THE BEGINNING

Austin Laike went to Primavera Sound to watch The Knife mime. He was fine with it.

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Ever since it’s been laid to tape, people have mimed to music. I do it at weddings; mainstream pop stars become adept at it between dance class and promo boot camp; in no time at all Top Of The Pops insisted on it. In the world of drag acts, the best lip-sync artist is queen, but it’s not that way in alternative music, where ability to play live, or at least some concerted effort to, ensures realness.

12 May 2013: The Knife challenge this notion as they unveil their new conceptual show at The Roundhouse, Camden, London – a performance dubbed 40% live music, 60% interpretive dance by a generous few; an optimistic figure on the live side. It took just three songs for the Swedish duo to confirm the audience’s suspicions that they might not be doing too much playing up there, as instruments were cleared from the stage altogether but the music continued to play. Nine silhouetted figures danced around, presumably two of them Karin and Olof Dreijer, although this was never wholeheartedly confirmed. Feeling duped, a lot of the crowd were pretty pissed off; a large chunk left well before the end.

Two weeks later, the band repeated the trick at Primavera Sound, with one slight alteration – for one track Karin Dreijer would sit at a piano and play, clearly showing her face to assure us that The Knife were at least with us. Then more dancing. It worked for a part, although most things do at 4am in Barcelona, and that’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of detractors who still felt like the con was on.

Few people saw the humour in what The Knife were doing; fewer still appreciated the concept behind it of dethroning the popstar – the band’s refusal to step forward and have all eyes on them when their accompanying dancers could move just as well, or better, even. The routines themselves were, after all, group efforts. For the thought behind the performance, though, it was its clear sense of childish fun that challenged cries of fraud the most. It was a giddy show to dance to as much as it was one to ponder and decode. It was a laugh. Where the music was coming from wasn’t really the point. In that sense, it reminded me of many other electronic shows I’ve been to, where the ‘live’ aspect of the routine is rarely pulled into question as thousands of people go mental to songs they love played on speakers that would destroy their houses. The Knife simply added an extra element to many other dance setups (an expressionistic one that is itself unquestionably live), which has ended up highlighting how synthetic the backing track is. Miming their instruments for the opening numbers hasn’t helped in that regard either, yet had they pressed play from behind a tabletop of wires and flashing LEDs – had they openly billed their new show as a serious, po-faced dance set – the authenticity and origin of the sound probably wouldn’t have been challenged at all.

Of course when you pay to see some live music, you expect just that, but it’s as if fans of The Knife forgot what band they’d invested in – a conscientious and political group, but an experimental, avant-garde one, too. Presumably, Bjork shows don’t usually end with people complaining that it was a bit weird. And while many believed to have been cheated by The Knife, you’ve got to ask if a duo who’ve taken seven years to write a new album as progressive as ‘Shaking The Habitual’ would really be so careless when presenting that work to the world.

Miming is like autotune – inexcusable if it’s done on the sly. But just as Drake and T Pain robo-gurgle with audacious flare, The Knife’s current live show makes no real attempt to fool us. Rather it blatantly pokes fun at live music in general – the odd ritual of watching a band recreate our favourite records in the dark as accurately as possible – while concerning itself more with interpretive dance than the music soundtracking the twirling bodies onstage. That, it seems, is a hard sell for music fans, harder than The Knife could have expected, but it’s safe to say that the joke was never on us.

MIME WATCH: Our top 3 Lip-Syncing videos

As if the plot of ‘Trapped In The Closet’ wasn’t hard enough to follow, R Kelly insisting on taking his mental breakdown to the live stage of the VMAs had him playing all the parts (gay lovers Rufus and Chuck, some cow called Cathy and the bloke in the cupboard) in a suit from Jacamo. Piling on the mad, the backing track frequently runs away from him as he throws pillows around the stage and eventually joins in miming again, straight-faced to his deranged credit. Rufus goes back to Cathy in the end. I know, crazy, right?

You’re on prime time television with your band; Jude Law’s there and introduces you. Your backing track plays but it’s the wrong song so it’s quickly dipped down again. What do you do? What you don’t do is an Irish jig as your band style it out, wander off stage and marry Pete Wentz! That was a bad idea, Ashlee, but not as bad as blaming your band at the end of the show. Jude looked sad.

Dave Grohl took performing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on Top Of The Pops very seriously indeed – it looks like he’s actually playing. Meanwhile, Kurt Cobain (providing the only live element of the performance) delivered his lyrics like a sleazy cruise ship compare, changing the opening line to “Load up on drugs/Kill your friends”. Best of all is Krist Novoselic’s take on mime – he just repeatedly throws his bass guitar in the air. Take that, The Man! (Nirvana went on to sell 10 billion records).

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