Although she's known for making a big splash, Björk earns her stripes one at a time in the world of philanthropy.
The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 prompted a massive outpouring of support from organizations and individuals from around the world. To date, foreign fiscal contributions total in the billions of dollars, both delivered and pledged. While raw numbers look appealing on paper, the reality is that such a large-scale effort requires complex and detailed organization far beyond handouts. Thus, the distribution of funds has been slow to reach many of the ravaged regions; for example, the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Board of Aceh and Nias, Indonesia, recently announced that while foreign NGOs and organizations like the UN continue to lead relief efforts in the area, the Board itself has yet to receive any tsunami relief funds. While foreign aid continues to be critical, the affected areas have had few opportunities to manage its own relief and reconstruction.
This latest juncture emphasizes the necessary and delicate shift towards domestic/self-sustainability, but also underscores for the PopMatters audience the importance of foreign awareness. If, as Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer emphasizes, the need for responsible spending far outweighs that of expedition -- "It won't take weeks, it won't take months, it will take years," he says -- then the need for educated extra-territorial support is that much more crucial. In other words, if you're breakin' bread, know where it's goin'.
One of the latest responses to the tsunami crisis is Björk's charity record for UNICEF Army of Me, a collection of covers and remixes of her über-self-affirmation anthem. It is a mixed bag in both the creative and philanthropic sense. Army fulfills Björk's meta artistic sensibilities by allowing her (with the help of song co-writer Graham Massey, who helped pare the 600-plus submissions down to 20 selections) to spotlight amateurs and professionals, rabid fans and limelight-seekers, headbangers and head-nodders to comment on and for Björk. Finalists reflect the full scope of the benefactor's character: the blunt and direct approach of Interzone, with its unsubtle knuckleheaded nonsense fully embracing the song's aggressive bass; the quiet and restrained approach of Grisbi, with its Smokey and Miho-like quality contrasting the song's assertive imagery; and the intrigue and innovation of Frej (of Slagsmålsklubben), Joelsson (of Häxor & Porr) and Lille Tango (of 50 Hertz), with their fusion of the original's melody and grit into a Mode-OMD electro noise wash; and these are just the first three tracks. In this manner, each selection expresses that which Björk could have expressed, but chose not to. Certainly, there are standouts. Emboldened by the original's apocalyptic tone and ego-run-amok imagery, Patrick Wolf channels everything from operatic Nomi-isms to the baroque, crafting a clanging glitch-minuet. Alfredo Lietro, of the VivaJacuzzi collective, goes for a straightforward mash-up by filtering Björk's lyrics through a computer program for people with diminished vision and chops the results up over Soft Pink Truth's (Drew Daniel of Matmos) "Make Up" beat; the final draft subtly slows down SPT's driving promofunk enough to turn the music into an industrial warehouse of glitter and butt floss, which is a fine counterpoint to the sterile and static-y polyrhythmic vocals. However, on the whole, the bulk of these reenactments are entertaining on their individual merits, but hardly transcendental. Instead, the eclecticism of the art at most reflects Björk's weltanschauung, an appropriate message of unity at a time of its critical need, but little else.
While these magnanimous morals convinced Björk to apply her celebrity to charity in an attempt to raise "£250,000 within the first 10 days of the record's release", the revenue in fact has an ambiguous purpose. Though prompted by the tsunami crisis, Army's proceeds go to UNICEF's "emergency work with children around the world", not specifically the tsunami-affected regions. Therefore, Army's largest claim is not the £250,000, but on the publicity surrounding the crisis to push both Björk and UNICEF's respective agendas. Which is hardly an insidious deed, considering the creative and humanitarian aid that they provide. However, the record trips because it lacks an explicit connection with the project's philanthropic goals. Army makes little effort to embed its audience in its context, nor does it offer anything in the way of sustainable solutions, because no information or message specific to the crisis or UNICEF is included; in fact, the organization's presence amounts to a logo, not even a website credit. With only a succinct two-sentence introduction from Björk ("These are mixes that through creative force of nature unpredictably started flooding my website. I then redirected this positive wave to children who had suffered when a destructive force of nature unpredictably flooded their way") framing the intent of the CD, Army comes off as a vanity project. In the context of our original question of educated gift giving, this collection does not even attempt to address the bar, let alone raise it.
Nevertheless, given the ongoing need for aid support, Army is a private's induction into the service. In spite of the contemporary needs of the tsunami-torn areas, monetary support will continue to be needed for future crises across the globe; Red Cross received over $1 billion in pledges and donations for tsunami aid as of late January 2005, but discontinued further fundraising efforts to focus on collection instead. Hence, Army's most significant role is in adding to the frontline of humanitarian support. Like a long-term investment, Björk's Army is a welcome addition to the cause.