Radical Romantics, the latest album from Swedish synth-y and experimental pop artist Fever Ray, opens with an apology of sorts: “First I’d like to say that I’m sorry/ I’ve done all the tricks that I can.” The opening lines are a campy wink, acknowledging the steel drums—and pitch shifting—that are hallmarks of Karin Dreijer’s work in both Fever Ray and The Knife, the synthpop duo that they started with their brother Olof and who join on the first four tracks of their latest solo album as a collaborator. The lines are fitting for shaking the habitual (to pun on the last album that the Dreijer siblings created as The Knife (now an entire decade ago)), particularly of this thing called “romance” that queers have often had a different relationship to than our straight counterparts, even as the pandemic has thrown us all for a loop. What can possibly be “radical” about this thing called romance, especially in a moment in time when homonormative gay and lesbian (my word choice is intentional here) coupledom has been accepted by mainstream Western society as a “legitimate” organizational mode while, simultaneously, far right conservatives target not only gay marriage but also queer and trans health, theory, literature, “gay” things said aloud, etc.? What does it do to conceptualize romance radically when, more than ever, our countries of inhabitance want to, literally and figuratively, kill or harm those of us who are queer and/or trans? As Dreijer muses on Plunge, the album before this one, “This country makes it hard to fuck,” where “fuck” means not just having sex but also giving a fuck about anything when you’re just trying to survive.
With this historical context very much around it, Radical Romantics is a porous cocoon, offering a space for queer and trans people to radically reconfigure romance (of all kinds) away from the political fuckery while keeping a clear window out into the worlds from which we have (momentarily) retreated. Even before my (highly treatable, I’m told) ovarian cancer diagnosis at the beginning of April, I make the call to go catch the Fever Ray tour in Oakland with a close friend from grad school, to be in the intimate space of the dark club of the Fox Theater (to where this same friend and I last journeyed to see Sleater-Kinney in 2019 with another friend from grad school) versus in the overwhelming crowd of the Just Like Heaven festival in Pasadena (a kind of danger zone concert setting that I have been strongly discouraged from attending until I get to the other side of my cancer treatment). Besides being close friends during and beyond grad school, this friend is the person with whom I’ve spent the most time trying to imagine more radical conceptions of “romance,” at all the possible points along the spectrum of platonic to romantic connection. (Often, our romantic lives run hilariously parallel to one another, a shared source of grief, comfort, and laughter on our frequent phone calls.) Like me, this friend is also immunocompromised—and where we’ve watched in horror as many around us throw off their masks as they’ve hit their fatigue, we’ve stayed covered up indoors for over three years now. As with Fever Ray’s music, this friend and I have built our own queer cocoon space in the intimacy of friendship, stepping back to recharge together before re-emerging into our highly politicized—and still pandemic—world.
All of this will come to a head as we experience Radical Romantics live for the first time in Oakland that night. For an album that is only 44 minutes long, Radical Romantics covers a lot of ground, lyrically and sonically reflecting on sex, romance, intimacy, vulnerability, and bodies. In some ways, it a continuation of the work begun on Plunge, Fever Ray’s second album from 2017 that many critics (lazily, in my opinion) wrote about as Dreijer’s coming out into the world of queer sex (as if The Knife’s 2003 song “Take My Breath Away” didn’t already hint at this queerness (“I don’t like it easy/ I don’t like it the straight way”) an entire two decades prior). Radical Romantics, like Plunge, is also an album about sex, but with an increased—or perhaps more layered—focus on its vulnerability and emotionality. As Dreijer recently told them., “I think sex is an action. I think it involves feelings and it involves caring. It involves intimacy.” If Radical Romantics can be summed up in a few sentences, then it is these words. Or, perhaps, that is the angle that I wish to focus on, as someone who has always tried to bring an emotional intentionality to sex with someone else, whether it’s been one time or a dozen times or a hundred times, along with to every friendship that I’ve tried to build, and, later, continue to grow. For these reasons, Dreijer has long been a queer and genderqueer elder for me, their music offering me a space for feeling through my realms of sex and intimacy and vulnerability, as I am on my own journey with them. In this case, I first come to the album—and to the show following it—from a place of disembodiment, this time from a cancer diagnosis (that I only got after self-advocating for myself for over three months) and not from a rape from almost three years ago now (that I finally broke through via lots of healthy sex with an ex I dated from October to January). As much as Radical Romantics is an album about bodies, it is also about disembodiment, about how we get back to our bodies in spite of it. Radical Romantics is powerful for the ways that it holds embodiment and disembodiment together.
At the show at the Fox Theater, Plunge takes a back seat, with only two songs from the album appearing in the set list. One of those songs is “To The Moon and Back,” the first single from Plunge that works as the first true sing-along moment for the night. Sure, people (including me) sing along to every last word of Radical Romantics too, but nothing matches the volume of when the entire crowd comes together to sing-shout the line, “I want to run my fingers up your pussy!” I literally laugh out loud after this moment, and then plunge back into the familiar melancholia of not being sure when I’ll next have sex with someone else again, let alone myself. (How is it possible to be back in this place again, so soon after at last leaving it this past winter and fall?) As some gay boys or enbys flirt with my friend before Austin hometown hero Christeene takes the stage to open the show, I remind myself that I had already decided to take a break from dating before my health started to rapidly deteriorate at the end of February (and now has, already, bounced back considerably after only one round of chemo). And now, with any new connection, I can only move slowly, with an emotional intentionality that leaves ample space for me to rest and even change plans as necessary. This is the space of “To The Moon and Back” and, later, Radical Romantics: you have to know where your body is first before choosing how to proceed into vulnerability with another. Additionally, it reminds that there are many ways to be intimate with other people’s bodies beyond that of fucking, that there are many forms of love besides those first grounded in sexual acts.
Performed three years into the pandemic, “To The Moon and Back” takes on a new meaning. Experiencing this song performed live five years after I first heard it live brings to mind an essay that Harmony Holiday wrote on SZA’s SOS, which I didn’t read for the first time until after I wrote—and then read aloud—my essay on the same album. Towards the end of her essay, Holiday powerfully writes,
We simply cannot indulge in love in the same way we did before 2020 if we are being honest. But we don’t yet have the music for what love has become today. This is not that music. That music does not exist yet. This is music that mourns the inadequacy of modern love without knowing what to do about it… This is the music of I don’t know, but I have to sing about it. It’s not soothing, it’s commiserating with the collective uprootedness and what it means when heartbreak is universal, but no one wants to lose, so few admit it.
As with SZA, the music of Fever Ray grapples with the question of what love *is* now. Where SZA leads with ambivalence and middle fingers up (which may or may not be self-protective), Dreijer leads with sincerity but also fumbling, holding the complexities of an aging body with the political weight of the moment. Then again, we queers and genderqueers have often felt unmoored; I can distinctively remember the figurative punch I felt in my gut after Obama threw us under the bus during his first term, after me and everyone else on the Queer Student Alliance board at my undergraduate university plastered rainbow Obama signs everywhere and hosted an election night party for what was all of our first times ever voting. In 2023, we face a slew of laws trying to, quite literally, criminalize queer and trans people. What does it mean to try to love—or connect with—anyone under these circumstances? As I tried to get to in my essay and Harmony more eloquently lands in hers, the isolations and losses of intimacy of the early pandemic are still with us now, in ways that none of us have yet to fully process. So, what does it do to run a finger up someone else’s pussy now, in our moment of pandemic politics?
Fever Ray makes their own attempt to begin to answer these questions on Radical Romantics, particularly in the live performance of “Shiver.” One of their best songs so far, “Shiver” begins with the vocals “Just a little touch” looped over and in between percussion and bass. On stage, Dreijer stands with Helena Gutarra to their right and Maryam Nikandish on their left. As they sway together, look coyly out towards the audience, and playfully touch one another, they enact a queer and feminist collectivity, one that vibrates around the line “I just wanna be touched.” As I feel with them, I think about how much this is also a metaphor for my cancer care, with queer and feminist friends from LA and the five cities where I’ve lived previously lived offering me someone to figuratively or literally lean on when bio family can’t—or when I want to go through my communities first. At the same time, the song is also a soundtrack for my disembodiment, of wanting to be physically touched in addition to emotionally so, even as my current state of disembodiment (the weight I rapidly lost and now trying to regain, the way my stomach bulged out from the tumor in my ovary and fluid around it before the chemo started targeting both, the way I watched my stylist cut off all my hair to a 3mm cut that I like a lot but am also still getting used to) makes that extra scary. During “Shiver,” I feel across to the opposite coast, wishing you weren’t always 2,000 or 3,000 miles away—and desiring, as I still sometimes do, that you could wrap your arms around me and tell me everything is going to be okay. The song in the background reminds me how much romance is a spectrum, opening out into how many kinds of relationships can be grounded in love in some or many different ways. The “touch” that we seek is emotional just as much as it is physical.
For a tour that’s for Radical Romantics, Fever Ray’s first/self-titled album has a strong presence, with six of its ten songs appearing in the set. First released in 2009, the album still sounds fresh, even as it does, like Plunge after it, take on a different meaning within the context of the tour and the pandemic (and, in the cases of songs like “Now’s The Only Time I Know,” joyously get completely reworked in the set). But the song that most stands out to me in this vein is “If I Had A Heart,” the opener from Fever Ray that is the last song in the set in Oakland—and a reminder of what first made Fever Ray so groundbreaking.
The song is built around Dreijer’s famous pitch shifting, beginning in a “deeper” voice before moving up to a more highly pitched one. (In the Pitchfork review of The Knife’s 2006 album Silent Shout, the reviewer writes as if Dreijer did nothing more than provide vocals on the album—and all the instrumentation and pitch shifting are the doing of their brother Olof. I always like to think of Fever Ray as Dreijer saying: look, I’ve been doing my parts all along.) I can think of no contemporary artist who embodies genderqueerness (in a way that so deeply resonates with my own personal experiences) via vocals—and now also visuals—than Dreijer. Hearing the song come last in the set, it pulls together everything that the show—and the Fever Ray discography—mean to me. In addition to being attuned to emotional and sexual desires, being in our bodies also means feeling out where on the gender spectrum we are each day, understanding that this could all change in any given moment and circumstance. I feel this acutely as a genderqueer person currently being treated for a gynecological cancer, where people often forget or ignore my “they/them” pronouns to tell me what a “strong woman” I am, not seeing me.
Then again, my queerness has been how I’ve navigated my entire adult life, asking questions aloud or in writing about why we’ve come to accept the categories and accompanying stereotypes around them that we do. Standing at the show on the verge of 36, I think about how I’ve now lived a full 18 years—or literally half of my life—in queerness. And Dreijer has been there with me from the beginning, starting with all of us freshmen spring listening to—and marveling over—Silent Shout, regardless of which genres of music we claimed to most like. The boundaries musically came down for me in that moment, as Silent Shout opened me up to listening to electronic music and, once back in NYC in the early 2010s, circling back around to pop music of different ilks. My queerness, and later my genderqueerness, would unfold on these dissolutions of boundaries. In that vein, I also think about my romantic herstory, where I have, at this point in my adult life, been in every form of platonic and/or romantic intimacy short of dating a couple. Fever Ray’s Plunge is an album that has quite literally saved my life, time and time again; I put it in on via headphones or stereo when I feel that it is emotionally impossible to go on, particularly in the realm of romance. But Fever Ray, which followed closely on the heels of Silent Shout, was the seed that got me started. To hear “If I Had A Heart” in Oakland that night is a reflection of myself back to me, a reminder of why I have the poster from inside Plunge hanging up in my living room, a visual of Dreijer with a bald head and with lots of rope wrapped around them, with a poem about love and sex being work on either side of them.
In addition to everything already discussed, Radical Romantics is also about sitting with an aging body. In the aforementioned interview with them., Dreijer comments, “I think I’m getting older, but at the same time, I’m much more friends with my body nowadays than when I was younger.” As someone who’s always felt 5 or 10 or 15 years older than I am, there’s a way that I’ve always felt this emotional weight in my body, beginning with befriending my teachers in high school by exchanging CDs with them (now, one of them is set to fly out here to stay with me for my third round of chemo). In New Orleans, I put this to test in a new way via a period of dating a few people 10+ years older, all of whom had shitty poly politics and were manipulative around the age difference. All of this swirls through me as the song is being performed, combining with the most recent example: that I am due, if we stay on schedule, to have a major surgery in late June/early July (right after my 36th birthday) that will, in some ways, biologically make me 15 years older than I am. After a lifetime of looking up to queer elders a generation above me (the next night, I will return to LA to see Placebo play the Greek Theater), I am at last about to share a bit of my biological reality with them. It is absolutely terrifying to even think about this surgery, even as I find comfort in knowing that those before me have already gone through this. Fever Ray’s music reminds me that age, like gender, can also be a malleable force, can be a(n) (emotional) spectrum across which we move over time. In the darkness of the queer and trans night club, I feel less afraid.