Feminist Tracks: The Knife’s Shaken-Up Versions

Feminist Tracks is part of Bluestockings’s Music section. It spotlights music made by feminists, women, and marginalized communities from all genres and countries in all aspects of music-making. To suggest Feminist Tracks, please email blogbluestockings@gmail.com.

“The work of an intellectual is not to mould the political will of others; it is, through the analyses that he does in his own field, to re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions and to participate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as citizen to play).”

Michel Foucault, Remarks on Marx: conversations with Duccio Trombadori (Semiotext(e) , 1991), p. 11-12

the Knife band portrait

April 2013 marked the return of The Knife with Shaking the Habitual, after Gothenburg-based siblings Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Anderssen had gone their separate ways to explore new creative projects. Karin released Fever Ray under her eponymous solo project and a soundtrack for a feminist avant-erotica short film series Dirty Diaries in 2009, collaborated with the Norwegian duo Röyksopp on The Understanding and Junior, and wrote the music for a theatrical rendition of Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968). Olof, on the other hand, released four EPs under Oni Ayhun and played in underground clubs all across Europe, always demanding that there be at least a fifty-percent female lineup for the sake of gender parity in representation. Their previous work, Tomorrow in a Year, a Danish operatic reinterpretation of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, failed to garner the mass popularity of Deep Cuts or the critical acclaim of Silent Shout, yet Shaking the Habitual embodies the divisive criticism that’s accompanied their entire discography: bombastic, genre-bending, eclectic, awe-inspiring, overdrawn, difficult, in a league of its own.

The influences on the album have been much-discussed by the siblings and by the ever-curious press that seeks to capitalize on their art-as-politics ideology (think Jezebel or Bustle as click-bait popcorn feminism par excellence), while criticizing their project once the music-as-art “fails” to conform to the esthetics of music’s elitist critics (as was the case with the similarly daunting Tomorrow). Named after a passage from a conversation between the similarly schismatic Michel Foucault, and Duccio Trombadori, an Italian communist art critic and journalist, the siblings sought to “shake up” the normative frameworks Shaking the Habitual that we are subjected to individually and systemically, on the basis of divisions of class, labor, race, gender, and ethnicity (to name a spare few.)

“What we do is political…there’s no doubt about that,” Olof and Karin relay in their self-released interview (seen above); “We want to question The Knife.” Just as they question the cultural mythologies around them, they seek to shake up themselves as well: for instance, the that-which-goes-without-saying status of the Swedish royal family as much as the alleged self-evidence of cisnormative gender ideals. Released in conjunction with a public statement on Romani discrimination in Rome regarding the right to housing in 2011, an impassioned sense of justice reverberates throughout the album process and final end-product, and where “the border between normal and strange is erased.” The album draws from a number of academic disciplines: Marxism and post-Marxist criticism, feminism, queer and gender theory, environmentalism, and various voices in structuralist and post-structuralist discourse in Continental European & American philosophies. Though these varied influences are prevalently evident on the album, the siblings avoid extensive citations or interrogations of specific arguments (which is the album’s greatest strength and weakness in that it boasts such a diverse bibliography without any actual addendum, but manages to discuss theory without becoming too inaccessible in its approach.) It was even co-released with a manifesto.

Nevertheless, the ability of the duo to adopt and adapt these concepts has yielded incredibly exciting work. The Knife is no longer a “commercial product,” effacing “the mask behind the mask,” but now a group of activists combining the potency of aural production with the bite of radical politics. “Yes, we are privileged,” Karin recounts, as they navigate “the ideals produced in the extremely hierarchical and conservative structures that the music industry constitutes,” but The Knife does not allow their (relative) privilege to deter their activisms. While the lushly detailed memoir of Silent Shout is lost in the labyrinthine void of Shaking the Habitual, the latter manages to utilize The Knife’s far-reaching outreach to catechize a number of intersecting institutions and systems that disempower and disenfranchise people. While Shaking the Habitual has been hailed as their magnum opus in bringing issues of justice and marginalization to light, such criticisms usefully fail to relay the powerful narratives created by Karin in Silent Shout previously, as well as on Fever Ray: tales of Communist rebels fleeing, a stripper wondering if she’ll survive the night, an intersex person struggling with gender dysphoria, a mother’s agony at the loss of her child, or a girl suffering from anorexia begging to be “sharpened like a pen.”

Now, a series of remixes from their past discography, Shaken-Up Versions, has been released concurrently with their North American tour, adding new textures to familiar tracks, questioning what, exactly, is The Knife.

Stream it in full via Spotify.

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