Constructing an album as a reflection of sexual awakening is practically a rite of passage for pop singers (particularly women pop singers) at this point. There was Madonna’s Erotica, Janet Jackson’s janet (and then The Velvet Rope and then All for You and then Damita Jo and then...), Rihanna’s Rated R into Loud, Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz, and on and on. But for Sweden’s Karin Dreijer (known as one-half of the Knife, and for her solo project Fever Ray), the long-form exploration of her sexuality in song is less a blossoming than an explosion. So in-your-face is her most recent album, Plunge, that its most ebullient song, “To the Moon and Back,” is punctuated with an unforgettable declaration sung with gusto: “I want to run my fingers up your pussy.”
When Dreijer sang this line last night at the Brooklyn Hangar during the last of her two-night NYC Red Bull Music Festival stint, she held the five fingers on her right hand in a point and lifted her arm from chest level to above her head. She kept it held for about a minute in a sort of queer salute as electro pop bounced off the walls.
There were even more explicit signs of sexuality and resistance. The opening of the dissonant and hazy “Falling” found Dreijer with her leg draped over the ass of one of her backup singers, whose torso was at a 90-degree angle with her head practically buried in the crotch of another backup singer, who was outfitted in a foam costume that made her look cartoonishly muscular. “You made me dirty again/She makes me feel dirty again,” intoned Dreijer, who sings with a drag on her voice that makes it sound like it’s been processed backward and then forward again as it comes out of her mouth. When she sang the climax of “This Country” (“Free abortions and clean water/Destroy nuclear/Destroy boring”), she held her fist in the air, thrusting it forward to punctuate each line in a much more common but no less effective show of protest.
“Super radical” is how Dreijer described what she’s doing on Plunge to the New York Times earlier this year. At some point between the release of the brooding and monochrome self-titled Fever Ray album in 2009 and the decidedly brighter Plunge, Dreijer divorced her husband and started pursuing women. Plunge pulsates as much with the joy and nervous jitters of sexual discovery as it does the synths that provide Dreijer’s musical backing.
“I’ve noticed now that there were a lot of straight men who loved [the first Fever Ray album]. And then, they don’t like this one. They’re pissed. And I’m very happy,” Dreijer said to audience cheers during a pre-show Q&A at the Hangar yesterday. “I think I have found the spot that feels a little for me like, yes, that is the difference. It becomes very aggressive, I think, you really feel the hate sort of from straight people this time, but to me it’s very good. I know that we’re working something that has been missing a bit.”
The talk was titled “Self Care and The Artist: A Talk on Compassionate Creative Practice with Fever Ray and Bunny Michael,” and led by the latter, a quasi-self-help Instagram guru who also raps and opened for Fever Ray later that evening. Michael’s interviewing style was marked by time spent talking about herself and questions that took a while to get where they were going. Here’s an example: “You talked about, like, it can be super fun. I think that being an artist is super fun, but so many artists forget it’s supposed to be fun, you know, and I think that that’s really easy for that to happen because we get caught up into comparing ourselves to other artists, especially now with social media and you’re constantly being bombarded by people’s success all of the time or not success and how do I fit into that and is it going to happen for me, and do you ever compare yourself or have you ever had those moments where you’ve compared yourself to other artists and felt, like, jealous or anything like that?”
(For the record, Dreijer said that she did.)
The highlight of the talk was an active meditation led by a friend of Dreijer’s who had the audience standup on the yoga mats that were handed out, close their eyes, and sort of bounce and/or vibrate their bodies for about 10 minutes.
Dreijer dressed down for the talk, a rare appearance in front of an audience that didn’t involve an over-the-top costume of some sort. She wore a black baseball cap, a black hoodie, black sweatpants, black sneakers, a pink quilted coat and clear-framed glasses, the stubble on her head evident when she’d nonchalantly adjust the cap while speaking.
When Dreijer took the stage later, she’d be in full costume of a character she described as “very scary and sweet.” She rocked a fully exposed stubble head, glossy magenta makeup smeared around her eyes and mouth, a shirt that said, “I Love Swedish Girls” with “Swedish” crossed out, diaper-white bloomers, and thigh-high pink lace-up leg-warmers. She was backed by an all-woman band (two drummers, a synth player, and her two singers who also danced with her, often in a close cluster of solidarity). She said during the talk that having an all-women band was important to her. When they started rehearsing for this tour last June, she recalled, “I felt so safe and so happy about having this group with me.”
Posted throughout the venue were signs requesting that people leave their phones in their pockets (“share this moment with us”) and asking tall people to stand in the back. “Women to the front,” they ordered. The onstage light display was as close as one could be to pyrotechnic without the use of gunpowder. A set of LEDs strobed in front of the stage. Multicolored spotlights on the set sat up high midway. Then were the lasers that shot out to the audience, looking alternately like cobwebs or an alien sky above. The back wall was covered in neon lights in various shapes and designs. Regularly, the design was programmed to the music’s arpeggiated synths, giving a full sense of sonic immersion. It was never less than dazzling.
Plunge is a brighter, dancier album than its predecessor. In fact, in many ways it out-Knifes the last few Knife releases, particularly 2010's cerebral and melodically inaccessible Shaking the Habitual. Dreijer has never made straightforward pop, exactly—she likes her beats brutal and for her melodies to bend at the edges into the surreal—but she’s never been closer to doing that than on this tour. Many of the gurgling and severe songs from the first Fever Ray album were given uptempo makeovers: “When I Grow Up” was transformed into a samba house number (it reminded me of Basement Jaxx’s “Mermaid of Salinas”) while “Concrete Walls” smothered the audience with sub-bass before catapulting into an ecstatic drum and bass finale (the effect was not unlike that of Skream’s remix of La Roux’s “In for the Kill”).
Harnessing the thrill of spectacle, the Fever Ray show emulated the corporate stadium pop concert with some key differences. I don’t suppose it’s at all a coincidence that Dreijer has coated her bold expression of queer sexuality and women’s empowerment in a candy shell. At this moment, she is simultaneously at her most accessible to the human ear and alienating to the status quo. She understands that pop music an be a powerful force (“I played something catchy/You leaned forward and kissed me,” she sings in “To the Moon and Back”). Unlike many of her more straightforward contemporaries, though, for Dreijer the form of pop is not an end, but a means.