Stage names often lend musicians a sense of post-human mystery, rendering them, by their own accord, Other. By calling oneself a name other than one’s own, the artist denies a universal human nomenclatural norm. There’s an immediate air of mystery, and a rejection of the quotidian: if Lady Gaga, for example, had always gone by Stefani Germanotta, it would have been far more difficult to buy into little monster-dom (although the current, U2-and-Tony-Bennett duetting, Sound of Music homaging iteration of Gaga would have perhaps made more sense).
But why stop there? Both FKA twigs (real name: Tahliah Barnett) and Arca (Alejandro Ghersi) are envisioning alternate parts of themselves that exist outside their already intriguingly alienating sobriquets. It’s not only their artistic persona/brand as seen through a chosen name with which listeners are becoming familiar, but each artist has another side (an essence for twigs, an alter-ego for Arca) that’s emerging both in their music and in their notably specific visual worlds, a presence strong enough to merit its own name.
FKA twigs’ newest EP is called M3LL155X, which is actually pronounced “Melissa.” Just as FKA twigs’ abbreviated name (Formerly Known As) and lowercase lettering stylizes the artist in the vaguely coded, robotic way that she visualizes herself, M3LL155X does so to a much higher degree with the rather generic name “Melissa.” But who, exactly, is this M3LL155X?
“What is M3LL155X?” might be a more apt question, as twigs is adamant about her not being an alter ego. She said in a feature in Complex:
‘Melissa’ to me is my personal female energy. I’ve never called it ‘Melissa’ before the EP. It’s not a weird alter ego. It’s just my way of separating it from myself…
The emergence of M3LL155X has to do with another huge addition to twigs’ repertoire. As Flavorwire’s Jillian Mapes noted following twig’s “deeply erotic” Congregata concert, voguing has become central — both thematically and physically — to twigs’ aesthetic. In an interview with Zane Lowe, she described how she found solace in the figure-eight motion key to voguing, in the dance’s emphasis on eternal fluidity. She’d immersed herself in the form following the release of LP1, when rising stardom, she felt, was alienating her from herself — and people’s own publicized writings on who she was likely threatened to create a static identity. Back in the Complex interview, she discussed how her “M3LL155X” was brought out through the ball culture-rooted dance technique:
Voguing has helped me grow into the best young lady that I can be at this time. Through these boys [the dancers who mentored her] I’ve learned to embrace parts of my femininity that I wasn’t in touch with before.
Along with her EP, twigs released a 16-minute self-directed video — encapsulating the first four tracks — seemingly charting the birthing process of the essence known as M3LL155X. The first track off the EP is “Figure 8,” in which twigs bemoans “mass appeal” and says “it’s a miracle if we’re still alive,” seemingly referring to herself in the first person plural. The darkness of this phase (echoed in the track’s deep, menacing opening notes) is mitigated by the potential of something new: she declares, “I’ve a baby inside/But I won’t give birth till you insert yourself inside of me.” And, indeed, M3LL155X appears for much of the short film in the form of a pregnancy — begotten by a particularly troubling “insertion.”
The “figure 8” portion of the film sees Michèle Lamy dressed as an angler fish, evoking the depths of the personal crisis it seems twigs may have been undergoing following her first release. At the end of the video, the fashion-fish eats her esca (the corporeal lantern that makes angler fish so angler-fishy), and spits out a ball, which morphs into a CGI blow-up-doll version of twigs, announcing the track “I’m Your Doll.”
This song was written by the artist when she was 18, and she revised it to acknowledge her current surprise at how uncritically submissive it was when she’d first conceived it. “I’d been brainwashed and preconditioned to write a pop song and write it from that point of view,” she’d said of it. As the doll inflates, it looks— as far as bodily distortion goes — not too dissimilar to Arca’s distended, amorphous CGI “Xen” character. Once its full of air, it lays out on a bed, with twigs’ actual head atop it, as a man sweatily impregnates it/her. It seems to be the visualization of giving one’s sexuality and image over to the patriarchal forces of the music industry and the larger patriarchy it appeals to. Given the ultimate destination of the video, this viscerally disturbing scene is formative for the artist: it impregnates her with a sense of feminine defiance, of self-ownership — of, yes, let’s call it what it is, “Melissa/M3LL155X.”
Fittingly, the next video — “In Time” — sees twigs pregnant, boxing, developing an armor, and eventually giving birth to rainbow goo. This, notably, is the first video in which she dances — clearly a form of heightened control for the artist. The final video is the previously-released “Glass & Patron,” which sees twigs arriving at her self-possessed destination. In this video, she births a line of rainbow cloth — a more formed, generative version of the goo, if you will — which unveils a group of voguing, futuristically-fashioned dancers who join twigs on a catwalk.
Now, she’s the one directly dictating the sexual fantasies, saying “Shut your eyes and feel the rush/ Will you fuck me while I stare at the sun?” The video, which is completely devoted to voguing, emulates the lyrical theme of self worship in the face of past adversity (“Teach yourself to rise from ashes built from lust and hurt/ You are phoenix, you are fire, you are everything”). It very explicitly illustrates the voguing-as-personal-savior narrative she’s discussed in interviews, with M3LL155X finally fully unleashed, wreaking such glorious havoc on the catwalk, framing her face through her figure 8s in exactly the way she wants it to be framed.
It’s no coincidence that twigs and Arca both have these essences they’ve named, which bear their own statements about gender play in self-expression. Arca worked with twigs both on EP1 and LP1 (though not M3LL155X), and their musical styles both sound as though the human emotional spectrum were appropriated by, and even given more nuance by, sentient metals and glass. The two excel in melodic shape-shifting, their songs’ structures parallel to the same kind of beautifully, eerily dysmorphic beings their videos so often depict. Even before the M3LL155X essence emerged as a series of images, from a pregnancy to a multicolored goo to an empowered, voguing twigs, the artist was envisioning herself as polymorphous, as in her “Pendulum” video, in which she appears both as herself and whatever the hell this is:
…and in the album art accompanying LP1, by Jesse Kanda:
As for Arca, he likewise devoted a whole musical work — his album Xen — to the introduction of a personal essence. Unlike twigs, Arca does refer to Xen as an alter-ego, one that originated when he was young. He told Vogue the origin story:
I used to play lots of online video games, and I made a girl character for an online role playing game named Xen. Then I started signing my diary, Dear diary, love Xen. If I was making music I was happy with, I’d close my eyes and move slower or in a gentler way: that’s Xen. I guess all of us have a little bit of both, masculinity and femininity, and bridging the gap between those two things is really fertile.
While making an album that’d sonically reflect this side, he, like twigs, worked with artist Jesse Kanda, who conceptualized Xen visually. Arca told Dazed:
I close my eyes and I see this naked being who exists in front of an audience. Everyone is simultaneously attracted to it and repulsed – it looks like it went through suffering but it’s beautiful… Of course, those were all projections of my psyche; of how I viewed my own sexuality and how I engaged with people through the lens of sensuality. They were very important cues, and [Kanda] took them up. What excited him most was that image of her, of it, and I can’t imagine him representing her in a more accurate way. This being is actually aware of its sex as a weapon and as a threat.
Similar to M3LL155X as embodying the voguing-born side of twigs, Xen is born of a sort of perpetual motion. The video for “Thievery,” for example, depicts Xen as a disproportionately-bottomed, incessant twerker, manifesting in the real world — as twigs and Arca visual collaborator Jesse Kanda put it, Xen is a “sassy” and sarcastic side of Ghersi that comes out on occasion. Though Arca says “Xen” is an “it,” he also said in the Dazed interview that refers to her as female because power is so often depicted in male terms.
It is perhaps telling that the idea of Xen originated as a gaming avatar. Both FKA twigs and Arca make some of the most isolating, futuristic music — at least among work that brushes against the mainstream. Their songs unsettle not because they depicts a futurism devoid of feeling, but rather the opposite: their vocabulary of feeling is immense, and sounds so polymorphously inhuman. Listening to their music, one imagines a future of expression that surpasses the limits of the current pairing of contemporary human social constructs and human bodies.
Xen, indeed, seems the evolution of the current state of online identities. Within the selfie era, we’re currently reaching an apotheosis of self-curation and thereby self-creation, but the identities we fashion online are often even more constricted than those we exhibit in our lives; duck-face and masterful angling are their own constrictions. With Xen and M3LL155X, twigs and Arca play off of the current ability to hone an identity, but rather seem to hone them by expansion rather than reduction: their bent, distorted or impregnated and always moving, always dancing depictions of parts of themselves refuse to fit into the contours of human bodies and societies. It is the best kind of (literally) alienating art.