Let’s Talk About Gender, Baby: How The Knife Crafted A Manifesto For Equality

The Knife are no strangers to acclaim. The Swedish duo, formed of sister/brother duo Karin Dreijer-Andersson and Olof Dreijer, have been the masterminds behind some of the new millennium’s most intriguing, fantastical and unusual electronica and often cited as one of Sweden’s greatest musical exports and influencers. Whilst the music is the predominant source of praise, the two’s focus on political theory and gender studies is arguably what makes The Knife as forward-thinking bands in pop.

Politics, gender and sexuality have each played a crucial role in the lifespan of The Knife, all three topics threading through the duo’s four album, 15-year career and shaping the legacy of the band. The use of vocal pitch shifting to transform Dreijer-Andersson’s voice to that of a male character is arguably the band’s defining sound, first appearing on the self-titled debut record from 2000 and often causing confusion as to who – or what – is proving the vocals. 2003’s Deep Cuts took this a step further, using Dreijer-Andersson’s male voice to tackle gender inequality on Handy-man using masculinity and a toolbox as a symbol of failure via strange, homoerotic lyrical content. 2004’s aptly-titled Gender Bender EP parodied male dominance in the music industry by shifting the vocal’s once more to replicate riotous masculine characters. Pass This On, the video release from the same year, portrayed a female impersonator performing to a congregation of males whilst Dreijer engages in a hypnotic dance for the male drag act whilst live performances from 2006’s Silent Shout tour had them performing behind screens and masks in order to make differentiating between the two extremely difficult. The duo even found time to soundtrack a documentary on queer feminist porn between albums.

Come 2013, The Knife would release their fourth full length Shaking The Habitual, met with a mix of praise and confusion from fans as to just what on earth the siblings had been doing in the seven year waiting period between records. The return would inevitably form one of the best-received records of the year, creating a legacy with Shaking The Habitual as a collection of theories, ideas and protests against traditions norms in gender, sexuality and intersectionality.

In order to understand the central identity behind Shaking The Habitual, it’s essential that the music must be deciphered prior. To begin, Shaking is by no means an easy listen. If Deep Cuts was the duo’s cheery pop album and Silent Shout their nocturnal LP then Shaking The Habitual really is the album where they go totally insane. Not to say that this record is void of composure; there’s of care and attention put into the details of this record as it challenges the listener through each and every move the LP makes. Almost a mood board of ideas, motifs and sounds from a duo accustom to delivering pop hooks and melodies, this ultimately provides the first obstacle when tackling the LP with the expectation of some immediacy on first listen. Quickly apparent that Shaking The Habitual is anything but immediate, it’d be understandable for any listener to disregard this collection of tracks for being nothing more that incoherent gibberish.

This is where we can begin to understand the social politics that form Shaking The Habitual. With structural traditions of pop thrown out the window, The Knife are given free reign over what makes and shapes a record to work to their own accord. For a duo whose back catalogue so heavily focuses on themes of gender fluidity and identity, it’s never been as pivotal to the backbone of a record as Shaking. As declared in The Knife’s self-penned, pre-album ‘manifesto’, “What we do is political. That should be impossible to misunderstand.”

The lack of boundaries the duo create for themselves was set straight from the start, Full Of Fire setting the tone with its Salt ‘N’ Pepa para-sampling, closing refrain: “Let’s talk about gender, baby / Let’s talk about you and me.” A direct example of both sibling’s research in gender theory prior to the album (Dreijer completing a degree in gender studies, Dreijer-Andersson powering through his reading list) and a stance that, arguably, only a record devoid of structural boundaries and traditions could tackle to the effect on display here.

The mainline of gender theory sourced from the years after Silent Shout form the basis for the majority of the record’s lyrical content. Take the epic Raging Lung, where Dreijer-Andersson growls “See it slip and slide / Not just one answer cos it’s working like a parallel lines / It’s not that easy” channeling the idea of multiple genders in discussion of the topic of pay inequality. A Tooth For an Eye tackles male dominance with cries of “Rewrite history to suit our needs” as Dreijer-Andersson grows equally as aggressive as the track’s percussive clamour summits with ghoulish, choral screeching. On closer Ready To Lose, they address the “dysfunctional culture” of heteronormativity as something “sucked in your birth rights” suggesting that in order for equality to be reached, the privileged must reaffirm their desires to help the less-privileged.

The music videos for the tracks, too, took a huge step in addressing The Knife’s newly acquired knowledge. Full Of Fire’s anarchic clip, directed by feminist porn director Marit Östberg, is awash with a variety of atypical sexual fetishes and scenarios including androgyny, handicapped female-to-male transgendered characters and sex in public. Simply described by the duo in an interview with Electronic Beats as “thoughts that need to be discussed and we wanted to question why it’s like that”, it set the tone for the record from its first release and reminded us all that The Knife are pretty important political characters in music. Could anyone else really get away with featuring a woman urinating on a car for their comeback video?

A Tooth For an Eye depicts an aerobics class within a gymnasium, led by a small girl in full control of a class of alpha-male stereotypes. As the duo describe in the video’s description: “[The film] deconstructs images of maleness, power and leadership… The child is powerful, tough and sweet all at once, roaring ‘I’m telling you stories, trust me.’ There is no shame in her girliness, rather she possesses knowledge that the men lost a long time ago.” At the very least, the audience can gain a reminder that (somewhat) mainstream electronic dance music can sustain intelligence and challenge ideas.

Aside from lyrical and video content, gender and feminist theory formed the backbone of Shaking The Habitual’s other visual elements and releases from press right through to the live shows. Prior to the announcement of the record, press shots of two woman in neon clothing emerged, both donning horrifically sinister smiles as they rode the swings in a park. Later unveiled to be both of the duo in drag, this would inevitably allow the siblings to reach their personal core of gender and feminist politics by being shown as actual humans and not the secretive beings listeners had been accustom to from the start.

Only The Knife could take something as dire and dull as a press bio and create a thing of brilliance. Released in promotion of the record, a lengthy, insane ‘manifesto’ appeared declaring “No habits! There are other ways of doing things” and clearing a path for the duo to run wild with gender theory, feminism and total bizarreness. Other highlights from the text include, “The honor system is corrupt, just another privilege. Like how it’s a privilege to make an album, to move freely”, reflecting on class, science, theory and life before stating, “This time it’s structural.” Even the physical releases of the album came with a complimentary cartoon sequence from feminist writer Liv Strömquist addressing capital accumulation fittingly titled ‘Make Extreme Wealth History.’

Then came the live shows which, again, need a little give-or-take applied. Devised as a collaboration between The Knife and an all-female collective of choreographers and set designers, the shows would see ten dancers (the siblings dragged up in disguise once more) performing in unison as “a proposal of the transformation of roles and playing with hierarchies.” Not your conventional live show in the slightest, many tracks would be pedal-triggered to play a backing track, some mimed and some played live with all performers equip with instruments. For Full Of Fire, the collective would stand still and observe the audience dancing whilst Networking saw a completely empty stage.

Most interesting of all were the tracks themselves, given 80% of the material performed were as alternative, ‘shaken-up’ versions later released as an entirely new album. Pronouns in tracks were switched (“I’m in love with your brother” became “sister” for Pass This On), Ready To Lose saw a female figure don the piano to mime to a backtracking void of any piano lines whilst a mid-show interlude came as a reading of Collective Body Possum, a poem by pro-feminist writer Jess Ardnt. Even the show’s warm-up, Deep Aerobics, gave the dictionary definition of unconventional a run for its money, billed as “a workout form invented and shamelessly disseminated by Miguel Gutierrez, who hopes to soon destroy the technique, because it’s just too hard to teach, and really the world is going to hell in a hand basket anyway.”

As clarified in an interview with the two (including their further eight live counter-parts) with The Quietus, this all formed part of the record’s larger identity and the duo’s mind-set with the album. Dreijer-Andersson explains, “We look at the norms of music industry. On this tour we have only female technicians. There are so many situations where you can put theory into practice.” One aspect of the show would see a large, framed screen rolled out only to display her in drag as a wealthy, obnoxious male, elaborating its intent to mock a “certain right-wing journalist in Sweden” before concluding, “To move is the best thing you can do politically. Be active; spend your time on dancing and politics.”

It’s a rare occurrence that a pop act will tackle intersectionality, gender study and feminism with such earnest over the course of one record, thought that’s exactly what the pair have achieved. With every intricate detail of Shaking The Habitual’s campaign seemingly crafted to address intersectionality – more so breaking it down to gender, class and sexuality – it becomes difficult to suggest another record or artist that achieves it in the way The Knife have. For a duo who’ve constantly pushed the boundaries with gender discussion in their previous work, this has allowed for further, deeper exploration into other fundamental topics as the album considers racial, financial and sexual inequality in correlation to gender. Simply put, had Deep Cuts and Silent Shout not existed then it’s arguable that we would not have Shaking at all.

The Knife have, pretty conclusively, created an achievement. Political, theatrical and progressive, Shaking The Habitual succeeds in what the band made vocal on setting out to do, fuelled by a need to start a profound conversation in music that just wasn’t happening. A remarkable, earnest send-off from the pair who’d announce their departure from music entirely mid-campaign and bow out on the second peak of their 15-year-long career (as Silent Shout is still as marvellous as it has even been). Shaking The Habitual is nothing short of a manifesto campaigning for the improved, equal and bonkers world we should each be urging for.

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