We still dance on whirling stages

Seeing the Knife

Discussed in this essay:
  • The Knife (Karen Dreijer Andersson, Olaf Dreijer, et al.)
  • Berlin, Columbiahalle
  • 11 May 2013
Then the lights came on, it was all a scene
Bend back, give head it’s not pornography
If you do it with lights then it’s art you see
If you do it with a twist, yes, artistically

When I went to see The Magnetic Fields at the Babylon cinema in Berlin in 2010, there were many quiet moments of violin-tuning and sheet-music-adjusting between the songs. Magnetic Fields concerts are generally quite low-key affairs. During one of them, as Stephin Merritt was twisting the knobs of his ukelele, the voice of a young American woman surged up from the rows in front of me:

“Play ‘Love is Like a Bottle of Gin’!” she screamed.

“Shut up!” yelled Merritt. And after another second and a half of ukelele-tuning, he mumbles, “…savages.”

Why did that woman yell that? It’s a question I often ask myself when people do something I would never dream of doing, because identifying a purpose makes incomprehensible behavior comprehensible and forestalls less charitable reactions. A lot of incomprehensible behavior, at least to me, involves people screaming things. At The Knife’s concert in Berlin last night, which they opened about 35 minutes later than the advertised starting time and without an opening act to speak of (a glittering man, poodle-haired, lithe, and black-skinned, did a crowd-warming interactive dance routine he called “deep aerobics” from the side of the hall for about ten minutes before his headset mic stopped working), there was a little bit of time spent standing idly before the blue-lit stage between entering the venue and the time the concert began. This is, for those of you who have ever arrived at anything before its scheduled start time, an expected stage of the process. So why is this young man next to me screaming and whooping? Because he is excited. Why does he follow that screaming and whooping by cupping his hands around his mouth and projecting toward the stage that “WE ARE TIRED OF WAITING!!!”? The only explanantion I can find is that he is an impatient, pubescent, fit-throwing sack of shit, and that is not very charitable.

Then again, it has been seven years. (The screamer would have been, I dunno, eleven when Silent Shout was released?) But in my attempt to be charitable to the boorish people around me, I started to ask myself why people come to these concerts. ‘To see a band they like,’ right. But presumably not to lay eyes on Karen Dreijer, like you might on the Stockholm subway. If it’s The Magnetic Fields, you come to the concert to see them get out their instruments and sing and play their songs for the experience of a singlular version of them: Busby Berkeley Dreams louder, sadder, more in a church, and with more beer bottles klinking than listening to 69 Love Songs on your headphones on the way to work. And because the version, the song, you hear, disappears after it is made: having enjoyed the Rodin-scupture-beauty of the album, you come for the expensive-bouquet-of-flowers-beauty of the gig. Or at least you do if it’s The Magnetic Fields. You’d be a fool to expect that from The Knife, and just to go ahead and spoil it for you, when I came out, ears ringing, into the Berlin evening after the show, I overheard an American with a beard and a knit wool hat and tight pants complaining that “they didn’t really play any of their songs, they just kinda performed them”. Tilt your head back to stop the nosebleed getting on your keyboard.

The Knife’s show is a medical-school lecture, a dissection of the pop concert; instead of the Columbiahalle, they should have booked an eighteenth-century operating theater, so that we could all watch down from tiered seats as they took out the organs one by one. (Fans unprepared for this could have taken a cue from the latest album, Shaking the Habitual, in which they take their previous oeuvre, slice it open, and spread the entrails out over twice the length of Silent Shout.)

At first, this openness is startling: if Fever Ray performed behind a thicket of smoke and lights and plague-doctor masks, The Knife shed their hooded robes after the first number and stand there, faces plainly visible, limbs bare, lit head-on, before the audience. The lack of obfuscation is startling: is this the band whose only press photos are in makeup and masks? Whose children’s names are not publicly known? And now, they’re standing in front of me, genuinely playing instruments and looking at me with their eyes?

That is the situation, the convention, of the beginning of every concert. Of course you come to hear live versions of their songs, but you also come to see them make live versions of their songs. The Knife proceed to do it for about five minutes, until, suddenly, they stop in unison, face the audience, and hold their hands over their heads, perfectly still, and the music keeps going. At the moment they do this, the light switches from above and in front of them to behind and below, replacing the people on stage with blank silhouettes. We are not going to play our songs, the Dreijers make clear: we are going to perform them.

Well, we aren’t, strictly speaking. There are ten people on stage, and Karen and Olof can’t really be located. They are there, but other people take the lead: knowing that The Knife is a brother and sister outfit, you might mistake the frontman and frontwoman for that brother and sister, but the woman on whom the energy and the attention of the audience is focused for much of the concert – who plays out the tropes: the head-banging, the tongue-wagging, the HELLO and THANK YOU BERLIN – is not Karen Dreijer Andersson, and the man on whom she lavishes her dirty-dancing attention is not her brother. The openness is not revelation; it is transparent, but only like the surface of water, which misdirects. Karen is behind the moving spotlights on a platform on the back of the stage shaking a giant torch-shaped maraca.

Even when they established a layer of interrogation of the pop concert, they would attack it. A dance choreographed to One Hit in which the entire company participated was done to a recording of the song, ironing out any musical spontaneity and moving the performance into the physical, a series of relatively literal tableaux based on the song’s lyrics. By the end, they have moved through a song in which the dancing is done by a young, beared man with trendy hair and glasses who exists only on a canvas screen and is rocking back and forth in place (the abyss, dear audience, is gazing back at you) into one dance that consists of the entire company, back in their hooded robes, standing entirely still for the length of the song. The anticipation is agonizing, as if Dr Frankenfurter had held on to the last syllable forever.

More than many, The Knife was a band positioned to bring all 1,100 people in the Columbiahalle to orgasm at once. All they would have had to do was break one of their intros down into the unmistakeable tin pan riff that begins Pass This On, and the tidal wave of ecstasy would have resembled that vulgar scene in Scary Movie scaled up to crowd-size. For any artist, even one with a relationship to his audience that is as torturedly love-hate as Olaf Dreijer’s or Stephin Merritt’s, the temptation to do that must be incredible. Merritt routinely gives in to it, acting annoyed but lapping up every squeal fired across his bow during the intro to Papa Was a Rodeo. The Knife threw their audience very few bones – maybe only one, Silent Shout, and even it was musically indistinguishable from the “album version” (I went back and added quotation marks because I just made an ugly connection between that phrase and talking about “the movie” and “the book” of something), the dance accompanying it done to backlighting that beamed across the stage and out over the audience, blending performers and audience into a single group, all just dancing along to the same music being played over the speakers. And this was the finale: by the time it ended, The Knife was gone from the stage and the DJ in the sound booth began her post-show set. There was no bowing, no clapping, no encore, because when Silent Shout began, the concert was over: at the moment at which the audience is given what it wanted all along, The Knife cease to be performers and the audience ceases to be the audience, because if we have all come here just to hear our favorite song played, this is not a Knife show anymore.