When going to a concert in Reykjavík, it’s all too easy to acknowledge the eternal coolness of the Icelandic music scene and the way it pours itself over an equally cool audience. Sweaty boys in leather and jumping girls in what can only be described as clown suits, confidently grace the stage of various venues almost every night in a town that can hardly be called a city. Their music, however, should not be taken lightly. Iceland has its fair share of accomplished musicians who seem to be able to break any market – if they care to. The intensity of the Icelandic music scene can be somewhat overwhelming to an outsider because the atmosphere in Reykjavík is very different from other small European cites. In many ways the music scene in Iceland is just as cosmopolitan as in big cities like New York or London. The image a band projects can easily be used to manipulate the prospects of success but still there’s a strong identity involved. You don’t have to be a genius to realize that people not only buy into it but embrace it, lovingly. But why is the scene so strong here? Is there a specific reason why the music culture in Iceland has developed differently than in European cities of a similar size? Where does the core of Icelandic pop-culture come from?
When rock ‘n roll emerged in Iceland in the mid-fifties, young audiences were thirsty for a change of scenery. Before the war our culture was not very cosmopolitan but after the war teenagers had gotten used to having their own money and wanted to spend it on something more fun (and appropriate) than household needs. Jazz and rock ‘n roll quickly settled in the Icelandic culture and the teeny bopper emerged.
The American influence played a great role – even after the Second World War ended there were plenty of Americans left in Iceland to influence a culturally starving nation. Well, a pop-culturally starved nation. During the war we had become accustomed to many aspects of the American way of life: American kitchen appliances, cars, food, movies and, of course, music. This separated us from many other European countries. Although some were also occupied by American troops, our little nation of wool clad shepherds and fishermen somehow embraced them a little more.
It’s important to point out that not only did we get our independence during the war but also that many Icelanders were very happy to break away from the Danes. Denmark had been our main source of cultural influence; many people studied there or lived for some period of time. As a part of Europe we knew and learned high culture but we never really found our place in it – with the exception of literature.
When the Americans came with music and laughter our nation was in its early years of independence and many were eager to venture outside of the Scandinavian tradition of fun. The Americans were cool and classy; they were confident in their ways and happy to share their culture with us. Going to the movies, listening to rock music and driving around was just so much more fun than the hard work we were used to. Our music scene was born in those days; mixed with European traditional culture and American enthusiasm our Icelandic sound of independence and strength grew rapidly.
A Music Scene Emerges
There were a few artists who became legendary in the post-war era, first among equals was probably Raggi Bjarna, an accomplished singer who started out in his early teens playing with his father but left his band to become involved in the more modern scene of rock ‘n roll. A girl by the name of Ellý Vilhjálms became a household name around 1960 and is now considered to be one of Iceland’s legendary singers. A few years later her younger brother, Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson, also became extremely popular. With a talent to please both young and mature audience, his soulful vocal style was an unforgettable addition to the musical landscape. His premature death at only 33 years of age devastated the nation.
In the sixties a new sound emerged and the band Hljómar from Keflavík led a scene closely knitted to the changes in British and American music. Hljómar became a very popular “Beatle” band in Iceland.and their lead guitarist, Gunnar Þórðarson, was a driving force in many influential bands of the seventies. Jóhann G. Jóhannsson deserves a mention, his song Don’t Try to Fool Me is a remarkable achievement in music and a good reflection of the music world of the seventies.
Many artists played a role in the development but it was the arrival of the singing poet, Megas, in the mid-seventies that marked a significant change in the attitude of Icelandic musicians. Megas, a folk artist like Dylan and Guthrie, put emphasis on the Icelandic way of life. In his lyrics he abandoned the typical talk of love that was a prominent feature in the lyrics of e.g. Hljómar. Instead he focused on everyday life and, surprisingly, the Icelandic Sagas. His references included a more nationalistic approach in the best possible sense of the word. He embraced the culture of Iceland with pride, thus inspiring others to do the same. The years that followed were therefore coloured by American, British and Icelandic influences – a mix that proved it self to be a potent one.
The arrival of punk rock in Iceland brought out new talents. Influenced by Megas and the British punk scene, many local bands found that their music was no less interesting than the music that influenced them. In the early eighties a young female singer by the name of Björk Guðmundsdóttir became prominent with her band, Tappi Tíkarrass; she later formed the band Kukl which ultimately led to The Sugarcubes.
When The Sugarcubes found success in the late eighties it stunned the nation. I don’t know if it’s a secret or not, but regular Icelanders often found them weird, their music was not easy for everyone to understand. Björk was already a national celebrity and her unconventional appearance kept people talking about her and whatever band she was in. But The Sugarcubes were good and truly deserved to be recognised. Another likely reason why a band from Iceland found fame at that time has to be because the music scene had taken the necessary steps of growth. Our independent spirit mixed with an influence by two musical giants had to lead somewhere, right?
So when at a concert and before you stands an avant garde looking band playing pop songs it’s good to remember that that’s the attitude that has taken us to the cultural level that we are at, whatever that level is. The American spirit in our culture sets us apart from Europe and the strict European influence sets us apart from the Americans. We are open to these influences and we like to have our place in modern culture. Yet we are fiercely independent and like ourselves the way we are; mischievous commercialists like Americans, reserved and modest like Scandinavians, or royally flamboyant like the old families of Europe. We are the cultural bastards of the western world. Our music history reflects the way we have used our connections to strengthen our culture.