Since The Knife’s two shows in London this week the internet has been awash with reviews and comments like the one above. They make claims that The Knife “highlight artifice as the fulcrum of all performance, and in doing so take a self-referential, probing look at its effectiveness as a tool for subversion” and celebrate its ‘disruption’. Anyone who thinks it’s all a bit second-year art school and perhaps taking the piss for a £30 gig just doesn’t get it.
I understand that some people genuinely had a fun time (though the feedback I’ve heard on an anecdotal level has been overwhelmingly negative) and I can understand that. What I can’t get behind are these ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ reactions which imply (or even explicitly state) that you were somehow an ignorant heathen if you took issue with the show; there certainly seems to be an eagerness in some quarters to let us know that they GOT IT. Myself, I was so excited about seeing the band that I devoured videos, descriptions and reviews of the show as soon as they became available. My expectations slumped as a result and I ended up not even bothering to go.
So while my comments come in that context, they are largely on the common themes of these responses. Firstly, they all make some claim that, as it’s The Knife, we should never expect a ‘typical concert’. The review above explicitly states that “Shaking The Habitual was not written with live performance in mind, at least not in the conventional sense.” I saw The Knife at The Forum in October 2006. It was most definitely a ‘typical concert’. The act performed their songs on stage in front of an audience. They had light-shows, big screen visuals, props etc. They sang live. It was absolutely bloody brilliant. Where this idea that The Knife are crazed auteurs who would never deliver a concert has come from, I’ve no idea. As for Shaking The Habitual, to my ears it’s largely ‘challenging’ because of its length and some clearly deliberately tedious tracks, not because it sounds so unlike anything ever recorded before. I don’t really see why it would be difficult to perform it live.
The second common defence is that The Knife never billed the show as a ‘concert’ but rather as some artistic presentation of their music. Aside from the fact that the announcement of the tour really had nothing in it to alert people that the bulk of the show would be taken up by playback, it’s utterly absurd to berate people for not expecting a gig by buying a ticket for a show at the Roundhouse. The Knife could have made the nature of their show much clearer in many ways. Playing at a venue such as the ICA and billing it as an ‘art piece’ would have solved the issue of expectation in one fell swoop. People buying a ticket to see a concert billed as “We, The Knife, will be performing live” at a venue like the Roundhouse have reasonable expectations.
Now, much of the rhetoric around Shaking The Habitual has concerned itself with that favourite preoccupation of broadsheet music journalists: “authenticity”. It’s incredibly fashionable nowadays to sneer at the concept in a manner which suggests you once read the first few pages of an ‘Introduction to Post-Modernism’ and think it’s terribly clever to argue that the music of Bob Dylan is no different from the music of Fast-Food Rockers because it all depends on the listenerzzzzz. The Knife have thoughts on this which are rather more developed but still clearly manna from heaven for this audience. The responses to their show, however, completely demolish everything they’re saying. A positive response depends on believing that an act like The Knife is more authentic than other acts who may use playback and dance routines. As the Evening Standard reviewer noted in one of the few dissenting pieces I’ve read:
The problem is that this kind of performance art is rarely as arresting as that which it attempts to debunk. If Britney or Beyoncé mime, they are slaughtered, yet the spectacle they provide while doing so is light years from the spinning and waving that went on here.
He is so spot-on that it’s painful. No-one spends time dissecting the motives and intentions of a Britney Spears show – because they think it inherently has less worth. Yeah she can mime, she’s just a pop artist! If The Knife do it and shove some trite academic speech about ‘authenticity’ behind it, well that’s very different indeed! The same mentality was evident in almost all of the reviews of Shaking The Habitual which claimed that it was a ‘challenging’ and ‘difficult’ work which you may not even wish to ever listen to again, but still rewarded it with strong ratings. Can you imagine someone doing similar with a Madonna album? If they weren’t grabbed by it after a couple of listens they would have no hesitation in tearing it to shreds. Underlying much of this, then, is that almost-subconscious contempt for pop which shines through in the attitudes of many who ostensibly claim to love it. When it gets down to it, they think pop is the realm of piss-taking reality television and ironic club nights in Vauxhall; it couldn’t possibly be an art form on a par (or better than!) The Knife.
We have seen it for a long time in responses to artists like Björk, who can become as ropey as they please as long as their work appears suitably ‘artistic’ and ‘challenging’. The assumption is, of course, that mass listeners are simply too dumb to get it and if you do, you’re one of the enlightened ones. Many of the responses to The Knife’s show have presented it as clearly a work of genius which dissects those dumb, trashy pop concerts that people like – you can smell the sneering contempt and the masturbation from a mile off.