Happy Bjorkday: Iceland’s Weirdest, Most Wonderful Export Turns 50
Ask most Americans what they think of Björk and a few images are bound to pop up: Kristen Wiig's impression of a loopy Icelandic sprite, quirky, out of tune with reality; a wacky fringe musician wearing a weird dress that looks like a dead swan; a mystic swathed in a gown with her eyes painted pink.
These are the major pop cultural imprints Björk has made on us, especially in the United States, in her 50 years. But behind each of these symbols is a truth that belies easy caricature. That sprite-like quality was one that stuck to her from her early days with the post-punk outliers the Sugarcubes through the height of her solo career. It was given rise by her physical size and the mischievous quality of her voice, a kind of sweet coating over the complexity that was constantly showing itself in the music and an easier access point for mainstream listeners who needed a box in which to place her.
Similarly, the "weirdness" – well, Björk is weird. Her music and her art are just weird enough to show a reflection on the very weird world that exists around us. But the "mystic" aspect – she's also been described as "celestial" and "otherworldly" – is perhaps actually damaging, not only to the artist but to our ability to comprehend the handmade nature of her art. "Magic" can mean beauty, but it can also be a convenient or romantic gloss for a well-honed artifice; in this case, it's an easy way to describe Björk's Icelandic vocal cadences and idiosyncratic arrangements, and one that avoids investigating those elements with a true critical eye.
Björk has demonstrated herself to be a distinctively cross-disciplinary artist, one driven not by literal magic, though her work does often generate the sense of it, who wisely uses collaborations with artists in a variety of media to push her own art forward. Her career has had a wide arc of discovery, from polymathic studio expeditions to overwhelming personal expressions, while also acting as a prism for some of our most reductive (and often sexist) cultural tendencies. So, on this occasion of Björk's 50th birthday, let's peel away the "magic" and take a look back at a career full of the most inventive music of the last 30 years, from an artist with an unmatched combination of canniness, creativity, and curatorial wisdom.
Björk's first brush with the music business, if you can call it that, shows just how isolated it was growing up in Iceland, a country with about the same population as Cincinnati. When she was 12, her teachers recorded her singing a school talent show and sent the tape to a local radio station -- actually, the local radio station, the only radio station in all of Iceland -- who liked the kid's voice so much, they helped her cut an album of flute-laden disco-folk. (You can listen to it on YouTube -- it's fun if you like listening to private press Icelandic disco-folk, and why wouldn't you?) In her teenage years, she threw herself into post-punk, and a promising start -- her band KUKL was discovered by Crass, who signed the band to their record label and them spirited off on an international tour that included an appearance at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark.
KUKL reformulated into the Sugarcubes, a more nuanced venue for Björk's shattering soprano and a window into her shifting list of influences, which had accumulated electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen, Joni Mitchell's experimental Hejira and Hissing of Summer Lawns records (which forecasted Björk's own jazz-influenced way of morphing and disfiguring pop melodies), and Brian Eno's pop science fair projects. The band's first English-language single was "Birthday," in 1987; Melody Maker made it their single of the week, and from there it went on an international chart-topping bonanza. The 'Cubes got a U.S. distribution deal with Elektra and even played Saturday Night Live.
The second Sugarcubes record didn't do as well, but Björk used her new cache to dig into the club music scene in London, where she met luminaries like 808 State's Graham Massey (whose love of the TR-808 drum machine predated Kanye's by a good 20 years), trip-hop founding fathers and Massive Attack collaborators Nellee Hooper and Tricky, and techno pioneer Mark Bell. All would become key Björk collaborators before the close of the decade; she enlisted Hooper first to help her shape her first proper solo album.
Debut, which hit the shelves in 1993 (a year after the Sugarcubes' third and final record), featured a stark, prayerful black and white portrait of Björk on the cover; inside, however, was a vast technicolor playground where she allowed herself, finally, to run amok. "Venus as a Boy" and "One Day" used her blossoming electronic sensibilities as a way to create more sonic space for her voice, which shifted from bulldozing howls and screams to searing high notes with the same abandon as the album itself switched genres. She was accompanied only by saxophones on "The Anchor Song," and only harp on "Like Someone in Love." "Human Behavior," one which she sang in Jackson Pollock-like strokes over booming timpani, was her first hit, and it introduced the world to her distinct pop success formula: A strange and beautiful video that catches listeners' eyes and allows the song to worm its way into their gut. The song gave Björk her first inroad on the charts -- especially in the U.K. -- as a solo artist.
Post was an expansion and refinement of Debut. "Possibly Maybe" was a late-night love letter, heart-stopping and swoony, that wore its trip-hop influence on its sleeve; "Army of Me," on the other hand, was a punch in the gut. Björk had perfected a lyrical style of collaging surreal imagery and snatches of dialogue to form a kind of alien view of the everyday world: "Uncertainly excites me, baby / Who knows what's going to happen? / Lottery or car crash / Or you'll join a cult," she sang on "Possibly Maybe." The album was bouncier, with even more dance rhythms -- in addition to Hooper, Tricky and Howie B came aboard as collaborators -- adding a drive to numbers like "Hyperballad." It's also the high-point of a period in which the "spritely" image seemed played up for ironic effect; in particular, the winking "It's Oh So Quiet" (with its intermittent ground-shaking screams) and its accompanying video by Spike Jonze.
The year 1996 proved to be a pivotal one. As Björk ascended the UK pop charts -- three singles from Post, "Army of Me," "It's Oh So Quiet," and "Hyperballad," had cracked the Top 10 -- she found herself hounded by paparazzi. On one occasion she was accosted by a British reporter as stepped off a transnational flight in Bangkok with her son Sindri; she tackled the reporter to the ground, giving her her first real news headline. (She explained later that the reporter had been stalking her and her son for four days; the reporter never pressed charges.)
Later that year, an even more ominous event: A deranged Florida fan named Ricardo Lopez mailed a bomb to Björk's London flat -- it was designed, horrifically, to spray acid in her face when she opened it. Scotland Yard intercepted it before it got to her on a tip from Florida police, who had found Lopez dead in his apartment with a gunshot wound to his head and 18 hours of tape that confessed his obsession. Lopez said he had thought of Björk as his daughter.
Björk recoiled, holed up, and then, in 1997, released her masterpiece. Perhaps anticipating the shopping list of descriptors critics would be obligated to slap onit, she called it Homogenic. Unlike Post, it achieved a singular, austere sound -- canyons of strings and rolling thunder beats complimenting melodies that see-saw and collapse like rock formations. The record decimated the more playful aspects of her image; in place of nearly-gleeful songs like "Hyperballad" and "It's Oh So Quiet" were songs like "Joga" and "Unravel," huge, cinemscopic pieces that interrogated the artist and everything around her. ("Emotional landscapes / They puzzle me / Confuse/ Can the riddle get solved?" she sings on "Joga.") The sound of Homogenic -- not to mention its cover, pushing the portrait theme to a place somewhere between high fashion and absurdity -- would, with exceptions, serve as a wayfinder for most of the music to follow.
That's not to say that Björk didn't continue to boldly push the music into new territory. She scored Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark in 1999, and starred in it, too; the film won the Palm d'Or at Cannes and even earned Björk an Oscar nomination. In fact, it was to the 2001 Oscars that Björk wore the infamous swan dress, explaining later: "I'm obsessed with swans... but as I said, everything about my new album is about winter and they're a white, sort of winter bird."
That album, Vespertine, dwells on a brand-new stage of life for Björk to wonder over: domesticity and partnership, the beginning of her relationship with the artist Matthew Barney. Its follow up, 2004's Medúlla, is similarly settled thematically and as expansive sonically -- remarkably so, in fact, because almost all of the sounds on the record are created vocally, by an assortment of different voices. Björk conducts a chorus that includes the yowlings, mewlings, moans, and deep-deep breaths of Mike Patton, Robert Wyatt and throat singer Tanya Tagaq; as an intersection of intrepidity, melodicism, arrangement and texture -- so important in Björk's music -- Medúlla is an absolute triumph. It's Björk's major symphony.
Somehow, in a rare moment where art and international taste aligned, Björk performed the gorgeous "Oceania" at the 2004 Olympics:
Björk's work came a little more infrequently now, perhaps to meet the demands of a quieter home life. Volta (2007) continued a streak of well-curated collaborations -- including Timbaland, Toumani Diabate, and Antony Hegarty -- and an enviable willingness to stretch and not always grasp; the record is fun for its range of sounds but misses the spark (and possibly the homogeneity -- of Björk's best work. Her appearance on the cover, in a panchromatic... duck suit? is a welcome return to the playfulness of the early years, as is the cover for 2009's Biophilia. That album, a more stripped-down, simple affair, had a decent excuse for its general lack of memorable moments: The album and a series of accompanying apps were used for an educational program in Iceland that sought to unite science and the arts. The perfect project for an artist whose music has always successfully announced itself via video, image and sound, often all at once.
Earlier this year, the Museum of Modern Art set out to capture that essence when organizers created an entire exhibition around Björk's work. But the album she released to coincide with the project, Vulnicura, was as earthen and concave, and as homogenic, as her last decade of work had been sonically adventurous. The album documented the recent ending of her relationship with Barney. Her lyrics, which once probed love and emotional curiously, seem to cross the floor with anxiety: "Maybe he will come out of this loving me / Maybe he won't / I'm not taming an animal / Maybe he will come out of this." She poured her confusion, sorrow, and ultimate healing into the process of the record. (As ever, her choice of collaborators -- here, producers Arca and the Haxan Cloak -- helped her build out the architecture she was blueprinting in her head.)
It is a work that should, like the rest of her vital works, dispel the aura of "magic" that has surrounded Björk for much of her career. On "Alarm Call," off Homogenic, Björk once sang of sitting on a mountaintop with a radio "with good batteries" in hand: "I'm no f--ing Buddhist, but this is enlightenment," she sang. We hope she can spend her 50th with a radio and some good batteries -- if there's any real magic in this world, that's it.