Tinashe, like many other humans, is hard to sum up in one word. Every track that convinces me she’s on the twigs-by-way-of-A$AP high-fashion route has an equal and opposite 2 On. Every bow to conventional sexiness is followed by a video like her latest, Cold Sweat. Her Twitter is mostly basic, her roots seem mostly ratchet chic. She’s either the result of an inconsistent PR strategy or an almost deliberate spirit of not caring.
I’m inclined to say the latter, 1. because she’s 22 and 2. because whatever her image is, it’s appealing and highly marketable. This comes down to a lot of things: her genetic capacity to encompass a vast cross-section of American beauty standards, her populist taste in beats, her potpourri approach to choreography. Tinashe is a lot of things at once, and all of them are remarkably sellable. They’re also remarkably personal; I get the sense that Tinashe likes what she’s doing. She hasn’t done any one particular thing for her three years on the national stage, but she consistently appears to be totally into doing it.
Cold Sweat isn’t a new concept for a video. Scrubbing + facial distortion + pore-exposing close-up; Cold Sweat follows in the mode that FKA twigs made into its own a genre. But Tinashe has something that twigs doesn’t, and that gives Cold Sweat an appeal that most twigs videos don’t have. I don’t really know what that something is, but it comes down to the fact, I think, that Tinashe is infinitely more Likable.
As much as I like twigs, I can’t really say that she’s Likable: she’s creepy, uncomfortable, and maybe wants to kill me. This works great for her and I hope she never changes; alienating intimacy is sort of her weirdo British M.O. But Tinashe is an American pop star. She’s playing a completely different game. I need to be invested in her life in order to appreciate her music. I need to care about her. That’s how American pop stardom works.
Videos like Cold Sweat and Papi Pacify come down to their protagonists’ facial expressions. That’s all they really have, and that’s what I’m going to hold onto. Tinashe’s facial expression are, contra twigs’s, 100% readable and 100% relatable. I can tell what she’s supposedly feeling. She’s scared, she’s tired, she’s at the end of her rope and she’s laughing about it. She switches between all of these things from second to second, which is what the song’s about, and it’s super charming. I get you, Tinashe. Thank you for sharing. I also feel these things when I get cold sweats, I think we could be friends and/or maybe go on a date sometime.
Anyone who has ever tried to charm someone knows how far these little moments of ostensible relatability go, and its fun to watch them play out in music videos. Tinashe’s career so far has teetered on the edge between Ciara and Christina Milian, and she’s stayed off the future Social Media Correspondent for The Voice side almost entirely on the basis of those occasional breaks in the 4th wall. She looks at the camera; she lets me know how she’s feeling; I believe her. That’s really all it is. She’s beautiful, she’s an amazing dancer, she works with good directors, but what makes me want to keep paying attention to her is that she pays attention to me.
Paying attention to someone works because it reveals your autonomy. When someone cares about me, I experience them as a human being with the capacity to care. This is the weird reality of human communication: nothing opens you up to another person so much as you directing your energy on them. My communication with Tinashe consists entirely of me looking at her, so when Tinashe makes a genuine effort to acknowledge my looking –when she stares back at me in Cold Sweat, when she smirks at how awesome I think she is in All Hands On Deck, when she rolls her eyes along with me at the sublime stupidity of Drop That Kitty– I experience her as a real person with at least a little bit of investment in her actions.
That investment has been evident in her videos since Chainless, and its consistent presence is more than anything what saves Tinashe’s project from descending into market-driven inconsistency. Is she selling different images to different audiences in a potentially irresponsible attempt at chart dominance? Maybe. But is she grounding all of that in a refusal to give up the most basic essence of her personal brand? I think so. She’s too interested in herself to lose track of her image. And that sort of self interest will sell her lots of records.