Read an Excerpt
In which the narrator explains the whole "e-Björk" concept, and falls in love with a sound
Björk Gudmundsdóttir was about twenty years into her career before I liked her. This places me somewhere in between the two groups of people most likely to be reading these words: those of you who heard about the numerous awards and award nominations for her role in the film Dancer in the Dark promptly said to yourselves, "What is this thing called Björk? And why is she wearing a swan?" and conducted the appropriate web searches; and those of you who are Björkophiles, collectors of her every white-label remix and guest vocal appearance, connoisseurs of all things Björk-even e-books by comparative greenhorns.
This is not a biography. No interviews were conducted especially for it, no new information worth bragging about is revealed, long blocks of time and pieces of work (those excruciatingly jaunty Sugarcubes tracks) are completely skipped over. An excellent, detailed, thoughtful overview of the artist's life up until 1996 has already been presented by English journalist Martin Aston in the book Björkgraphy. Although it is somewhat out of date and sadly out of print, if that's the kind of thing you're looking for, then this is another perfect illustration of why AmazonNoble.com will never replace the beautifully musty haven of used bookstores. Turn off the computer and dust off those dustjackets!
This is something else: yes, a new hyped new media new technology with a cute marketing name that makes e-fficient, e-conomic use of that ubiquitous electronic-age, neologism-friendly, monosyllabic prefix-ladies and gentlemen, an e-book. I think of it as an endeavor as retro as techno (a very Björkian balance, by the way: see E-pisode 3), the resuscitation and revitalization of a genre that had become ghettoized as the sole province of (gasp) scholarly types, the return of the thumbsucker special: an e-ssay. My say, on why a woman-child from the island nation of Iceland is the most interesting, the most important, the most innovative, and the most engaging musical star of our precipitous, capricious times.
If you don't know a thing about Björk except her gutbucket performance in Dancer in the Dark, then hopefully this piece of writing will show you the wild landscape of her pop, fashion, and moving-image forest without knocking you out on the pesky trees of detail. If you know everything about Björk, then maybe this will change your mind: put her into perspectives you hadn't thought of, make you reevaluate aspects of her life you had taken for granted, give you some arguments with which to justify your obsession to concerned parents-make you more crazy about her than ever.
It may have taken me twenty years, but I'm a fan-a skeptical critic converted by music so spectacularly intimate, it feels like breath. I think of "Bachelorette," a love song from the 1997 album Homogenic that has a tango bassline and Puccini-worthy lyrics of passion (by Icelandic poet Sjón), and it instantly lodges in my throat, residing midway between pulmonary central and nerve headquarters, until I want to exhale it out or suck its oxygen in from scalp to toe. A song can inhabit you, until you expel it in voice or let it send you spinning-sing or dance along.
In August 1997 I interviewed Björk for a cover story for the music magazine Request, published when Homogenic was "released," as the saying goes (as if it had been held captive). I was at that point at least curious and respectful of her work, having gotten over my early annoyance at the bewitchingly pedophilic appeal of her childlike manner. And I was growing more in love with Homogenic with each headphones listen as my plane flew into Iceland. My advance copy of the album (ultimate rock-crit perk) had arrived the same day I took off from Minneapolis, and so I spent the flight cramming to understand her.
Music can mark time, and vice versa. The process can be as simple as Big Chill nostalgia: We like a song because we heard it when we were falling in love, or having a good time at a party, or lost in delirium on the dance floor. When we hear the song later, even years later, it takes us back to those memories: It's a trigger, a madeleine, a remembrance of flings past. Or the connection can be more serpentine. Events and melodies can influence each other, the tone of a song becomes the color of our experience, we adjust the pace of our bodies to the rhythm that repeats itself in our head, then suddenly we're soaring up the road in a burst of strings or crashing like cymbals into bed.
What do I mean by "we," kemosabe? I certainly don't intend it as the royal we. I suppose I'm hoping it's a communal "we," that I'm describing a basic human experience, that music really is the universal language. Or maybe I'm just speaking for my tribe-the "certain brand of people," including herself, that Björk told Flaunt magazine she was defending with her portrayal of Selma in Dancer in the Dark: one of those "people who hears music all the time in their head, from like, one year old-they may be with ten other people but all they're hearing is this kind of soundtrack."
Homogenic quickly became part of my soundtrack, beginning on the plane as it wheeled over the Arctic and I stared out the window at Greenland's white, white glaciers reflected in blue, blue waters, a vision from a million TV screens that was even more impressively Technicolor in real life, a moving landscape being scored for me by Björk's equally vivid and dramatic soundscapes. This was a repeat of a primal experience for me: Ever since I was a kid riding in a car on cross-country summer vacations, I've sat looking out of windows with songs in my head, musical daydreaming between destinations. I've loved music ever since I can remember; say three sentences to me and I'll find a song lyric in them, I'm that "certain brand of people."
In 1997, musical daydreaming was something I repeated over and over, traveling out of my Manhattan home a dozen times in as many months. The year had started with an uprooting: I had moved to Florence to be with my husband, only to have him kick me out two weeks later. Temporarily homeless, I traipsed from Belize to Michigan to L.A. to Reykjavík, learning to reanchor myself to the music in my head wherever my hat found itself.
So the opening lines of Homogenic struck a nerve: "If travel is searching / and home has been found / I'm not stopping," Björk sings in a tremulous whisper over a rippling electronic drum and warbling, synthesized strings. "Hunter" blends the aching live sound of the Icelandic String Octet (orchestrated by Eumir Deodato, the Brazilian Quincy Jones, best known for the early-seventies hit "2001: A Space Odyssey"), Yasuhiro "Coba" Kobayashi's mournful accordion, and stuttering computer beats and beeps programmed by Brit brainiac Mark Bell. Tying the whole shebang together is Björk's vocal: full of reverberating menace and trepidation on the verses, then bursting into full-throated confession, layers of her voice pitching next to each other then cascading together. The music swells like stormy waves, then eases back, but each crash is a little more threatening, each ebb more fragile, until the song fades out uncertainly, a threat not delivered but not rescinded either, not stopping. The lyrics hint at a failed relationship; it's not clear if the singer is hunting for someone new, or someone old. The rest of the album, you're not sure if you're in her sights.
I'd never heard anything like it, really. The production showed Björk's steeping in the cutting edge of electronic dance-music culture, her embrace of techno futurism, her time spent pulling all-nighters in London clubs. But the emotion was ancient, deeply human-the voice of what hippie types like to call "an old soul." It was a song I instantly wanted to share with my most avant-garde friends and my showtune-loving mother. Like its multinational, multigenerational players, it was music that seemed impossible to tribalize, to fit into a tidy section at the record store-or, lord help us, an American radio format. "I think my music is world music," Björk told me later that day in a café in Reykjavík. "But I'd be lying if I wouldn't say I'm being ironic about it," she added, smiling her "I'm light-years ahead of you" imp smile.
Music critics, like myself, are infamous for our penchant for categories. We tend to confuse our job with zoologists', to want to make sense of the world by organizing taxonomies, then slotting everything into its accorded genus and species. We think this will help people understand the mysterious appeal of music. We're often right. But sometimes we forget that people want to appreciate, not destroy, the mystery. Sometimes we replace description with conscription, variations with labels, people with stereotypes.
Up until Homogenic, I myself had used the prevalent critical category for Björk's uncategorizable amalgam of styles: "quirky."
There was nothing quirky about "Hunter."
In which the narrator and our heroine play queen of the mountain
Not surprisingly for an artist who hails from a volcanic island nation, two of Björk's best songs are about making pilgrimages up mountaintops. In the first, a fantasy of renunciation called "Hyper-ballad," from her 1995 album, Post, she's Moses: Every day, she goes to the cliff and hurls objects over the edge- car parts, bottles, cutlery. On occasion, she envisions throwing herself off: "Imagine what my body would sound like / slamming against those rocks." Having thus unburdened herself, she can go about the business of having a relationship.
In "Alarm Call," a song on Homogenic, she goes to the mountaintop not to denounce human foibles, but to place a boom box. From that stereo, Björk promises to broadcast music that will "free the human race from suffering." A tall order, but as the song unfolds-a bubbling mix of synthesizer exclamations and belted aphorisms-I realize, if anyone can do it, Björk can.
This may come as a surprise to musicians who have suffered the slings and arrows of a bad review, but the calling of a critic is not necessarily different from that of an artist. Some pundits may see themselves up there decreeing commandments, but I prefer Björk's later mission: to spread the good word of good music. This is the calling that keeps the music critic (arguably, a contradiction in terms) from feeling like a killjoy-that makes her feel the opposite, a breedjoy. Music is a gift, an offering to the world, and I want to offer you Björk, to take her up on the mountaintop, turn the volume to 11, let that mix of strings, beats, and volcanic voice disseminate over the valley, let you hear her without the everyday baggage of car parts and cutlery.
But having yet to find a mountaintop with the proper acoustics, I'm plugging into the Internet.
In which our heroine discusses "outrageous change"
In lieu of reciting her whole life story, here are some telling facts and anecdotes, signposts for discovery of this thing called Björk:
* She had her first hit single in Iceland at age eleven, when-as a child prodigy encouraged by her mother-she recorded a self-titled debut album of pop covers, traditional Icelandic songs, and one instrumental composition of her own.
* When she was thirteen, she shaved off her eyebrows and played drums in an all-girl punk band named Spit & Snot. (Try that, Britney.) "We believed boys are crap, they're only good for shagging," she told me.
* When her band Kukl [www.southern.com/southern/band/KUKLL] played on Icelandic TV, Björk appeared with eyebrows shaved and pregnant stomach bared. At least one viewer suffered a heart attack.
* She gave birth to her son, Sindri, when she was nineteen. "Because I was brought up around loads of kids with a massive family-where the attitude was you get pregnant, you put it under your arm, and you keep on doing what you're doing-I never thought having a kid was a big deal."
* She got a black tattoo on her arm in 1981; it's an Icelandic compass, taken from Viking mythology. A close friend has the same tattoo. "We didn't have to talk, we were so in tune."
* The Sugarcubes, her first international hit band, evolved out of a cooperative of Dada-inspired poets and artists named Medusa.
* In Britain, she remains signed to the same independent label, One Little Indian, that the Sugarcubes first signed with in 1987.
* She is Europe's most renowned female pop star of the past decade-arguably, its brightest star of any gender.
* The British tabloids have long tracked her every liaison with other artists (Tricky, Goldie, Howie B, Stéphane Sednaoui, and so on).
* She's a futuristic pop artist who has toured with such old-fashioned instruments as harpsichord and accordion.
* She made global headlines in 1996, when she physically attacked a TV reporter in Bangkok's airport-while the cameras were rolling.
* After being awarded Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance in Dancer in the Dark, she announced she was giving up acting.
* She is not nearly as winningly daft as she often seems (or is portrayed).
Björk is an actress. At a press conference for Dancer in the Dark at the New York Film Festival on September 20, 2000, a male audience member launched into a long congratulatory speech in which, among other accolades, he likened Björk's presence there to the appearance a year earlier of Hillary Swank (who went on to win an Oscar for her role in Boys Don't Cry). Björk quickly hunkered up to the mike, a strange smile on her face. "Who's Hillary Swank?" she asked, her thick eyebrows an arrow, a picture of naïveté.
Björk is, in fact, smart and mischievous. "She claims she's not an actress, but she certainly knows how to create a persona," observes New York City-based avant-garde harpist Zeena Parkins, with whom Björk collaborated on her 2001 release Vespertine. "This is a woman who knows how to use a camera." Björk's naïve act is classic feminine guile: She knows the power of seeming accommodating to win her way, is happy to be a tabula rasa for sycophants rather than an uppity bitch-but, as Dancer director Lars von Trier learned all too well when she walked off the film set one weekend, she is in the end always willing to assert herself. Her greatest gift may be trust; woe to he who doesn't return the offer.