“I thought I could organize freedom, how Scandinavian of me.
Bjork is a singer from Iceland. She was born in 1965 and recorded her first album in 1977. She was a local star by 1981 and an international star by 1987.
Bring up Bjorks name in conversation, and theres a good chance someone will say, “didnt she wear a duck suit to the Oscars a couple of years ago? Actually, Bjork went as a swan (as above), possibly the first time someones Oscar outfit evoked Greek myth instead of an Italian designer.
In 1997, Bjork released the CD Homogenic and the song Hunter. The video shows her singing, “Im the hunter, as she turns into a polar bear.
Listening to this album, you felt Bjork was one of those extraordinary people who could set up anywhere in contemporary music. She could be avant-garde and Vegas, experimental and accessible, sometimes in the same song. She was both the product of a global culture and its first perfect, perfectly mobile, citizen.
So when I heard the reviews of her new CD, Medulla, I got worried. Voices only, drawing heavily on Bjorks Icelandic heritage and her training in modernist music. This would not be the first time a pop artist disappeared into experiment and affectation. (This happened to Radio Head and the world dumped them for Coldplay without a murmur of regret.)
Medulla is pretty wonderful. For some reason, you feel like you are “in transit while listening. (I guess this makes it good “driving music.) With the exception of the 6th track and the last one, there is no “organizing freedom on this one. To evoke a theme from the “Thinking Physically post, this album is a test of “shape detection and gives little comfort to those who turn to music for “pattern recognition.
The first listening is pretty much a blur. With each successive listening, you begin to “get it. Literally. It moves from randomness to something take-in-able. Percept becomes concept. This is the traditional way of apprehending avant-garde culture, something we destroy through consumption. The more we listen, the less “avant it becomes. (Ironically, this makes the avant-garde as disposable as the popular culture it disdains.)
There is no posturing in Bjorks work, no sense of what Kuspit calls “avant-garde artist as the symbol of heroic resistance to all that is oppressive and corrupt in bourgeois civilization. Bjorks music does not move away from bourgeois culture, but acts as one more investigation within it. Or, more precisely, she appears to refuse the distinction between art and bourgeois culture altogether. As the first perfectly mobile creature of global culture, she goes where she wants.
Too often, the heroic artist insists on excluded status as a claim to specialness. (“Defer to me as the master of the obscure and unintelligible. I am the god of hipness.) This gets pretty tiresome, not least because it appears designed to exclude most viewers as clueless and unworthy. We wonder, “is this art impenetrable for the artist or the art? Impatience turns to irritation when it becomes clear that the work is funded, more often than not, by a government grant or foundation gift. So much for “heroic resistance.
Bjork does outrage our expectations but this is merely the result of her search for possibility. She is, as Levi-Strauss said of science, “always searching after that other message, not the one that comes from the existing cultural code, but one that must be constructed out of shapes (not patterns). Music is one of the places innovation happens in a dynamic culture, as the new shape “returns to earth to form patterns. We want people “out there in the ineffable and the unthinkable and, when theyre Bjork, we want them reporting back. Get out your satellite dish, and have a listen.
Bjork. 1997. Hunter. From the album: Homogenic. One Little Indian/Elektra.
See the Hunter video here
Cowen, Tyler. 2002. Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing the World’s Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kuspit, Donald B. 1993. The cult of the avant-garde artist. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 1.
Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1966. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.