Ritualistic Embodiment in Fever Ray's "When I Grow Up"

Curator's Note

Indie producer Fever Ray is known for esoteric lyrics and stunningly dark imagery. From the music video for “If I Had a Heart,” reminiscent of the Jonestown massacre, to her appearance receiving a P3 Guld award, wearing a mask allegedly simulating acid burns as a form of protest, Fever Ray’s artistry is influenced by the spectacularly macabre. One example is the video for “When I Grow Up,” in which a young woman wearing a pastiche of symbols stands on a diving board of a pool. Covered in face paint, feathers, fabrics, symbols such as eyes on her palms, &c., she performs a dance that, though angular and frenetic, emphasizes the rhythm of the song as her movements become increasingly fluid (compare 1:27 to 2:30). The image is that of feral pagan juxtaposed with domestic. Throughout the video, we get glimpses from inside the house (e.g. 0:18, 2:39) and from below the surface of the pool (e.g. 0:43, 3:11), the camera angle offering an almost voyeuristic perspective, as if this dance is the natural and the domestic is intrusion.

Though the Gaze is pervasive, the performance becomes linked to the perspective of the disembodied aqueous eye. The woman bites her finger and then lets a drop of water, saliva, or (symbolically) blood drip down into the pool (2:09). Regardless of what it is, there is an exchange of body for a vague something: it isn’t until this drop hits the surface that the dance becomes significantly more fluid and the water more closely linked to the ritualistic movements. However, the body is not subjected to a loss of agency in this exchange. Through the ritual, the woman has assumed control of whatever is in the water, each shift of the body causing the water to burst into geysers (2:49). If the water is an extension of the fluvial “body” that is pure perspective (i.e. an iteration of the Gaze), this woman’s dance has direct control over it. The purpose of ritual for this figure, then, is not simply using the body, but rather finding new means of embodiment through symbolic extension. In this way, the ritual subverts the Gaze, subjecting it to the body rather than the other way around, allowing the woman to control it instead of being subjected to it.


This was an interesting video. I wonder if there's a way to approach the symbiosis between ritual and the natural elements via Native American dancing (as a way to call forth the elements, talk to the gods, show respect for life forces) - which I know little to nothing about. It seems like many of the elements of pastiche the actress/singer displays here harness that type of connection to animistic culture. And, I wonder if Guy Debord's theory of the spectacle gives some perspective on the form here - video, meant to be mass distributed for promoting the music. "a spectacle is generally understood as a “person or thing exhibited to, or set before, the public gaze as an object either (a) of curiosity or contempt, or (b) of marvel or admiration.” Such an exhibition is intended to form an “impressive or interesting show or entertainment for those viewing it.” Certainly applies to the outer framework - I wonder if that clouds the artist/director's intention of the gaze. I guess the medium problematizes the ritual and the gaze, by nesting potential perspectives?

That's an interesting point about spectacle. It's almost a Catch-22, isn't it? It reminds me a bit of Charles Russell's "The Context of the Concept," in which he argues that there really is no escape from context. We are always already caught up in some sort of context and even resistance/opposition to the context is coded by it. So on the one hand, I think it's as Debord says: this is spectacle. It's a mass market music video. On the other, by subjecting the Gaze to subversion in a video that is meant for mass viewership, it still subverts (or at least interrogates) the larger Gaze of the viewing culture. It's a give and take: as you say, "the medium problematizes the ritual and the gaze," and vice versa. I think it ultimately subjects the medium itself to the same criticism by using the selfsame medium to express a message against it.

One thing that strikes me about the ways in which we both discuss and utilize native ritual in popular culture is that the practices themselves are often occulted. One thing which causes a large amount of controversy within Native American communities is the practice of making their culture into a spectacle at all, and in fact some religious ceremonies are not performed in front of non-natives at all. The religions themselves are occulted from the eyes of those who have systemically oppressed them. It seems to me that Fever Ray is playing around in this milieu in this video, though of course perhaps it is correct to point toward a generalization of these reference points within native cultures. In particular, I wonder how the legacy of occultation of ritual plays into the relationship between Swedish and Norwegian peoples and the Sami people of the far north, the original tribal inhabitants of those Scandinavian lands. I know that Norway in particular has forced some of the same strictures historically against the Sami as the U.S., and knowing how political (in roundabout ways) Karin Dreijer Andersson is in her art, I wonder if this plays a role in the video for "When I Grow Up" as well. It of course plays well and meaningfully (as we can see in Heather's comment above) across national borders, but it's something to ponder, I think, with our object being "media" herein, and in this instance, its ability to reveal something which has heretofore been occulted in some way for very particular reasons, whether the object in question is real or imagined. Thinking on the pair of your posts together, I like to think that Fever Ray's entire album is playing on the notion of occult history within music itself, including the use of layered sounds, multiple vocal tracks, and chthonic tonality to evoke an otherworldly existence. Typically this existence has been hinted to in the claims of Satanic verses and prayers in reverse-playback of LPs and cover art for rock 'n' roll bands, as well as the many occult histories of music itself, including Robert Johnson's rather infamous deal with the Devil. I'm wondering how this ties into the "spectacle" aspect. Do you see it as playing a separate part in how we view the ways gazing at the body works in this video? Are there counter-examples in similar videographies of pop artists?

I definitely think that Karin Dreijer Andersson is playing with the "occulting process," so to speak. At some point in the video, there's a man looking from the house and watching the ritual (2:59). There's the juxtaposition of domestic and pagan again, suggesting that there's intrusion in the ritual, and perhaps that's the point. As you note about the Sami people and Norwegian/Swedish culture, there seems to be a similar dynamic playing out here. This form of ritual is inherently spectacular, and the video is almost voyeuristic, possibly as a method of criticizing those entering into the space without welcome. It’s rather interesting that we are let into the process, but never the result in a way. The video for “If I Had a Heart” seems to be the aftermath of a massacre. The one for “Stranger than Kindness” (her Nick Cave cover) features a crystalline object emitting light in a foggy house, one that is moved with a specific (yet unclear) end, also resulting in a very subtle death at the end. Only the insider will know the purpose of the ritual intent. I’m trying to think of any example that answers your question about pop/counterexamples, but everything I come up with emphasizes body. Interestingly, reading your characterization reminded me of another Scandinavian band, Norwegian indiepop group Casiokids, whose music videos tend towards cultish fascination. "Det haster!" depicts a cult centered on stuffed animals; "En vill hest" features a presumably cursed statuette. What I find interesting is that all of these instances emphasize body. In "Det haster!," a young man slices his arm and drips blood on a Moomin doll. In "En vill hest," another young man performs an exercise routine in front of a mirror while the house begins to burn, presumably because of the statuette. I think it's important that we have these exchanges of body linked to spectacle as ritual is often about gesture and signification. Even if occulted from the Gaze, there is often a link between bodily performance and ritual. The body and gesture signify something aside from/beside language as an extension into some other realm.

I'm not overly familiar with Fever Ray, but I love the detailing of occult history going on here. I love the way the DeBordian spectacle is leveraged for performance. I think that might be most of Rock as genre--at least from the glam days forward though. Thanks for the thoughts. I'll have to muse on them some more.

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