Pop Talk: Intense Encounters I, Young Men and Trans-Women in Music Videos: The Knife’s “Pass This On,” by Luis-Manuel Garcia

by justindburton on February 20, 2012

This is the first installment in a three-part series on the theme of straight-transgender encounters in music videos. Stay tuned for parts II and III!

Gender-bending, drag, and other modes of queer gender-performance are not especially new to popular music videos—and their uses have not always been unambiguously empowering, truth be told—but far fewer are the videos that dramatize an encounter between seemingly-heterosexual men and trans-women. I use “seemingly-heterosexual” here because, in the short and usually dialogue-free context of a music video, sexuality is only hazily legible through gestures, postures, styling, and stylizations that reference cultural and genre-specific norms outside the frame of the music video. Similarly, I use “trans-women” in a more general fashion than I should because, in the three music videos that are linked below, it is not always clear if these characters are meant to represent drag performers, bio-men living as women, male-to-female transsexual women, or gender-queers with a more complex relation to normative gender. In any of these cases, the leading men of these music videos initially read as smoothly (and sometimes forcefully) heterosexual males, while the leading ladies immediately create shimmering disturbances on the surface of normative gender and sexuality.

The “man meets (trans)woman” trope is shared by music videos for The Knife’s “Pass This On” (2003), The New Pornographer’s “Sing Me Spanish Techno” (2005), and Kai Stänicke’s /Tin [A] Din’s“Cold Star” (2010)—the last being more a movie short with no dialogue and music-video-like features. All of these videos feature scenes of rising tension, as these two archetypal characters are brought into contact with each other; representing the distant ends of gender normativity, what sorts of attractions and repulsions will result? In all three videos, some sudden shift in direction is put in motion through eye contact: conspiratorial glances, searching looks, smoldering—perhaps even menacing—stares. Each video nonetheless differs in how it resolves this tension, how each character fares at the end of it all, and which third person or group takes on the role of cultural dupe/antagonist to play against the lead couple. Musically, all of these videos feature music that is far away from the torch songs and club dance remixes that usually accompany drag performances; instead, they offer slow-burning electro-pop and chipper indie rock.

“Pass This On” (The Knife, 2003; dir. Johan Renck)

This music video, directed by Johan Renck, begins with a close shot of a hand adjusting an amplifier and using a laptop to start a recording. The hand’s nails are painted, and its wrist carries a pair of beaded bracelets; and yet, its arm has a wiry, veined musculature to it. Framing this collision of gender-embodiments, long and shiny blond hair hangs just inside the frame. A procession of wider shots from varying angles reveals a blonde drag performer with strikingly angular features swaying gently to her music as she prepares to perform for a small audience.

The small audience before her sits in an uncanny caricature of a Scandinavian football club or cultural club: small, wood paneling everywhere, dark landscape artwork on the walls, a stuffed bird, over-bright fluorescent lighting, minimalist wooden furniture, and tacky table settings. This club, however, is populated by an improbable mix of characters, nearly all of them legible—in the context of a Northern-European setting—as stereotypes associated with homophobia and genderphobia: several middle-aged men, with Mediterranean/Middle-Eastern appearances, referencing Europe’s primary “guest-worker” immigrant demographics; a few pairs of younger men of varying African and Mediterranean hues and mostly sporting casual or athletic street-wear, representing second-generation immigrant male youths; an older white woman and a man, both of whose attire and grooming index lower class status (read: culturally conservative); a young white woman with dark hair, leaning forward in her chair and staring intently (and note: unblinkingly) at the performance, whose identity does not necessarily index hostility, although her intense glare remains unsettling; and, leaning against a wall, a pair of very young-looking white men, whose appearances reference right-wing “thugs” (bomber jacket and military-style buzz-cut; white athletic jacket and a shaved head).

It is, by all appearances, a tough crowd. Most of the faces in the crowd are entirely flat, legible alternately as apprehensive, uncertain, hostile, uncomfortable, or simply impassive. But something changes when the performer sings, “I’m in love with your brother” (c. 1:47), looking over at the young white man in the blue bomber jacket, leaning against the wall. There’s a telescoping zoom on him and his companion as he returns her gaze. Cut to the performer touching her thighs provocatively. Cut back to the zoom on him, intercut with brief shots of the drag artist performing to/for him. His gaze is as fixed and unblinking as the young woman sitting and staring from the audience, who also appears increasingly in this montage. Still staring deeply at the performer, the young man in the blue jacket leaves his spot against the wall, passes his friend—who looks after him sullenly—and approaches her, dancing slowly. His eyes remain fixed on her, as if he were aware of nothing else in the room, and there begins a montage of (non-)reaction shots from those sitting in the audience, featuring a range of tense, awkward, and impassive expressions. One of the middle-aged, dark-featured men begins to move his hands to the music. A young man in a basketball jersey pulls himself out of his chair in a pop-locking move reminiscent of breakdancing. Another young man closes his eyes briefly, as if he were succumbing to some sort of internal pressure. Over the next ninety seconds or so, everyone else in the room follows suit and joins in the dancing—everyone except the younger white woman sitting at the table, still staring unblinkingly and motionlessly.

Once nearly everyone has joined in dancing, the music begins to fade out (3:40); it’s a sort of “sonic telescoping” fade-out, as the bass and treble ranges of the music are increasingly cut away, leaving a thin, tinny, middle-range remainder of the music. This last layer of sound disappears to reveal the quiet sound of the ceiling fan spinning. This lends a somewhat surreal feeling to the whole affair, as one now hears some diegetic sound (i.e., sound created by action taking place in the frame of the video), but other diegetic sound sources are silent (e.g., the dancing crowd, the performer). The final seconds of the video cut to a close-up of the young, non-participating woman, still sitting and staring intently at the action taking place in front of her. Her eyes finally begin to blink, and when her eyelids meet, the screen fades to black; in other words, the video stops only when she closes her eyes.

What is the role of this young woman in this whole scenario? It seems that, on the one hand, this woman plays the role of the cultural dope or resentful competitor, unwilling to engage with a performance of femininity that simulates, parodies, and perhaps supplants hers. But the fact that the stares of both her and the young male lead are trained on the performer suggests that perhaps this female “impersonator” actually serves as a sort of relay of desire between the young woman and the young man. Considering the surreal sonic trick at the end, is all of this maybe a vision of hers? Is the performer a projection of her own erotic persona, embodied in a hyper-gendered femininity that she feels unable to fulfill herself?

But these possible readings take a different shape, once one realizes that the young man and the young woman are Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer, the two Swedish siblings that make up The Knife itself. The performer in the music video is Rickard Engfors, a well-known Swedish drag artist and model. With this out-of-frame knowledge, the phrase, “I’m in love with your brother,” takes on new meaning, and possibly explains why there are so many shots of Andersson’s stare once Engfors and Dreijer lock eyes and draw closer. So, perhaps this video portrays a woman witnessing the seduction of her brother (and all their companions) by a drag queen—but what of the fact that it is Andersson’s voice laminated onto Engfors’ body in this video? The precise role of all three main characters remains unclear but suggestive: there is a sense that all of this is happening for Andersson’s character in some way, but what it means to her is never disclosed; considering her flat affect, one could also imagine that the meaning remains hidden even to her. Unlike in the two other videos to follow, Engfors’s character is neither saving angel nor agent of radical transformation. Instead, she enters a legibly conservative and gender-phobic space, makes things tense with her queer presence, draws the attention of a young straight-seeming man, and soon magnetizes (nearly) the whole room to her performance—although only thanks to the catalyzing act of Dreijer’s character, who pulls himself away from his position in heteronormativity to approach and engage with Engfors. At the same time, Engfors’ character also seems to act not only as a magnetizer but also as a point of affective relay and libidinal projection for both Andersson and Dreijer (as well as for the wider audience).

Luis-Manuel is a Canadian of Peruvian-Colombian origins, migrating between Toronto, Berlin, Chicago, and Paris. He has managed to turn his love of electronic dance music into a PhD in Ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago, and into a post-doctoral fellowship at the Freie Universität Berlin. On the side, he writes about food and dances every chance he gets. You can find him at LMGM, The Blog, as well as his website.


justindburton February 20, 2012 at 3:17 pm

Your suggestion that Engfors acts as a libidinal relay for the energy that flows from Andersson to Dreijer is quite provocative, allowing incest to now bubble up from under the transgender surface. The whole video becomes operatic, as it is only in disguise or by proxy that Andersson would be able to experience her forbidden love.

Read in this way, the magnetism of Engfors and Dreijer can shift too. If we see a room of dancers being pulled almost involuntarily toward the happy couple at the center of the room, then it seems like a celebratory gesture. But if Engfors becomes a proxy for Andersson, the conduit the for incestual love, then this group – which you’ve aptly described as, at the very least, a tough crowd – becomes less of a throng and more of a mob, their move toward the central couple more threatening than joyous.

But what makes the meaning of much of the video ambiguous is the studied way in which nearly everyone in the room wears a vague expression, especially Dreijer’s friend and Andersson herself. As Dreijer makes his way toward Engfors, his friend’s look could quite easily be read as jealousy, confusion, or derision, just as Andersson’s unblinking stare could be paralyzed fear or intense desire. The polysemic nature of these expressions seems to parallel Engfors’ performance, as she can be read all along the spectrum of gender.

Almost certainly unrelated: the design of the space reminded me of another popular cultural vehicle that enjoyed mapping its own quirky ideas about “Northernness,” including an ongoing narrative about another group of Scandinavians, “those Norwegians”: Twin Peaks. In fact, if we simply replaced the song with a bit of soundtrack from Angelo Badalamenti, this video could fit quite nicely in the middle of a Twin Peaks episode.

Luis-Manuel Garcia February 22, 2012 at 8:12 am

Justin, great points. I hadn’t thought at all about the affinities to Twin Peaks, but there’s definitely a similar depiction of “Northern” cultures here as a somewhat uncanny twilight realm: dark skies outside, harsh fluorescent lighting, living spaces wrapped in wood, hunting trophies and landscape paintings, and then these strange, strained, and awkward interpersonal exchanges.

I also agree with your observation about vague facial expressions and deliberately-unreadable affect. It all reads to me as both a refusal and an invitation: a refusal to provide a tidy erotic narrative, but an invitation to make a much more interesting and messy one.

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