‘Shaking the Habitual’ and The Knife’s Radically Intersectional Feminism

The Knife’s new album Shaking the Habitual is out today, and you probably don’t need us to tell you that it’s pretty amazing — between the extended nightmarish ambient tracks, pounding beats, unconventional sounds, and fierily politicized lyrics, it’s surely one of the most remarkable records that anyone’s going to release in 2013. Most interestingly, though, it represents another step in the single most interesting thing about the constantly fascinating career of Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer: their ongoing exploration of the nature of gender.

The band has always played with conceptions of gender, of course — as far back as we can remember, they’ve been pitching Karin’s vocals down and making her sound like a man, so much so that it’s basically the band’s trademark sound. The masks they used to insist on wearing in interviews obscured their gender as much as their faces, and they even put out an EP called Gender Bender at the end of 2004, neatly bisecting the releases of Deep Cuts and Silent Shout.

Still, for all that the fluidity of gender has been a prominent theme in The Knife’s work, it’s never been quite as central to the identity of an album as it is with Shaking the Habitual. Lead single “Full of Fire” set the tone, with its Salt-N-Pepa-paraphrasing outro: “Let’s talk about gender baby/ Let’s talk about you and me.” As they’ve said in plenty of interviews they’ve done around the release of Shaking the Habitual, they’ve been mainlining feminist theory in the long years since Silent Shout, and the influence of their reading list manifests itself throughout the album.

It informs the lyrics, obviously — take “Raging Lung,” for instance, and the lines “See it slip and slide/ Not just one answer cause it’s working a like a parallel lines/ It’s not that easy” — but also the music itself, along with the album artwork, The Knife’s press shots (featuring the siblings from behind with long wigs, making it impossible to tell which is the male and which is the female) and also the videos they’ve made for its singles. The band members themselves discuss this in the YouTube description for “A Tooth for an Eye” — the video depicts a scenario wherein a little girl ends up leading a bunch of alpha male types, and the description explains: “[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.”

As this article — published on a VICE website, of all places — touches on, the feminist nature of Shaking the Habitual is particularly notable given the increasingly bro-y nature of electronic music over the last ten years or so. The increasing popularity of “EDM” and the ascent to world domination of second-wave superstar DJs like Skrillex and Aviici has coincided with an influx of the sort of dudes who would probably never have dreamed of listening to electronic music a decade ago — these days they’re getting fluoro painted and hoovering what may or may not be MDMA with the sort of gusto once reserved for Coors Light and beer pong. In this respect, if nothing else, the reminder that (relatively) mainstream electronic music can remain intelligent and challenging is a welcome one.

But more importantly, Shaking the Habitual isn’t just a feminist record. That’s not in any way belittling the importance of feminism — it’s more a case of recognizing that feminism doesn’t exist in a void, a fact often lost on second wave feminists (cf. the recent-ish furore over the ghastly Julie Burchill, for instance, and her open-mouth-insert-both-feet attack in the Observer on Britain’s transsexual community, which was eventually removed by the paper and then republished by the Daily Telegraph).

The idea of intersectionality isn’t a particularly radical one — that people who are members of one oppressed group may well be members of more than one, and that those groups need to work together towards liberation — but it’s a surprisingly controversial one, perhaps because it suggests that the experience of the reasonably well-to-do and well-educated white middle-class women who tend to gender studies departments isn’t necessarily representative of the experience of women in other parts of society. (As Olof told Pitchfork recently, “There are some progressions when it comes to equality between genders, but it only works for people who are white, middle class, have a good-paying job, and are happy with the gender they were born in.”)

Anyway, it’s a rare pop star who’ll talk earnestly about intersectionality in interviews, but that’s exactly what Olof did to Pitchfork earlier this month: “We’ve been talking about the importance of making your privileges transparent in order to be able to say something political. It’s something I learned from reading about intersectionality, which is a way to analyze power by looking at its different categories– gender, race, class, sexuality– and how they interact. Before we started making this album, after not having worked together for a long time, we were interested in getting deeper into feminist and queer theory. So we read post-colonial feminist and anti-racist theory, and with this comes intersectionality. It’s important to see your own position on the scale.”

This is perhaps the key point about Shaking the Habitual — whereas once The Knife played with the idea of gender, and were content to explore that topic as an end of its own, now they’re using it to explore wider, more fundamental issues. The way the album conflates questions of gender with questions of economic and racial inequality, making it clear how much their thinking has progressed. Compare and contrast these quotes, for instance:

“I think we are very interested in playing with the gender roles in the lyrics and in the songs and the vocals. It’s good when it’s really androgynous. If we need a man it’s better to use me than Olof.” — Karin to Quiet Color, 2008

“Sex can be a great activist tool. When I started to make queer feminist porn films, I discovered how I could use images of sexuality as a continuation of my feminist activism.” — “Full of Fire” director and Knife collaborator Marit Ostberg to Dazed, 2013

There’s already been the beginning of a backlash against the all-politics-everything nature of the coverage of this album — Katherine St. Asaph tries to argue here that “everyone writing about the Knife’s political aims are probably taking them about 100 times more seriously than Karin or Olof are” — but really, it’s hard to read or listen to anything The Knife have to say about this record without coming to the conclusion that they’re taking themselves very seriously indeed. As they say at the start of this video interview (which comes across more like a publicity film than anything), “What we do is political. That should be impossible to misunderstand.” We wouldn’t have it any other way.