Whenever I think about Björk, the iconoclastic artist/actress/fashion plate, I flash back to an article from the December 1997 issue of SPIN where Jonathan Van Meter followed Ms. Guðmundsdóttir around Europe in the lead up to the release of her fourth album Homogenic. It's this last image that has stayed with me the longest:
The day after the Munich show, I am waiting in the airport for my flight home. Half asleep in a coffee shop, I look up and see Björk off in the distance, walking down some far-flung ultramodern hallway. She is wearing a 21st century, floor-length sleeveless purple dress with a big orange circle on her stomach, and her web-footed Japanese carpenter shoes. She is carrying a funny, furry little purse in one hand, and a cell phone in the other. She is chattering away into the cellular in Icelandic, oblivious to the fact that people are staring, not necessarily because they know she is Björk, world-famous pop star, but because she appears to be deeply strange and not so strange at all. i
Does that not just sum up perfectly what has made the 46-year-old such a success worldwide, even in our own skittish musical marketplace? Her singular brand of weirdness has crossed over to the point where she can perform on The Tonight Show with the members of the avant-electronic group Matmos. Or she can release a new album initially via iPad app that features a full choir, bass lines created via Tesla coil, and a MIDI-controlled pipe organ that managed to crack the top 30 on the Billboard charts.
This comes as little surprise to those of us who were lucky enough to experience Björk's impish wonder when she arrived in the American alternative rock world back in 1988. That is when the college stations rightly latched onto the bobbing and weaving bit of pop called "Birthday" as performed by The Sugarcubes. If you haven't heard the song, I suggest you take five minutes, dial it up on YouTube, and let it wash over you.
The key to "Birthday"'s success is that it's the rare Sugarcubes song that doesn't feature the intrusive barking/toasting/rapping of Einar Orn (if you don't know what I mean, go back to YouTube and search for any other Sugarcubes single: "Regina," "Motorcrash," or "Hit"). Instead, he squeaks out a woozy trumpet line that fits right in to the song's uneasy ebb and flow. But what holds it all steady is Björk's flexible vocals that coo, bleat, and spiral around the melody and a discomforting lyric.
Things only got stranger from there with the Sugarcubes. Their next two albums seemed unsettled, even at their poppiest and most accessible. The desperate pulse of Life's Too Good (album #1) had been replaced with a high gloss finish that just felt...off. Surely Björk was meant for better things than to repeat "Chihuahua wa wa wa" a dozen times.
Then came her much-vaunted solo career, which found the vocalist embracing the world of club pop via collaborations with producers like Nellee Hooper, Mark Bell, Graham Massey, Tricky, and Timbaland. This felt right. This was the shape-shifting sound that fit her swan dress wearing persona the best. We could watch her dance on the back of a flat bed truck forever.
So, we accept the unusual steps she has taken with smiles and a knowing shakes of our head. The starring role in Lars Von Trier's dour musical Dancer In The Dark. The beautifully and supremely fucked up collaboration with partner Matthew Barney. The almost entirely a cappella album. The expensive, intricately packaged box sets. The overwhelming multimedia performances of Biophilia. The video created by a biomedical animator featuring a scan of her brain.
It warms my little avant garde loving heart to see Björk become such an indelible part of the pop music landscape. True, she hasn't reached the multi-cultural heights of, say, an M.I.A. or the pop domination of a Lady Gaga. But if it weren't for "Human Behaviour" or "Bachelorette," there would be no "Paper Planes" or "Poker Face." Weirdness begets weirdness and everybody wins. We await your next move, Ms. Guðmundsdóttir.