Featured Image by Rancid Coverz from flickr

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