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The Pop-Star Appeal of an Experimental Musician

The Pop-Star Appeal of an Experimental Musician

Something about listening to Arca, arguably the most important experimental musician working today, reminds me of sitting in a hot car to avoid getting hit by fake bullets. That memory is from adolescence, when my group of male friends would spend whole days playing at a paintball course on the military base near where we lived. I participated, but I did not love the rude thwack of colorful projectiles exploding on my helmet. I did not love the pathetic feeling of missing all my shots. I tended to get eliminated early from matches, head to the car, and encase myself in the headphones of my portable CD player.


Some of those solitary moments were spent listening to Aphex Twin, the influential British electronic musician I, as a budding snob, had read about on the internet. Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James arranged electronic beats in complex designs that stimulated both hypnosis and hyperawareness. His music was disorienting and intriguing and generally inexplicable. Staring at James’s creepy grin on the album art, I didn’t know if I loved all of what I was listening to. But I did love the feeling of escaping a suburban machismo competition for what felt like a rave in another reality.


The music of Arca, the 32-year-old Venezuelan named Alejandra Ghersi, includes a similar blend of twisted rhythms, luminous synths, and lurid vibes. Yet the deeper link to Aphex Twin is in how her music makes me, and clearly many other people, feel. Many experimental artists labor in obscurity, but some gain prominence by creating music whose enjoyment feels like deciphering the code to one’s own identity.


If in the past decade you’ve encountered music in which earthquakes of electro noise overtake all else, it may have been Arca’s doing. She produced songs on Kanye West’s 2013 album, Yeezus, and went on to make pivotal contributions to the work of FKA Twigs and Björk. Both in collaborations and in her own material, Arca’s style is not subtle. She sculpts sound so that it seems to enter the listener from their gut rather than their ears. Her melodies have the quality of summoning spells. I found her first three solo albums—2014’s Xen, 2015’s Mutant, and 2017’s Arca—to be, in a word, terrifying.


Yet over the years, a funny thing has happened. Trawl around social media—especially circles where pop, queerness, or fashion is emphasized—and you’ll run into Arca’s name and image pretty often. You’ll encounter stans whose worshipfulness is more typical of Taylor Swift listeners than the followers of radical sound designers. In a recent TikTok with more than half a million views, someone is asked what they’re listening to on their headphones. The answer is “Whip,” by Arca, and as the song’s violent sound effects slam in, the subject of the TikTok starts sashaying, as if to Missy Elliott. The joke captures a feeling vital to the evolution of art: pride in dissonance, pride in difference.




Four new albums of often breathtaking music arrived this week from Arca, totaling about two and a half hours of listening time. That sheer volume feels like a provocation, on top of all the others: robot voices stammering about gore and sex, beats that thunder like garbage trucks over potholes, chords that evoke bruised fruit in their ugliness and allure. Yet these albums include some of Arca’s most accessible and delectable work. Despite stretches likely to bore or bug, the best parts demand an obsessive level of replay.


The albums are sequels to Arca’s 2020 release, KiCk i, which announced a new, poppier phase for the artist. She herself was on that album’s cover (sporting claws and stilts), the guests were splashy (Björk and Rosalía howling), and the songs were catchy (but still scary). The standout track, “Mequetrefe,” subjected playful keyboards to fluttering sound effects, making the listener feel as though they were watching a fancy toucan survive a windstorm. As the music video squashed and stretched Arca without ever moving her from the center of the frame, it drove home how the key to her art is, counterintuitively, constancy. Even as every piece of an arrangement seems to mutate over the course of a few minutes, you absolutely feel that a singular personality is driving the action.



This week’s four albums push that principle to a new limit as they hop between sounds and subgenres. The thump of reggaeton, the fervor of Brazilian funk, and the beauty of Venezuelan folk have long influenced Arca, but KICK ii is her fullest tribute to Latin music; for a few songs, she even lets her grooves unfurl smoothly, resulting in bangers that would only mildly perturb most listeners. KicK iii, the masterpiece of the series, uses hyperactive breakbeats and rapping to create micro-moments that lodge in the brain. Then comes the slow climax of kick iiii—a churn of shimmery, sometimes warm atmospheres—followed by a fragile comedown on kiCK iiiii.


Part of what keeps this sprawling scrapbook coherent is Arca’s voice, or rather her approach to voice: as a tool to be filtered into a multiplicity of characters, jabbering and hissing from all directions. Such vocal effects highlight her knack for contrast and pleasurable surprise, and she has internalized hip-hop’s lesson that words can be as crucial a timekeeper as a drumbeat. When Arca swan-dives from singsong ghostliness into deeper registers on the single “Prada,” it feels like the sky is conversing with the earth. On another highlight, the explosive “Ripples,” every element of the music seems to express the squeakily sung refrain—“ripples make ripples!”—on a subatomic level.


The centrality of voice on the Kick albums makes a statement: Some of Arca’s obvious predecessors (see Aphex Twin) kept their own identity enigmatic, and Arca herself mostly forwent singing until her third album. Yet Arca’s art includes spectacles of self-revelation, including chatty Twitch streams and body-baring photo shoots. In arresting images that are part Westworld and part Hieronymus Bosch, the five Kick album covers each depict her as a cyborg deity—one plainly on a mission to inspire. “I got tears, but tears of fire,” goes one kick iiii chorus, sung by the artist Planningtorock. “Tears of power, tears of power ... Queer power.”




Queer power both underlies Arca’s radicalism and connects her to broader musical trends. Glitches—sounds that intentionally evoke malfunctioning machines—are everywhere these days: in the chaotic loops of TikTok, in the choppy samples of Hot 100 rap, in the aggressive bustle of hyperpop. For Arca, as she explained in a 2020 Glamcult interview, such glitches represent the insufficiency of language to express internal truth—a dissonance that we can all understand on some level, but that she has felt acutely as a transgender woman. “I think sometimes conversations about gender are specifically complicated,” she said, “because maybe they are, in a good way, a dead end.”


Indeed, there is a way of listening to Arca’s music as a tangle of metaphors about identity. Speaking to the performance artist Marina Abramović, Arca once described transitioning as revealing “static that was inside me that others didn’t realize was there … so now it can cause friction between my environment and my identity, but it feels less noisy that way than to keep it in.” As she sings about the body in terms that others might find gruesome, the shape-shifting brutality of the music illustrates the nature of uncompromising expression.



Queerness also informs her music’s more inviting characteristics. With the Kick series, Arca has put herself more in conversation with the archetype of the pop diva—that feminine dominator of the masses who historically draws the most fervent worship from LGBTQ fans. (Deconstructing such women’s power was also the project of the late artist Sophie, a trans producer who felt like the kandi-raver yang to Arca’s leather-dungeon yin over the past decade.) On Kick ii, Arca collaborates with Sia on a track that only lightly complicates the hitmaker’s grand crooning. Another diva of sorts, Shirley Manson, of the band Garbage, shows up on kick iiii to monologue about “the alien inside.”


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The notion of an “alien inside” is certainly a queer one—but it also speaks to the broader sense of social dislocation and mysterious individuality that experimental music can stoke. My recent days of consuming the Kick series in headphones while jostling on subway cars and walking past sidewalk brunches gave me that teenage thrill of using music as a separator between yourself and your environment. But as I’ve grown closer to understanding the creator of the madness in my ears, Arca has also offered a reminder of the ways in which sounds—no matter how strange—can bind people.