Karin Dreijer Is The 21st Century's Sonic Shapeshifter With a slippery face and a thousand voices, the Swedish artist uses her music in Fever Ray and The Knife to pull into frame what society would prefer stay hidden.
NPR logo Karin Dreijer Is The 21st Century's Sonic Shapeshifter

Karin Dreijer Is The 21st Century's Sonic Shapeshifter

Karin Dreijer performs on stage at Motel Mozaique Festival in the Netherlands in 2009. Photo Illustration: Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty Images and Angela Hsieh/NPR hide caption

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Photo Illustration: Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty Images and Angela Hsieh/NPR

Karin Dreijer performs on stage at Motel Mozaique Festival in the Netherlands in 2009.

Photo Illustration: Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty Images and Angela Hsieh/NPR

It's not enough to make list after list. The Turning the Tables project seeks to suggest alternatives to the traditional popular music canon, and to do more than that, too: to stimulate conversation about how hierarchies emerge and endure. This year, Turning the Tables considers how women and non-binary artists are shaping music in our moment, from the pop mainstream to the sinecures of jazz and contemporary classical music. Our list of the 200 Greatest Songs By Women+ offers a soundtrack to a new century. This series of essays takes on another task.

The 25 arguments writers make in these pieces challenge the usual definitions of influence. Some rethink the building legacies of popular artists; others celebrate those who create within subcultures, their innovations rippling outward over time. As always, women forge new pathways in sound; today, they also make waves under the surface of culture by confronting, in their music, the increased fluidity of "woman" itself. What is a woman? It's a timeless question on the surface, but one deeply engaged with whatever historical moment in which it is asked. Our 25 Most Influential Women Musicians of the 21st Century illuminate its complexities. —Ann Powers

Karin Dreijer has a slippery face and a thousand voices. These are necessary tools in the act of wriggling away from conformity's grasp, especially within an industry — within a society — that is intent on pinning every last person down. If fluidity is the goal, fixity must be avoided at every turn.

It's an approach the Swedish artist has perfected with her solo project Fever Ray, but it has its roots in The Knife, the group she formed with her brother Olof Dreijer at the cusp of the new millennium. While relatability has become pop's default mode over the past 15-odd years, a position cultivated by social media, The Knife was always more interested in the potentiality of getting weird. Yes, the duo made bangers, but it also wrote an opera about Darwin's theory of evolution. The siblings' idiosyncratic way of noticing and navigating the world earned them fans and accolades, but they eventually called it a day in 2014 after five studio albums and half a dozen other intriguing projects.


The canon would have us believe that 2006's Silent Shout is the album on which Dreijer first pitch-shifted herself into a non-binary multi-person, forever turning the sound of Top 40 radio inside out along the way. But that take indicates a skim listening of The Knife's 2003 second album, Deep Cuts. Between the poppier songs on the record, Dreijer debuted her vocal malleability and with it her frustration with the patriarchy. "I keep my dick hanging out of my pants / So I can point out what I want," she sings on "Hangin' Out," her voice altered to make her sound like one of the boys. There's humor there, but also exhaustion; the song is cut short after only one verse when Dreijer interrupts herself to say "Näe, vi stoppar där" ("No, we'll stop there.") Elsewhere, a low tone and sloth-like delivery foreshadow her form on Fever Ray ("She's Having A Baby"), and the assumed voices of a handful of children and adults help her paint a picture of societal paralysis ("You Make Me Like Charity"):

I do it backwards but I don't wake up
Try to reverse but I don't wake up
I sit astride but I still don't wake up

These experiments opened the door for Silent Shout and its cacophony of voices to cartwheel through. Among them are android whispers, gremlin theatrics, silken tones, and a simulated mob. "One of the ideas that I wanted to play with was to be a character that you can't place," Dreijer told journalist Owen Myers in 2016, in an interview celebrating the record's 10th anniversary. "What happens when a listener can't place a vocal? What is it? Now, we're much more open to not having to decide what gender a vocal belongs to. In a way, it was very free."

If a character can't be placed, it is able to move as it wishes. Dreijer uses this mobility to pull into frame what society would prefer stay hidden. On "Na Na Na," she makes a play on so-called feminine protection, dedicating one verse to the tampons that will protect her from her own blood, and the other to the mace and pepper spray she hopes will protect her from potential rapists. With such multifaceted force, Silent Shout kicked pop into the 21st century. How one could behave in such a public setting was suddenly up for grabs. What are you burning to say? How do you want to say it? Who do you want to be today?

As the music industry ripped open The Knife's gift — everyone from Lady Gaga to Grimes found new ground with the playbook they wrote — Dreijer was conversely sinking into mud. In-between the release of Deep Cuts and the year following Silent Shout, she gave birth to two daughters, which turned Dreijer's previously independent life upside down. She's spoken at length about the suffocating constraints that society's idea of motherhood places on women, but to really feel what she means you just need to listen to Fever Ray. Released in 2009, her self-titled debut solo album weaves an insular world characterized by a sense of stuckness. "On a bed of spider web / I think of how to change myself," she sings on "Keep The Streets Empty For Me." Vocally, her range is much tighter across Fever Ray, spanning deep, hoarse layers to a sleepy croak, while lyrically she examines the domestic space and its insistence on homogeny. Suburban living, suggests "When I Grow Up," is numbing: "You've got cucumbers on your eyes / Too much time spent on nothing / Waiting for a moment to arise."

Breaking from the largely animated video approach The Knife had taken up until this point, it was in the visuals for Fever Ray that Dreijer found fresh kinetic energy. In contrast to the routine of parenthood, the home life that Dreijer depicts on camera bubbles and boils with all manner of aberrations, from a pagan encounter in a stable with a bunch of farm animals to a spirit-summoning ritual in front of a swimming pool. In some of her videos, a variety of women of different ages and races stand in and lip-sync for Dreijer, while in others she appears in a shamanic guise, her face daubed in white paint or made up to look like a skeleton. These motifs, both visual and sonic, helped feed the then-burgeoning micro-genre of witch house, which was pregnant with the themes that would later characterize excessive internet use: isolation, loneliness, a desire for tribal community.


One of things that makes Dreijer's musical contributions so influential, outside of the potency of the material itself, is that her career has been marked by long periods of silence and uncertainty. (Dreijer recently cancelled a Fever Ray tour, citing a long struggle with anxiety.) In an overcrowded marketplace, scarcity goes a long way. But beyond that is the simple fact that evolution — and healing — takes time. The chrysalis must be built, DNA recoded, new languages invented. It took eight years and two wildly experimental Knife albums (the latter of which pushed Karin and Olof's intersectional feminist, anti-capitalist, and environmental politics to the fore, in both artistic and practical terms) for Dreijer to re-emerge as Fever Ray in the fading light of 2017. And she couldn't have performed a more startling shapeshift: a bald head, high-shine skin, lips and eyes bleeding their color into her pores. The effect is somewhere between performance artist boychild and Uncle Fester, echoing their respective androgyny and manic glee.

Where Fever Ray wallowed in unfulfilled longing, Plunge provides the gratuitous payoff. It's a visceral celebration of freedom, and is based on Dreijer's experience of exploring her sexuality as a gender-fluid queer person, post-divorce to her daughters' father six years ago. In the high-energy scrawl of her finally unfiltered voice, Dreijer articulates lust the way it is felt on the inside: wet and charged and squirmy and full of heat. The body has always been central to pop — it desires a face to look up to, a thrust to thirst over — and yet the body has also been censored by pop. Who and what is sexy has long been decided by the patriarchy. On Plunge, Dreijer stuffs those rules in a blender, as outlined in the beautiful foreword to the album she commissioned artist Hannah Black to write. Alongside the "chosen family" of queer characters she sings of on "A Part Of Us," she delights in skewering representations of sexuality in song and on screen. "My curiosity / Found a cavity / And something to stick in," she sings with sensual gravity on "Mustn't Hurry." The visuals that accompany the album radically extend the range of movement of the human body in pop: We see a variety of femme figures peeing, spitting and licking. With such electrifying choreography, Dreijer invites new fantasies into the often-stale music video realm, and more importantly, she keeps on moving. The vocal experiments of her early work might have paved the way for her rebirth, but it's her unwavering curiosity that will keep her reaching for new and ever-more fertile forms of expression. As she told The New York Times, "I like to try things. I don't want this old story of love that I have been told. I want something else."