There’s no denying that The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual is a significant work of art. It’s mystic, cold, brutal, and darkly groovy. There are moments where it seems The Knife is trying to be as unpleasant as possible, like the frosty, 19-minute passage “Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized,” which comes together like a nasty anxiety-attack. Or the 37-second ear-scraping snippet “Oryx,” which is blaringly intrusive in the most artistic of ways. Taken as a whole, the album feels like it’s about something, in the way that many hoity-toity borderline-operatic albums feel rife with commentary. It’s powerful, it’s unique, it’s transformative – Karin and Olof Dreijer are smart people who deserve to have their music studied.
But come on. Shaking the Habitual isn’t near as important as we’re all pretending it is. At least not yet.
The press and public have been incredibly eager to unpack all the philosophy and radical social themes allegedly imbued in Shaking the Habitual. This mostly comes from an interview the duo did with Pitchfork late last month where they spent almost the entire conversation detailing all the queer, feminist, and alternative political ideas that influenced the direction of the record’s sound. “We read so much and all these ideas steered our choices when it came to sound and rhythm,” said Olof Dreijer. This has created a foundation for a lot of bluster. Buzzfeed’s Matthew Perpetua wrote a semi-review, claiming the record demonstrated its ideology through relentless aesthetic dedication to queasiness. Like the sounds themselves were trying to articulate the visceral feeling of being on the wrong side of social justice. Lindsay Zoladz explored the idea that perhaps instead of encoding alternate thought in difficult music, it might be more effective, and more universal, to simply write the greatest “four-minute dancefloor anthem ever written about fracking.” There was also something on Gawker that lost itself in a flimsy premise that claimed Shaking the Habitual and “Accidental Racist” had a lot in common.
All of this is fine. It’s good to talk about what music means and represents, and how we ought to digest and respond as a society. But there’s one inescapable issue with the entirety of our discourse. Simply put, if you were to listen to Shaking the Habitual without paying attention to any of the conversation around it, I seriously doubt you would spend any time thinking about male privilege. There is nothing politically self-evident about the music. It’s a record that sounds like it’s about vampires, hell, mysticism, isolation, anxiety, brutality, and being very cold. You would never think about Judith Butler, there would be no grounds for “Accidental Racist” comparisons – we are aesthetically-driven listeners, and it’s pretty hard to say the music of Shaking The Habitual challenges us on any high-intellectual level. It’s nothing but flavor, it is not Fear of a Black Planet, and it’s time we admit that the record is almost tertiary to the socially-charged discussion.
The entirety of our conversation has been extracted from what essentially was Shaking the Habitual’s PR campaign. The Knife talked about how thoroughly political the new album was, and a bunch of smart people patiently waited to see how those ideas were manifested. This is understandable, because The Knife seem like earnest people with important and indisputably unique perspectives. But it seems we’ve let Karin and Olof’s rhetoric blend over into what we’re hearing. There’s nothing wrong with context, but we can’t let the creative forces frame an album for our consumption. If we buy into that, then we, as listeners, are up for grabs. We must always draw our own implications, reflections, and interpretations from a work of art. It keeps us honest, and it keeps the music honest. Ideology should be soaked up from an album organically; it shouldn’t be given to us as a lens.
But I think most importantly, if we go into an album like Shaking the Habitual with the understanding in mind that it’s about radical, feminist-informed anti-capitalist ideals, we’re setting up a scenario where it becomes a little too easy to call The Knife visionaries. If we internalize the idea that Shaking the Habitual is the Big Political Statement, all of a sudden those instrumental dirges morph into brilliant symbolic takedowns in our heads. Vague, dispiriting poetry becomes precise and direct. The Knife start to get the full benefit of the doubt. They haven’t earned that privilege. Shaking The Habitual was certainly crafted with a lot of ambition and a lot of grace, but instead of consulting Olof and Karin on what to make of it, we must first consider what the album sounds like to us. It’s a crucial first step that we’re sometimes a little too eager to skip.