Bjork: shapes, not patterns

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“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 Bjork’s name in conversation, and there’s a good chance someone will say, “didn’t 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 someone’s 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, “I’m 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 Bjork’s 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 Bjork’s 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.” Bjork’s 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 they’re 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.

10 thoughts on “Bjork: shapes, not patterns

  1. Dennis

    Interesting post. I got stuck already at the first quote since I am a Scandinavian and recognize the thought behind it.

    But also because it puzzled me somewhat. I’ve heard two different definitions of Scandinavia and both of them rule out Iceland as a Scandinavian country.

    The first definition refers to Scandinavia as the Nordic countries with monarchy, which means that Denmark, Norway and Sweden are part of Scandinavia.

    The second definition refers to the Scandinavian peninsula, which also rules out Finland and Iceland. Denmark on the other hand is not situated on the peninsula but Denmark is nevertheless a Scandinavian country (I don’t know why, perhaps because Norway more or less belonged to Denmark until 1814).

    By the way, I have met some people from Iceland and I never heard them refer to themself as Scandinavians. That being said, I don’t really care if they do, I just found the quote interesting.

  2. Ennis

    Ach, but what a voice! I miss Sinead so much sometimes, and while Bjork isn’t a substitute, she has pleasures of her own. My first set as a radio DJ in college was all female singers with wonderful voices drawn from around the world. If I recall (and it has been so long) it included the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, Aster Aweke, and Ofra Haza.

    (Humming to Bjork singing “sensuality”)

  3. Grant

    Dennis, I guess Bjork is redrawing the boundaries. Artistic license, I guess. Thanks, Grant

    Steve, you are correct, sir. Sorry. The title appears on the CD cover but it is hard to read and I grabbed at the title of the first song. Thanks, Grant

    Ennis, Thanks for those three names. I will check them out. Best, Grant

  4. Boris Anthony

    Hmmm… just to muse further if I may!
    The more we “detect the shape”, in the process storing it in memory (be it internal – experience – or external – shared experience, i.e. via a medium), the more we can rely on “recognizing the patters” of the thing, subject, object, environment at hand when returning to it.

    Imagining myself arriving in a town I have never visited before. The first few days I spend “detecting the shape” of it, orienting myself, and storing landmarks, street names etc… After a while, when I’ve settled in, I mostly go by “recognizing the pattern”. This is a basic hunting skill, no? Getting a feel for one’s environment before actualizing(?!) it.

    The “avant-garde” (french for “advance guard”, the first to see the action… makes me wonder of “reconnaissance” as well…) is “ahead” only for those first few encounters with it. Something is culturally avant-garde until it is culturally assimilated (stored, patterned, iconified, recognized)

    Grant: “We want people “out there” in the ineffable and the unthinkable and, when they’re Bjork, we want them reporting back.”

    Bjork: “I’m going hunting. I’ll bring back the goods, but I don’t know when…”

    I’d say she’s reporting back… 😉

    Sorry for thinking out loud here…

  5. Nigel Mellish

    If you like Bjork, you might also enjoy Gling-Glo, her “traditional jazz” album (done in Icelandic, of course).

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  7. tq

    Bjork is using scandinavian as an adjective not saying that she actually from Scandinavia but that she is being “scandinavian” with the way she is thinking of “organizing freedom”.

    Scandinavian people tried to organize freedom some how?

  8. Paul Puglia

    Hi Bjork
    I’m a old fan of yours I got your first CD with the Sugar Cubes and your first CD when you went solo. You are very beautiful inside an out.
    You take real good photos but I wish you would take a good clear photo. All your photos that I have seen are not to clear or half of your beautiful face is covered. Could you please just get some clear clean straght on photo’s. Your face
    is just so BEAUTIFUL, you have a face of LOVE.
    I wish you the best in life, take care and God bless TTFN. Paul

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