The word “her” is both an anchor and a point of departure for Her’s eponymous new EP. Though deceptively simple, the title projects a complex statement, introducing a grammatical ambiguity that reflects a nuanced understanding of women as the subjects of artistic study. The word itself may be used as both a feminine third-person object and a possessive pronoun; thus, devoid of its grammatical context, it is directionless in assignment of authority. Is the referant woman an object or an actor, “possessed by” or “in possession of?”
Questioning a binary understanding of women as either object or actor, Her portrays women as both. The EP’s “Intro,” a tumult of overlaid female voices from around the world, is as urgent a call to reevaluate the role of women in society as the speeches it contains. Emma Watson’s 2014 UN address bleeds into Scarlet Johansson’s 2012 speech at the Democratic National Convention while an elderly German woman rants inscrutably in the background. All fade to a lone female voice whispering in French as the track fades to silence. Though different in content, context, and country, each voice suggests a disconnect between the way women are perceived in society and the way they experience the world. In this space, the EP’s subsequent five tracks explore the nature and limits of Her’s proposed sexual and social reconceptualization of women.
The first two tracks seem to reinforce the perception of women as objects to be admired or won. In “Quite Like” the vocalist expresses his attraction to an unnamed woman as a series of affirmations of her composite parts (“hands,” “breasts,” “thighs,” “lips,” etc.). These affirmations are echoed by the background vocalists, lending aural impact to the woman’s physique and encouraging listeners to envision her in their mind’s eye. The following track, “Five Minutes,” narrates the vocalist’s planned sexual conquest: “one for the eyes,” “one for the voices,” “one for the touch,” “one for the soft grin,” “…and then the kisses.” A heavy bass line, snaps and cries from the electric guitar create a raw suspense as the vocalist enters. Dark synths then melt sensually into the chorus, marked by a guitar riff that hooks listeners as quickly as the vocalist claims to seduce.
This conceptualization of women as objects of desire is given a visual dimension by the EP’s album artwork (see photo). Framed in crimson, a portrait of a seated woman is centered in black and white. As if peering through a window onto an intimate scene, viewers are distanced from the subject. Considered as a whole, the inlaid image and the crimson space surrounding it take on a vaginal form. Bleached of all color, faceless, head cropped out, the woman, only recognizable as such by her naked body and breasts, is placed at the center of this sexual space, further reinforcing her objectification.
If the EP stopped here, there would be little to distinguish it from superficial works placing women on misguided pedestals that seek to praise but instead demean. The classical “Interlude” had me wondering whether I accidentally toggled shuffle.
A transcendent transition for the EP, the interlude turns from lust to love as a male voice recites a well-known verse from 1 Corinthians in German overtop a solo piano: “Die Liebe ist langmütig; die Liebe ist gütig…” (“Love is patient; love is kind…”). Establishing a new reverence of emotion, the whole episode is reminiscent of a Romantic art song. By bringing man and woman together lyrically in a celebration of quiet companionship, the woman transcends the sexualization of her physical form.
The final two tracks, “Her” and “Union,” carry forward this romantic narrative, offering cooler responses to the carnal calls of “Quite Like” and “Five Minutes” and reframing the woman as actor, a conscious sexual and social participant. In “Her,” the guitar is strummed for the first time on the EP, creating an inherent harmony to match this newfound balance between man and woman. And “Union,” as its title suggests, feels immediately more centered, eschewing the tension of the first half of the EP with an airy falsetto, mellow tempo, legato guitar, shimmering synth, and relaxed slurring of words.
This shift in authority is again reflected in the album artwork, which could alternatively be viewed not as a woman seated alone, but as a couple’s intimate embrace. What first appeared to be the woman’s thigh could also be seen as a man’s arm grasping her hip, pulling her closer. The artwork’s visual ambiguity mirrors the grammatical ambiguity of the EP’s title, simultaneously illustrating the artists’ personal experiences of women while acknowledging their distance from the female experience.
Ultimately, Her demonstrates an expressive range and artistic purpose rarely witnessed in an alt R&B scene saturated with jaded hedonism, ambient synth and detached, ethereal vocals. Its homage to the duality of women as both object and actor, possession and possessor, takes aural shape in its six tracks, which together introduce an iconoclastic and self-proving posit: by being the subject of Her’s artistic study, the woman has facilitated the EP’s creation and thereby participates in its ownership.