Wednesday, January 30, 2013


Sound Familiar?
“Human Behaviour,” “It’s Oh So Quiet,” “All Is Full of Love”

Who Is She?
An Icelandic pixie with a musical style as eclectic as her fashion choices.

Björk’s musical career began at the tender age of 11 in her hometown of Reykjavík, Iceland. One of her piano instructors sent a recording of Björk singing Tina Charles’ “I Love to Love” to the only radio station in Iceland. Once a label rep from Fálkinn Records heard it, he immediately offered our Icelandic darling a record contract and her first* album, Björk, dropped in 1977 (*this album is considered juvenilia, or musical work produced during the artist’s youth, which doesn’t usually see the light of day until after the artist has become well known for later works).

Instead of riding the child prodigy train all the way to the bank, Björk did what most teenagers tend to do: she got angsty and started a punk band. At 14, she formed the all-girl punk band Spit and Snot, then later formed the jazz fusion group Exodus (she was eclectic even as a youngster). Björk graduated music school in 1980 and formed yet another band the following year called Tappi Tíkarrass (which literally means “Cork the Bitch’s Ass” in Icelandic).

In 1986, Björk formed the Icelandic alternative band The Sugarcubes. The band received both critical and popular international acclaim until its disbandment in 1992.

Once The Sugarcubes broke up, Björk moved to London to start a solo career. Her first solo single, “Human Behaviour,” was an international dance hit. Debut, her first (aptly-titled) solo album, was released in 1993 to positive reviews.

Post, released two years later, built on Debut’s dance-pop aesthetic, adding big band and trip-hop sounds. Spin, Rolling Stone and Pitchfork regard the album as one of the best of the ‘90s (and so do I).

In 1997, Björk shifted her image from sweet pixie pop girl to icy abstract queen with Homogenic (this blogger’s favorite Björk album). The album has a conceptual focus on Iceland. Björk reportedly wanted it to sound like “rough volcanoes with soft moss growing all over it.” And you know what? That’s kind of what it sounds like.

(Fun fact: In an interview with Spin, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke professed his undying love for the song “Unravel” from Homogenic. He loved it so much that he made Radiohead do a cover of it.)

Homogenic is also famous for the single “All Is Full of Love” and its accompanying music video, which features two Björk robots getting intimate. This video really doesn’t strike me as odd since it was directed by Chris Cunningham (you know, that guy who directed one of the most frightening music videos of all time).

Where Is She Now?
Still making intriguing musical choices (including an iPad app album).

Björk briefly took a detour into acting in 2000, starring in Lars von Trier’s musical drama Dancer in the Dark. The song “I’ve Seen It All,” performed by Björk and Thom Yorke (or BjörkYorke, if you will), was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song.

Her fourth studio album, 2001’s Vespertine, dropped the big beats of its predecessors in favor of a more intimate sound. The lyrics were far more personal, and so were the videos.

The video for "Pagan Poetry" caused a bit of controversy. It featured images of graphic piercings, Björk’s exposed nipples and a simulated blowjob. Even though it was heavily edited by MTV, the video was rarely shown.

(Fun fact: The same year Vespertine was released, Björk showed up to the 73rd Annual Academy Awards in her now infamous swan dress. The garment also appears on the Vespertine album cover.)

In 2004, Björk released an almost entirely vocal-based album called Medúlla. It featured the vocal talents of throat singer Tagaq, beatboxers Rahzel and Dokaka, avant-rocker Mike Patton, Soft Machine drummer/singer Robert Wyatt and a few different choirs. The most radio friendly single, “Triumph of a Heart,” is probably one of best examples of a song entirely dedicated to beatboxing. Also, check out the crazy video.

(Fun fact: Björk performed the song "Oceania" at the Opening Ceremony of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. During her performance, the dress she was wearing unfurled to reveal a 10,000 square foot map of the world.)

Björk didn’t tour to promote Medúlla. Instead, she went right back to the studio to record Volta, released in 2007. An 18-month tour followed, after which Björk took a few years off to work on the massive project that is Biophilia.

Biophilia, released in 2011, is an album that combines music with technological innovation, science, nature and an iPad. The entire album is a series of interactive iPad apps that represent the scientific and natural ideas behind each song (for example, the app for the song “Virus” is a game where the goal is to stop a destructive relationship between a virus and a cell). Honestly, this isn’t the weirdest thing Björk’s ever done.

(Fun fact: Biophilia was partly composed on an iPad, and features musical instruments specifically designed for the album.)

But Why Björk?
She recently started a Kickstarter campaign to convert the Biophilia iPad apps for use with Android and Windows 8. Why is this important? Well, this is part of an educational project that teaches children all over the world about music and science. Pretty neat, if you ask me.

What Does Sam Think?
I think Björk is a magical being from beyond this earthly realm. How else could she create all this music that sounds like it came from outer space?

But seriously, this woman is so incredibly talented. I do think a lot of her music is an acquired taste, but you have to respect her originality.

When discussing the prominent female figures in music (especially those who “push the envelope”), the conversation usually turns to the Madonna vs. Lady Gaga debate. You can argue about those two all you want. I’m just going to sit here in my comfortable corner and side with Björk. Why? I’ll tell you why.

She’s experimented with so many different genres over the years, yet she’s maintained a signature sound. Her live shows are incredible. She did the weird fashion statement thing prior to Gaga (and better). She doesn’t rely on “sexy girl stereotypes” in her videos or performances. And she’s more interested in creating art than becoming a celebrity caricature. You could probably pair her with PJ Harvey, Fiona Apple and Tori Amos in the category of “Women Who Don’t Give a Fuck.”

So what makes Björk’s music listenable (or unlistenable to some people)? Her first two albums are probably the most accessible since they’re considered dance pop. Homogenic is where she starts to lose some people (perhaps because of the “All Is Full of Love” video). By the time you get to Medúlla, you kind of feel like you’re listening to a weird experiment.

But if you just put aside your preferences for a second, you might find that you really dig all the crazy noises she makes.  

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

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