Shygirl Controls The Narrative
What’s the point of making art in a world that feels unequipped to truly engage with it? This, for Shygirl — multi-disciplinarian singer, rapper, DJ, and master communicator — is the rub.
Last year, during a songwriting excursion just outside of Brighton, the idea was “niggling away” at her. While her friends were painting pastels inside the cozy seaside rental in which they were staying, Shygirl (real name Blane Muise) went out to the garden for a cigarette. The opening song for her debut album Nymph began assembling itself in her head.
“I was thinking about my relationship with fans, the entitlement I felt fans had, or expressed to me online,” she says on a Zoom call, letting out a coarse smoker’s cough — she’s since tried to quit — that curtails her rounds of quick-fire speech. That was the beginning of “Woe,” a song that sounds like the meeting point between Imogen Heap’s “Headlock” and Madonna’s “Bedtime Story” (with a dash of Björk’s Medúlla-era production), and contains a hook so moving and pregnant with feeling that it could well be Shygirl’s first tearjerker. “When will you see it from my side / I can have it all / But I’m never satisfied,” she sings in her softest, most precarious head voice.
“I was also sending up the fact that I was irritated by it at all, like, ‘Woe is me,’” she explains. “I was complaining about fan engagement when the fact is that it’s good they have some kind of relationship with me and the music in the first place.”
This is typical Shygirl. Her artistry is like a form of autocriticism, transmuting feelings of brattiness, obsession, and dissatisfaction into statements of sex, self-awareness, and self-assertion. Midway through “Woe,” for instance, she sharply turns from a figure of tenderness into a bawdy behemoth. “Booty so delicious I just wanna take a bite tho,” she raps above the sound of a growl, her voice pitched down several semitones.
She was seeing a girl when she wrote the verse. “I was completely objectifying my desire for her in that moment,” she says. In doing so, she noticed a relationship between her own obstinate desires and the ones her fans seemed to be projecting onto her: treating her like an object to be consumed rather than the dynamic, mutable, autonomous person she is. “This idea that people were being reductive towards me and demanding something from me, and then I was like, I’m doing the same thing right now! I was just totally focused on what I wanted from someone and how I responded to someone else.”
It presented an opportunity for Shygirl to reflect and improve her own emotional literacy at the same time as her fans.’ This is a role she seems to be leaning into more as a public figure, using her increasing notoriety to open up discourse with her followers while keeping them at a respectful arm’s length. “Not trying to be approachable,” reads her brief bio on Twitter, a space where she dictates and delineates emotional boundaries between herself and her listeners.
But now, as her reputation grows, she finds herself “in a weird transitional period.” For one, the straights now know about Shygirl, so much so that the men she encounters on Tinder tend to assume she’s a catfish. Pre-lockdown, she was a fixture across South London’s queer underground scene, where she was venerated with a cult-like fascination. Post-lockdown, she’s become the subject of shitposts, as well as a kind of synonym for avant-garde provocation, appearing in Burberry campaigns and featuring on tracks alongside other shorthand-for-cool artists like Lil Uzi Vert, FKA Twigs, and Arca.
“I’ve always felt confident socially, but because I previously held a certain amount of anonymity, it was easy to be confident,” she says. “But now I’m entering a space where people do have an opinion of me based on what I’ve presented as Shygirl, and not how I feel in any given moment.”
Growing aware of her audience has been a relatively new development for Shygirl. It arrived sometime after 2020’s Alias, her breakout EP for which she quadripartited her personality into personae. The seemingly self-satisfied Shygirl she presented to the world was filtered visually through a Mika Rottenberg-esque mechanized fleshiness, a kind of sensual compression that would leave anyone who came into contact with it feeling both gratified and denied. “I think I was really naive, especially being in lockdown,” she says. “That was a weird thing to maneuver around: knowing other people had a perception of me when I hardly had one of myself.”
Shygirl experienced body dysmorphia, which accelerated in 2020. “I just sat stationary eating junk food. I was not in my best shape, I wasn’t feeling good, I was in a relationship merge, I wasn’t looking at myself in the mirror, then all of a sudden I had people saying, ‘You’re so body confident’ — and I was like, ‘I’m definitely not. I’m definitely fatphobic and all those things you have to unpack.’”
Then came the photo and video shoots. Forced into a constant state of self-surveillance, Shygirl says she “dissociated a lot.” She began referring to herself in the third-person while watching playbacks. “I’ll say ‘she’ because the person in the video isn’t me. The ‘me’ is more complex.”
If the ‘me’ is more complex, I ask, how does she trust others to meaningfully interact with her and her art? “I don’t think I do. I don’t trust them at all,” she says. “I think that’s what makes me reinvest my intentions when I’m working on my stuff. It’s like, I don’t trust you to do it, so I need to make sure I’m trying my absolute best to give you the tools to be able to. If I’m not being understood, I take it on myself and just try and figure out how I can do it better.”
Across the album’s 12 tracks, which straddle sensuous, melodic pop and playfully mutated dance music, Shygirl creates a space for her own desires — or, rather, balloons them into extreme and self-annihilating aspirations that border on the ridiculous. “If you look at me I’ll never get lonely,” she sings on “Come For Me” before mirroring the sentiment on “Heaven”: “All I do is look at you.” The album’s key track, though, as well as Shygirl’s personal favorite, is “Shlut,” an industrial-meets-acoustic track that neatly balances her vulnerability with carnality. “If there was a bio of me, ‘Shlut’ dabbles in the presentation of that,” she says. “It’s an acknowledgement of ‘I know I do these things’ and I do it with that in mind. It feels affirmational.”
Becoming a public figure has given Shygirl the authority to be this self-examining. She feels she needs to check in on herself constantly in order to maintain her mental wellbeing. “I’m realizing how naive I was about how this career choice would change how I interact with people and how people interact with me. I didn’t anticipate how much that would change.”
In school, Shygirl was the kind of person who would confront the resident gossipers, telling them to get her name out of their mouths. She’s trying to stop herself from doing the same on Twitter. “I’m nearly 30. I can’t come for a 14-year-old online,” she says. “But people feel such an entitlement toward women, especially Black women. They really be pushing you.”
Shygirl’s mode of expression is one of deep transparency and earnestness. She encourages dialogue. She wants to understand others as much as she wants to be understood. “I know I need to stop engaging with people who aren’t equipped to be in conversation with me,” she says. “ Some people don’t care about what you have to say; they just care about being heard. I’d rather just leave them to talk to an empty room.” Now, with Nymph, Shygirl is in perfect communion and communication with herself. “I had to build the music for myself to give me that support, and it did,” she says. “I had to reassert that this is a space for me and not my audience.”