Anyone who reads academic writing on rock music knows the art form is defined as masculine. I won’t go into the Freudian theories that have to do with men and their relationships to their mother or discuss the phallic symbolism of the rock guitar. But, I would like to challenge the predominant theories of rock music and gender by discussing Icelandic diva Björk and her latest release Vespertine.
I bring this up now because Vespertine is the best album of Björk’s career. Such an album gives fuel to oppose a statement Simon Reynolds and Joy Press made at the conclusion of their critically acclaimed book The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock ‘n’ Roll. In the afterword they state, “Women have seized rock ‘n’ roll and usurped it for their own expressive purposes, but we’ve yet to see a radical feminization of rock itself.” Björk’s Vespertine proves the guys wrong.
Björk Gudmunsdottir, born in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1965, has been releasing albums since she was 11 years old. Brought up in a musical household, her first release was an album of traditional folk standards. By high school she’d formed a post-punk band called Tappi Tikarass that was influenced heavily by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Tappi Tikarass even made it into a documentary on Icelandic New Wave, called Rock in Reykjavic. She later formed a band named K.U.K.L., which brought Björk popularity through Europe. She began to have an American following with the formation of the Sugarcubes.
After three albums with the Sugarcubes, Björk went solo to work with producer Nellee Hooper, a pioneer of the early ’90s British dance music scene. The single “Human Behavior”, from the album Debut became an instant success and Björk made her music video debut, showing MTV audiences her quirky world.
Each album since Debut further establishes Björk as a serious musician who creates her own distinct sound that continues to transform and mature. On Post she got a more serious, more dramatic. Homogenic was bursting with orchestral arrangements and manic depressive moments. Along the way she also did a remix album titled Telegram. After Homogenic came Björk’s big break into film as Selma in Lars Von Trier’s controversial Dancer in the Dark, which won her best actress at the Cannes Film Festival.
Björk has proven to be a staying force in an industry that is ready to jump right to the next big thing. And the remarkable thing about her is that she’s done it all on her own terms. Each album she crafts is individualistic in style and craft. None of her albums sound exactly the same and none of them use gimmicky trendy devices to sell records.
Back to the statement Reynolds and Press made. At one point they ask where all the great female sonic wizards are. Well, I think Björk easily qualifies as a female sonic wizard. Yet, Reynolds and Press portray her as an ethereal artist who writes confessional, open-hearted songs. They group her with other singers such as Kristin Hersh, Mary Margaret O’Hara and PJ Harvey, whom they say have a “Betty Blue Syndrome”. They define this syndrome as a condition women singers have that induces “from (male) fans and critics, both envious awe and protective feelings”. They then conclude that this sets up men to be the knights in shining armor for these women who wear their confused hearts on their sleeves.
Certainly Björk is somewhat earthy. In Vespertine one track is titled “Pagan Poetry”. She adorns herself with swans. She sometimes squeals nonsensical phrases. But, that’s where the “Betty Blue Syndrome” stops.
In Vespertine Björk isn’t trying to win a knight in shining armor. Her music is her safe haven. In an interview with The Times (of London) she described the album as a cocoon, “almost like a paradise you can escape to”.
And, that is exactly what it is. The texture of the music alone makes the album a cozy sanctuary of liquid beats, lyrical strings and flowing harp parts. Vespertine is only complete as a whole. This is not the type of album that has a few hit singles to jump to — only by listening to it from beginning to end does Vespertine seem complete.
I dare Reynolds and Press to deny Björk the title of Sonic Wizard. Her electronic music sounds like no one else’s. And, with Vespertine she’s created a whole new world, a cocoon perhaps, where the rest of the world is forgotten. To talk just about a few songs on this album would be pointless. It’s like one giant electronic symphony. Each song is a movement. The power of the music lies in a unity of the whole.
Björk started creation of Vespertine in the privacy of her own home by working on her laptop. Originally the album was to be called Domestika and the album still reflects Björk’s celebration of her home where, she said to The Times, she finds paradise under the kitchen table.
She couldn’t have created such a masterwork though without some collaboration. She acquired help from San Francisco electronic group Matmos and from harpist Zeena Parkins who invented her own electric harp. The lush orchestration and choral arrangements were contributed by the Il Novecento Orchestra and an Inuit girls’ choir from Greenland. Other instruments that add to the lush, idyllic songs include clavichord and celeste.
Lyrically, Björk is intimate. She sings of love. In “Cocoon” she sings: “He slides inside / Half awake half asleep / We faint back into sleephood / When I wake up the second time in his arms / Gorgeousness: he’s still inside me.” She has a way of making her emotions raw, unmanufactured, pure and honest. In “Sun in My Mouth” she takes lyrics from e.e. cummings’s poem “Impressions”. “I shall enter fingers of smooth mastery / With chasteness of seagulls / Will I complete the mystery of my flesh”. While some of her lines make perfect sense, others are more surreal and difficult to decipher as in “Unison”: “I thrive best hermit-style / With a beard and a pipe / And a parrot on each side”.
The first single to be released, “Hidden Place”, is by no means top 40 material. Much like Radiohead’s Kid A, Vespertine is likely to be called a work of genius among critics, but in the world of MTV and slick, sexy, overproduced videos by Destiny’s Child, it won’t be a major airplay sensation. That doesn’t seem to be Björk’s main concern though. At the moment she’s more worried about finding concert halls that have the best acoustics for her live performances. She’s currently performing in opera houses across Europe and will be the first pop act to perform in the English National Opera house. She will make stops in the United States as well. All shows, however, are all sold out. Tickets were in high demand since most venues where she will perform hold only around 300 people.
Reynolds and Press decide that female innovations “have remained mostly at the level of content (lyrics, self-presentation, ideology and rhetoric expressed in interviews), rather than formal advances.” While Björk does express herself lyrically and through ideology, there’s more there than that. Though Reynolds and Press say they haven’t seen a radical feminization of rock, I would beg to differ.
The Sex Revolts was written in 1995, before Björk released her greatest achievements. Perhaps if they revise the book someday they’ll take notice of Björk’s ability to usurp popular music and turn it into a luscious symphony of beats and melodies. Björk defies stereotypes. Men are supposed to be the producers, the ones who can arrange layers of beats and synth parts. But, Björk competes (and also collaborates with) the best men in the field. Björk combines her own form of femininity with the usually masculine world of electronica. She is both conceptual and technical. She creates the trends instead of following them. And, finally, no one can imitate her, they can just follow behind.