Intimate Sensual Pairs
by SUSAN COHEN
After learning today that The Knife is breaking up, I’m super glad I bought a Stubhub ticket at the last minute to one of their Oakland shows earlier this year. It was their second performance in the United States in eight years, and now, apparently, it was one of their last. Best decision I’ve ever made.
The Knife had a hype man with them on their North American tour, and I’m sure he’s there for their final Europe shows too. Wearing a codpiece and lime green mesh leggings, he led the audience through an official Shaking the Habitual exercise regime, demanding the audience shout “I am alive and I’m not afraid to die” as they did squats and arm routines.
It’s amazing how much physical stamina that dude had — it was a tough 20-or-so- minute routine — but he had nothing on the men and women who made up the show’s cast. The roughly 10 men and women wore matching jewel-toned jumpsuits, an outfit that managed to be both flatteringly feminine and shapelessly masculine, and when the blacklight hit them just right, you noticed their matching lipstick and nail polish, which turned dayglo orange. Everyone was dancing up a storm throughout the entire length of the performance, when they weren’t not playing giant instruments that I had never seen before and that may not exist in real, non- Knife life.
After 10 minutes of this spectacle, I came to a realization that this was the queerest fucking thing I’ve ever seen.
Then again, The Knife has always been queer, even when they weren’t being as explicit about it as they are these days. Who could forget the sexless birdmasks, dark wigs, and black costumes of the Silent Shout era? Karin Dreijer-Anderson’s voice is female, but not necessarily feminine; in fact, its sharp quality, at times deepened by the production process, is often more alien than human. Plus her brother Olof Dreijer once told Spin that he won’t perform at festivals with lineups “that have no more than 50% people who identify as men.” (Notice the “identify.”)
But with Shaking the Habitual, the queerness was even more deliberate, not just lyrically (“Let’s talk about gender baby,” Dreijer-Anderson sings in “Full of Fire”), but musically and visually too. “You could say we are queering certain sounds,” Olof Dreijer told Pitchfork. “We learned about how you can play around with different scales and why a group of people have come to agree that one scale is more harmonious than another.” Replace the word “scale” with “sex” in that sentence and you’ll start to understand why cis-gender and cis-sexuality are considered bullshit by many people.
Meanwhile, in promo photos for Shaking the Habitual, Dreijer wore a long red wig, a jumpsuit reminiscent of the ones used in the current show, and heels that went much higher than his sisters. The music video for “A Tooth for an Eye” features a group of seemingly cis men, led by a girl in braids and a referee’s uniform, doing an expertly choreographed dance. Midway through, they form into intimate, sensual pairs, and no one bats an eye. The Knife has said officially that the video “deconstructs images of maleness, power and leadership.” When The Knife performed the Shaking the Habitual show previously in Europe, the outfits were less colorful but equally asexual, an amalgam of glittery spandex basics that walked the line between feminine and masculine, depending on who was wearing what.
The Oakland performance was as sharply arranged as the “A Tooth for an Eye” video. Dreijer-Anderson faded in and out of the foreground, sometimes taking center stage, sometimes falling to the back and letting one of the other performers lip sync, taking show’s themes of ambiguity and equality to yet another level. Dreijer-Anderson and Dreijer weren’t the stars of this show — heck, it was all so vague that I’m not even sure which one was Dreijer. (The siblings are also cleverly listed simply as “performers” on the show’s official cast list, just like their jumpsuited peers.)
During “Pass This On” — a song whose music video featured Swedish drag queen Rickard Engfors — the dancers formed gender-matching couples and tenderly tangoed across the stage. When the set closed with “Silent Shout,” the lighting changed, turning the dance team into a backlit clan of bouncing featureless silhouettes, literally gender-blinding the crowd in the process.
Basically, The Knife created a stage show where gender and sexuality don’t exist. It was like if Britney Spears’ Vegas act was hijacked by the cast of Cirque Du Soleil — if she had a degree in gender studies.
It’s a bummer that no one else will get to see it.
“Crake” – The Knife (mp3)
“Wrap Your Arms Around Me” – The Knife (mp3)