Celebrating The Knife: 20 Years of Cutting-Edge Politics and Electronics
By Kyle Woolery
On August 14th, 2000, Karin and Olof Dreijer made their musical debut as The Knife with the release of a limited-run 7-inch single entitled “Afraid of You.” The minimalistic and melancholic track was paired with the energetic, synth-driven B-side “Bird,” which would subsequently feature on the duo’s first, eponymously named full-length album, The Knife (2001). “Afraid of You” and “Bird” sonically share very little in common, but this dichotomy hints at the multifaceted and experimental nature of the project and lays the groundwork for the innovative sounds and bold themes that would be elaborated upon even further as The Knife’s discography expanded. Twenty years later, the Swedish siblings have successfully solidified their status as two of the most influential electronic artists to emerge in the early aughts, crafting their own dynamic, idiosyncratic sound that continues to be replicated today by everyone from critically acclaimed Canadian cold wave outfit TR/ST to international pop sensation Christina Aguilera. Karin and Olof managed to carve out a niche for themselves through their extreme sonic experimentation and their uncompromising commitment to their ultra-progressive political ideologies, which they often weaved into their lyrical and visual content. Their unabashed rule-breaking has given their work a timeless quality, and although they disbanded in 2014, their legacy lives on. The twentieth anniversary of their first single feels like the perfect time to reflect upon how and why they have earned a spot in the electronic music hall of fame.
Gender politics had always been at the core of The Knife’s artistry. In “Bird,” Karin and Olof introduce their listeners to their feminist ideologies, albeit in their most embryonic form. Karin writes and sings from the perspective of a woman who feels restricted in an unfulfilling romantic relationship — one in which her male partner, a firm believer in the upholding of traditional power dynamics between men and women, expects her to play a subservient role, essentially confining her to the domestic sphere. The narrator, unsatisfied with this oppressive lifestyle, fantasizes about being a bird, able to fly — or, in the most literal sense, live — freely. Deep Cuts (2003), the duo’s sophomore record and international breakthrough, saw Karin and Olof communicating their feminism in a more overt fashion. Comedic skits like “The Cop'' and “Hangin’ Out” function as condemnations of the patriarchy, mocking men in positions of authority. In “The Cop,” Karin, their voice pitched down to sound more menacing and masculine, takes on the character of a police officer on a power trip. “I am a cop, shut up,” they growl maniacally atop Olof’s sharp, abrasive synths, “I piss in your mouth. I shoot you in your face.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek commentary on abuse of power that unfortunately still feels relevant today. “Hangin’ Out” includes in-your-face lyrics like “I keep my dick hanging out of my pants so I can point out what I want” and “I’m the head of a small business, employing old male friends of my kind” that emphasize how arbitrary it is to distribute socioeconomic power based entirely on gender identification and criticize the reluctance of these men to relinquish any of their privilege. The Deep Cuts era proved that they proved that they could talk the talk and walk the walk when it came to feminism. At the 2004 Grammis (the Swedish equivalent to the Grammys), instead of arriving themselves to accept the award for Pop Group of the Year, they sent in their place two representatives from the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist activist group, to protest the unfair treatment of women in the music industry. This was only the beginning of their brazen activism — and just one component of it.
Karin and Olof were interested in using their art not only to dismantle the antiquated patriarchal institutions that govern global society but also to explore the fluidity of gender and sexuality. A defining characteristic of The Knife’s music and also one of the main ways in which they played with the ever-fluctuating conventions of femininity and masculinity was vocal manipulation. Karin’s voice is often pitch-shifted, making the identity of the singer ambiguous and sometimes suggesting the presence of more than one vocalist. The latter strategy is featured predominantly throughout The Knife’s third studio album, Silent Shout (2006), to produce an eerie, phantasmagoric effect. Mark Pytlik, a music critic at Pitchfork, declared that Silent Shout had essentially created a new genre entirely its own: “haunted house.” To say witch house, a dark subgenre of electronic music that emerged in the late 2000s and was pioneered by bands like Salem and Crystal Castles, was directly influenced by The Knife, particularly Silent Shout, would not be a stretch. Like Silent Shout, witch house is characterized by droning synths, distorted vocals, and an almost Lynchian sense of nightmarish surreality.
After the release of Silent Shout, Karin and Olof took a hiatus from their collaborative project and redirected their focus onto their own solo efforts. Karin began releasing music under the Fever Ray moniker. Their self-titled debut album Fever Ray (2009) took the otherworldly vocal layering and cold soundscapes of Silent Shout and transformed them into something even more nightmarish and atmospheric. Fever Ray sounds like an ancient, ritualistic chant performed by a coven of witches, and the lyrical content feels more direct and personal (albeit less political) than anything they had done with The Knife. Around the same time, Olof began releasing avant-garde house music as Oni Ayhun. Although not a vocalist, he was still able to experiment with gender and identity through his live performances as Oni Ayhun, where he would dress in drag. He would also perform around Europe as DJ Coolof, but only at shows with equal gender representation on the lineup. The two briefly reconvened, alongside other electronic artists Planningtorock and Mount Sims, to compose the music for Tomorrow, in a Year, Danish theater troupe Hotel Pro Forma’s highly conceptual operatic adaptation of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Sometime between 2010 and 2013, Olof enrolled in a gender studies course at Stockholm University, studying the work of theorists such as Gayatri Spivak, Chandra Mohanty, Judith Butler, Jeanette Winterson, and Michel Foucault; he would occasionally lend his textbooks to Karin. The two eventually began working together on new music again, and what resulted from these studio sessions was Shaking the Habitual (2013) — their final album as a duo, but also their most bold political and artistic statement, heavily informed by the queer and feminist theorists they had been researching together.
In the years that passed between Silent Shout and Shaking the Habitual, the electronic music scene had become increasingly male dominated — all the way from the underground, with artists like Justice and A-Trak gaining significant notoriety in the blogosphere, to the mainstream, with DJs like David Guetta and Avicii scoring countless chart hits and selling out shows around the globe. No strangers to dabbling in the political, Karin and Olof evidently saw this shift as the prime opportunity to become more outspoken than ever before. Instead of dealing in metaphors and sly comedic jabs, they were directly and confidently stating their views on feminism, imperialism, capitalism, and environmentalism. The title originated from a Fouceault quote (“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]”), and it couldn’t be a more apt mission statement for the record. The lyrics are politically charged. Song titles make references to Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake and the work of Nina Björk, a feminist author. “Fracking Fluid Injection” is a 9-minute-54-second ambient track that appears to be warning listeners of the imminent climate catastrophe. “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” is an ode to capitalist greed, while “Raging Lung” and “Ready To Lose” address poverty. If The Knife was a political party, Shaking the Habitual would be their party platform.
The lead single from Shaking The Habitual, “Full of Fire,” is an intensely exhilarating and infernal song detailing Karin and Olof’s frustration with the current state of politics. In the first verse, Karin asserts that “questions and the answers can take very long,” informing listeners that they should not expect the solutions to the world’s myriad problems to be easy. That line is followed with a direct contrast in the next verse: “Asking questions that are easy to reply.” Right now, politics can basically be considered a game of offending the least amount of people; no one wants to address the real issues at hand but rather the more trivial matters. “Who will write my story?” Karin sings indignantly, “all the guys and the signori telling another false story.” History books are deliberately and carefully constructed so as to present the world from a wealthy, cisgender male, heterosexual, white-centric lens, and this in itself is a reflection of society’s values. Karin, a queer and nonbinary individual, is directly impacted by oppressive heteronormativity, and their visible anger here is justified. The line “liberals giving me a nerve itch” is repeated throughout the song. A slightly modified version of the lyric “neo-liberals giving me a nerve itch” was used on their 2014 tour merch. The album booklet that came with physical copies of Shaking the Habitual features a comic strip by Liv Strömquist called “End Extreme Wealth” that, as the title suggests, calls for the dissolution of the wealthy upper-class. Karin and Olof want to make very clear that they are not liberals — a term which has come to be associated with weak, just barely left-of-center politics that still favor the privileged upper-class. However, as one can deduce from the content of their songs, they are definitely not conservatives either. Their far-left political alignment was previously hinted at in earlier songs “Parade,” from The Knife, and “You Take My Breath Away,” from Deep Cuts, in which Karin proudly declares “we raise our heads for the color red” (red being symbolic of socialism, communism, and Marxism). The 9-minute-17-second epic ends with Karin echoing the phrase “let’s talk about gender, baby,” a modern flip on the Salt-N-Pepa classic “Let’s Talk About Sex” that beckons a universal discussion on gender and sexuality.
Album opener “A Tooth for an Eye” begs us to question the prominence of men in leadership roles and criticizes the traditional and highly misogynistic role of women as wives and childbearers, the inherent inequalities of a capitalist economy, and discriminatory immigration policies. The music video, set in a school gymnasium, portrays a young girl leading a dance class consisting solely of men. The Youtube description states that the video “deconstructs images of maleness, power and leadership.” Conceptually, it feels somewhat similar to the music video for the Deep Cuts single “Pass This On,” which depicts drag queen Rickard Engfors performing seductively for an audience of initially uninterested spectators who, by the end of the video, are dancing alongside her. (Sidebar: the “Pass This On” video would later be referenced by Troye Sivan and Ariana Grande in the music video for their collaboration “Dance to This.”).
The Knife never wanted to compromise their artistry, and they didn’t want any externalities influencing how their music was perceived by the public. Since the very beginning, Karin and Olof had released their music independently on their own record label, Rabid Records, thus ensuring that no out-of-touch label executives would be able to tamper with their vision. This inspired Swedish dance diva Robyn (with whom they collaborated on the track “Who’s That Girl” in 2005) to buy herself out of her major label record deal and start her own label, Konichiwa Records. Prior to the release of Shaking the Habitual, Karin and Olof had been musical enigmas shrouded in mystery, rarely speaking to the press or performing live. For their rare public appearances, they would wear disguises. During the Deep Cuts era, they painted their faces to resemble the Monkey King, a character from Chinese folklore; during Silent Shout, they wore Venetian plague masks. At the time, this much anonymity from a prominent musical act was practically unheard of, but many musicians nowadays actively strive to stay out of the public eye and aestheticize anonymity (pop hitmaker Sia covering her face with her hair during the promotion of “Chandelier,” fellow electropop disruptor Sophie impersonating a security guard at her live debut while drag queen and performance artist Ben Woozy lip-synched and pretended to DJ on stage, etc.). Although this has since turned into a clever marketing gimmick, Karin and Olof remained anonymous because they wanted to keep the focus on the music. In doing so, they were more effective in communicating their political messages.
In the years that have passed since the dissolution of The Knife, Karin and Olof have continued to create. In the months before and after their disbandment, the siblings worked with Swedish artistic collective to form Europa Europa, an “anti-nationalist cabaret” that is “part of a movement that exists both within activism and academia, where individuals are trying to expose the human rights violations that are committed by Sweden and the EU every day.” Karin, once again picking up the Fever Ray pseudonym, released Plunge (2017), a colorful and eclectic celebration of queer culture. Album standout “This Country” is a subversive political statement that blends the pop sensibilities and comedic overtones of Deep Cuts with the cut-to-the-chase attitude of Shaking the Habitual. “Free abortions and clean water, destroy nuclear, destroy boring,” Karin shouts defiantly, like a rallying cry at a protest. The song ends with Karin repeating the phrase, “this country makes it hard to fuck” — vulgar and blunt, yes, but reasonably so, given the government’s constant attempts to strip women and the LGBTQ+ community of their fundamental, sexual rights. Olof continues to make music, booking his own solo gigs and producing for other artists. Last year, he remixed Fever Ray’s “Wanna Sip” for Plunge Remix (2019), a collection of reworked tracks from Plunge. He and Karin released their own individual remixes of avant-garde icon Björk’s “Features Creatures,” and Björk returned the favor by remixing “This Country.” More recently, Olof worked with Swedish electropop artist and Robyn protege Zhala, producing her new single “Holes,” which sounds like a more accessible version of The Knife’s vigorously hyperkinetic work on Shaking the Habitual.
The siblings also remain devoted political activists in their personal lives. They took to social media to publicly voice their solidarity with Palestine, vowing to never perform in Israel so long as their military occupation of Palestine continues and urging other artists to follow suit. During the 2018 Swedish election, Karin and Olof encouraged their Swedish followers to support Vänsterpartiet, the Left Party. That same year, they endorsed Ful’s art exhibition Mothers’ Manifest, “part two of [their] work around migration policies and racist borders resulting in loss of family members, human trafficking, deportations and criminalization of people searching for more dignified lives.” Karin and Olof have also lended their creative prowess to political activist groups, producing the music used in Vahák (Violence in Sami) — a performance raising awareness for victims of domestic violence in eastern Europe — and in Framtidens välfärd (Future Welfare)’s promotional videos protesting the “commodification of the Swedish welfare system.”
To celebrate their twentieth anniversary, Karin and Olof re-issued some of their rarities — including their soundtrack for 2003 Swedish drama Hannah med H and their live album The Knife: Live At Terminal 5 (2017) — and shared previously unreleased remixes of some of their biggest hits — like “Heartbeats” and “Pass This On.” They also released their entire musical catalogue on Bandcamp for the first time and revealed on their website that they are “currently planning an event to mark the anniversary of The Knife later this year with something special.” They have yet to share any more information regarding this surprise.
Karin and Olof have certainly left their imprint on the music industry — paving the way for other queer artists, ushering in an era of sonic experimentation, and proving that success is possible without the help of a major label. The recent emergence of hyperpop, a new subgenre of electronic music, is a testament to The Knife’s impact. Queer artists, such as internet superstars 100 Gecs, are currently at the forefront of a scene, which, less than a decade ago, was ruled by cisgender, heterosexual men — a toxic and exclusionary culture that The Knife actively sought to disrupt with Shaking the Habitual. They are producing eccentric and unorthodox electronic music (often with pitch-shifted vocals) that is inherently political in nature, unafraid to explore themes of gender and sexuality. Most of the artists themselves are not signed to any major labels, choosing instead to release their music independently. 100 Gecs recently signed to Atlantic Records, but they initially put out their music on their own record label, Dog Show Records. The artists are also unafraid to get political, using their large social media platforms to raise awareness for social injustices and donating some of the proceeds from streams and live performances to nonprofit charities and activist organizations; Square Garden, a virtual concert on Minecraft organized by 100 Gecs, raised money for Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks that has become increasingly essential in the age of coronavirus. Practically everything about the hyperpop movement — from the political overtones to the unconventional release strategies — closely mirrors the path forged by The Knife two decades prior.
Karin and Olof are trailblazers who revolutionized electronic music with their refusal to conform in any aspect. They introduced distinct new sounds that reshaped the sonic landscapes of the genre and managed to open the floor to thought-provoking conversations on gender identity, sexuality, and power structures in the process. One would expect the breakup of a duo as influential as The Knife to leave a void, but what occurred is the opposite. Their presence continues to be felt; they left a permanent imprint on music and are largely responsible for the state of electronic music today — inclusive, outspoken, and always one step ahead of the curve.