Björk: The History and Style of a Music Maverick
Photo by Juergen Teller.
I saw Björk once in a fish market in Reykjavík. She was buying fish. Observing Björk in her natural habitat does not normalise her. It's like the bit in Mars Attacks where the Martian spy disguises himself as a human woman—both are too otherworldly to quite pull off blending in. Björk was born different. It's not the case that all Icelanders have Inuit features—most of them look Aryan—so kids at school called her China Girl. She embraced her otherness, forging a path with it, never forsaking integrity or independence, never dressing down.
Twenty years ago this month, she released her first solo album. Her first as an adult, in any case: she's been troubling the music industry for almost 40 years, and has been distressing me for many of them. I generally regard myself as emotionally stable, but I stick Björk on and the lie disintegrates. Her emotions burst through her vocals, like her body can't contain her. If she's in my earphones I cry in supermarkets, my withered brain synapses glitching all too easily. It's musical telepathy—I feel what she's feeling. She's E.T., I'm Elliott. Or the other way round. Not sure.
She's worked with the greatest fashion designers, photographers, and producers. Time and again the likes of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry have directed her videos. She's said sex and music offer similarly instinctive experiences, and as if to maximize her pleasure, she's had relationships with many of her collaborators. She is everybody's muse. Here's why.
Björk was thrust into music school aged five and quickly became irritated. The “retro, constant Beethoven and Bach bollocks” bored her so much she'd regularly get called into the principal's office to debate what her problem was, and she'd instruct him how to run his school. According to her they'd both end up in tears.
She was offered an album deal after a teacher sent a recording of her singing to a radio station. Björk's mother said yes on her behalf. The resulting folk-disco collection (including this adorable cover of “The Fool On The Hill”), went platinum and made her a star. She was 11. Her mother designed the album cover. Her mother is a hippie. Can you tell?
Resenting being pushed into the pop spotlight, she turned down the chance to record a second album, started writing her own songs, and got work in a fish factory. After playing in a few punk groups (including one called Spit And Snot) she settled with the band Tappi Tíkarrass, Icelandic for “cork the bitch's ass.” Her little girl look was healthy feminist sarcasm—incredibly, she's 16 in the photo on the left.
She then went full-skank for Kukl. Signing to a label run by anarchist English band Crass, they toured Europe in a transit van, stopped bathing, lived on bread, and slept in squats. She replaced her locks with a ballsy buzzcut and in 1986 they performed on Icelandic TV with a heavily pregnant Björk baring her belly. This was too much for some viewers. Many complained; one old lady had a heart attack. Björk 1, Society 0.
Photo by Juergen Teller.
The defiantly anti-commercial Kukl then became breakout indie-pop darlings The Sugarcubes, introducing Björk to the world and paving the way for her solo rebirth. She'd been writing for herself for years, and when The Sugarcubes split she moved to London and made them public. Fittingly she sings on Debut like she's experiencing life for the first time, in the throes of love, full of wonder, and exploration. She also introduced the world to Iceland, her home planet. “I tip-toe down to the shore/Stand by the ocean/Make it roar at me/And I roar back,” she sang. And you knew she did. This is how those who can't stomach Björk still see her: as a bouncy sprite who sounds like a cat dying, and looks, with those tightly coiled mini-buns erupting all over her head, like something from The Phantom Menace.
Photo by: Nick Knight.
Debut's follow-up, the more dramatic Post, gave her her biggest commercial success and an uncomfortable level of fame. The magazine covers and high-profile relationships were alright, the airport meltdowns and letter bombs from suicidal stalkers, not so much. Björk moved to Málaga to flee the glare and concentrate on the music, ramping up the intensity. Homogenic's lush cinematic soundscapes gorgeously blend strings and electronica, her voice sometimes cracking under the emotional force. She killed off her kooky pixie image in one fell swoop by employing Alexander McQueen to design the cover: “I explained to him the person who wrote these songs —someone who was put into an impossible situation, so impossible that she had to become a warrior,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “A warrior who had to fight not with weapons, but with love.”
The Homogenic cover was the beginning of a magically nutballs partnership. McQueen directed the video for Homogenic's “Alarm Call,” in which Björk fondles a snake and turns into a piranha, and they continued to work together: he designed the stunning topless dress featured in “Pagan Poetry,” the feathered wonder she wore for Fashion Rocks, accessorized with her diamond-studded visage (top), and her somewhat impractical bell outfit for “Who Is It” (middle). Her performance of “Gloomy Sunday” at his funeral (bottom), in which she wore McQueen-created wooden wings and an ostrich-feather skirt, was a heartwrencher.
Photo by Inez Van Lamsweerde and Vindooh Matadin.
In 2000 Björk starred in Lars Von Trier's Dancer In The Dark, the saddest film in the world. She found it hard to separate herself from her unmercifully doomed character, which made for fraught filming: “I think I became her for two years. As far as I'm concerned, last summer I killed a man,” she said a year later. Her relationship with Lars did not develop quite as well as her one with McQueen: she said he had scant regard for her psychological wellbeing and destroyed her soul. Legend has it she got so upset she ate her cardigan.
After the film Björk retreated to Iceland to make Vespertine. An introverted ode to domestic bliss and her newfound love with artist Matthew Barney, its smallness is immense, and it's incredibly intimate. “Who would have known/That a boy like him/Would have entered me lightly/Restoring my blisses,” she sang on “Cocoon,” stripping off for the promo. Meanwhile the animated sex in the "Pagan Poetry" video is rumoured to be DV footage she shot of herself and Barney. The whole Vespertine project was basically one big lovegasm.
The swan dress (by Marjan Pejoski) she wore on the cover designed to reflect Vespertine's wintery theme, was the same one she wore for the 2001 Oscars, where she also, casually, laid an egg on the red carpet. “It's just a dress,” said Björk.
In 2004 Björk was peddling her Medúlla album, which consisted predominantly of vocals, the supporting beatboxing and grunting thanks to the likes of Rahzel and Mike Patton. A special mention must go out to her hairstylist, who was perhaps initially employed as a master wicker-weaver or yarn-tamer. He or she coaxed some remarkable shapes out of Björk's tresses. (A look most recently employed by M.I.A.). Her hair looks like Narnia.
Medúlla climaxed with “Triumph Of A Heart,” for which Spike Jonze directed this video of Björk running away from her cat-husband to get drunk.
Look at crazy shaman Björk. Her promo photoshoots have always been for the purpose of communicating each album's emotional state, and Volta's tribal cacophony was a reaction to Medúlla's rhythmic dearth. She brought in Timbaland for some beats—although he only had a few hours to spare, which meant she could take the results of their improvisation “and edit the f**k out of them.” She was put on the naughty step by both Serbian and Chinese authorities after on stage support for, respectively, Kosovo independence and freedom of Tibet during Volta's shouty rave anthem “Declare Independence.”
“This is the last time I do something this hooligan,” she said after Volta's shenanigans, and stripped right back for the generally minimalist Biophilia, which she composed on a touchscreen tablet. She says the album is about patterns and structures, but she's quite clearly bored of the old verse-chorus-verse. Biophilia's amorphous noodlings make her previous output sound like Carly Rae Jepsen. The teased out, auburn wig is somewhat less scaled back.
Here's Björk at Bonnaroo in June. Her stage attire seemingly constructed from the delicate bodies of luminous jellyfish, while her headpiece is definitely a sea urchin. I think we can all agree that she's growing old gracefully. Any remotely kooky female singer is invariably compared to Björk, just as those before her were compared to Kate Bush. People like to compare female singers to other female singers. It's all nonsense. Nobody sounds like Björk. What's more interesting is who she's influenced in terms of spirit, creativity, and innovation: Thom Yorke, Wayne Coyne, Justin Vernon, and RZA all bow at her altar. For all her perceived affectations, Björk has never faked anything: she means it all. She'll always sound—and look —like the future.
If you see a man in the fresh fruit aisle getting emotional with a grapefruit, don't worry, it's just Alex listening to Bjork. He also wrote this amazing history of Prince. He's on Twitter - @MrGodfrey.
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