“She sings funny. And she don´t dance all that great either,” a character says in the film Dancer in the Dark about Björk´s persona, Selma. And Björk sings funny. In fact, she doesn´t sing like anyone else. Björk has neither the conventional pop star looks nor moves nor voice.
When I moved to the UK in the mid 80´s with my parents, I was made to take language classes. At one point, the teacher instructed us to draw pictures of our homes in our native country, and suggested I draw a picture of the igloo I lived in. At that time, the closest Iceland had to a celebrity in Britain was Mastermind and professional Icelander Magnus Magnusson, who had moved to Britain as a baby. This chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage and former rector of Edinburgh University was not likely to make Iceland the coolest place in the world.
I went back to London in 1988 and was surprised to find that my aunts there knew the Sugarcubes. You had heard so many reports of Icelanders making it abroad that when it finally happened, no one seemed to believe it. When foreign journalists started coming to Iceland to interview them, … …they were hounded here by older musicians who had spent a lifetime trying to achieve what the Sugarcubes had done seemingly effortlessly. Perhaps the secret was that whereas the old guard had mimicked foreign bands, the punks created a music uniquely their own. It was this that finally caught the attention of the outside world. And the Cubes pushed onward, under the slogan “World Domination or Death,” eventually scaled back back to the more managable “Lobster or Fame.”
In 1993, when the Sugarcubes had broken up, word spread that Björk was making a solo album. That she would continue to make music came as no surprise, but would she be albe to recapture the success of the Sugarcubes on her own? I was mowing lawns for the city when I first heard Human Behavior, and news broke that her Debut was climbing up the British charts. Two years later I was in China. When I turned on the TV in the hotel room, the first thing I saw was Björk singing Army of Me. She was, and is. Meanwhile, Reykjavik had briefly become the capital of cool. Britpoppers vacationed and in some cases moved there, it wasn´t uncommon to see members of Blur or Pulp drinking at Kaffibarinn or see Spice Girls crossing the street with their Icelandic boyfriends in tow. Iceland slid down onto the map from wherever it was it had been hiding. It hasn´t left it since, and neither has Björk.
16 years on from The Sugarcubes´ Life´s Too Good and 11 years on from Debut, sometimes it seems as if it happened by accident. In many ways it seems Björk never intended to become a star, perhaps never even wanted to. You really believe that she only wanted to make music. But recording albums is an expensive and time consuming business. It´s hard to make a living as a musician, you´re either starving or up in the stratosphere with not much middle ground. In an interview, Björk once said that the best thing about stardom is that if you want a sitar player brought over from India, you can. In order to get the sounds you want, you have to sell the album. With Björk, you honestly believe this is the only reason she has any interest in fame.
But just because you dance with the devil doesn´t mean you have to sleep with him. A few weeks ago Metallica played the biggest concert in Icelandic history. As a corporation they seem to be moving farther towards McDonalds and Coca-Cola and away from the spirit of Rock and Roll, whatever that may have been. And like any corporation they have an army of lawyers protecting copyright infringements, to the point of handing in the names and addresses of hundreds of thousands of fans who downloaded their music without paying the Man.
Our Björk would never do that. Quite the contrary, she seems to embrace the new technology that enables people to access music without the mediation of a multinational. Our Björk, you see, is not in it for the money.
The symbol of the nation
In 1994, celebrating the 50th anniversary of independence, Our Björk dropped out of a parachute over Laugardalsvöllur football field and proceeded to sing The Anchor Song in Icelandic in front of astonished spectators. She had become, along with cod and the Lady of the Mountain, a national symbol.
Legend even has it that the Prime Minister, a man who can appreciate great art if not great policy, has in his house an inner sanctum, a holy of holies. On one wall he has a photograph of himself along with Leonard Cohen, who came to Iceland in 1988, and underneath his complete works. On another wall, he has a photograph of local songwriter Megas alone (apparently the two don´t photograph together), with his complete works underneath. And on the third wall, he has a picture of himself along with Our Björk, complete works in place.
Whether this apocryphal story is true or not, it does go some way towards illustrating the status she has in Icelandic society today. Even if most people still don´t get her music.
It´s among the most overused phrases in journalism, but Björk is one of a kind. Superstar, songwriter, actress, oscar nominee, swan wearer, sugarcube, mother. She often appears as some otherworldly combination of sage and shy little girl. But what´s she really like? Grapevine investigates.
“Hello, my name is Björk,” says a friendly if somewhat shy sounding voice on the other end. She asks me to meet her in a coffeeshop for an interview, as she has an hour off while her new album downloads for the mastering process to continue. As editor I have one basic rule. No interviews in coffee shops. It seems every Icelandic interview starts with a meeting in a coffeeshop, the journalist dutyfully reporting what both order before moving on to the Q and A. The subject then answers the questions he wishes the reporter has asked, and the reporter writes down the answers he wishes the subject had given.
But this is Björk. Of course I agree. I hastily try to buy batteries for my dictaphone and run down there. I´m shown into a backroom. There sits Björk, with a bowl of salad in front of her. She orders cappuchino. So do I. We move on to the Q and the A.
I tell her we did a cover story on Rokk í Reykjavík. Was her being on the cover a premonition?
“Actually, at the time I went walking down to Austurvöllur and saw this huge image of me there next to where the Morgunblaðið building used to be. I was very upset at (director) Friðrik Þór for that. He told me that most people would have considered this a great honour. The Sugarcubes later recorded songs for his film Skytturnar, so we had smoothed things over by then. But he should have asked me about the poster first.”
Björk has never been one to seek publicity. It is easy to imagine her, much like Selma from the movie Dancer in the Dark, working in a factory, still singing wonderful songs to herself.
“When the Sugarcubes insanity took off, I had a one year old boy. I dedided that if he didn´t like riding on busses, I would abandon music and head for the fish factory. He liked riding on busses.”
Farmer or nerd
Has she ever considered doing anything else?
“I always wanted to be a farmer. There is a tradition of that in my family. I´m a bit of a nerd, I wouldn´t mind working in a shop like 12 Tónar selling records, or having a radio show where I could play obscure singles. I would also like to teach music. It´s weird the way they teach music in schools like Juliard these days. I know someone who graduated at age 20 as a classical composer, playing music the way they did a hundred years ago or more. I would take kids out into nature, and teach them that they can be right, and not just the teacher. I would let them lead the way. To some degree, at least.
But now that rock is turning 50, its become in a way classical in itself. People even listen to bands like the Crass as classics. Its interesting to see that development.”
Is there need for a new musical revolution, then?
“In a way there has been, with bands like Múm and Sigurrós. They´ve turned their backs on the rat race, and they´ve also turned their backs on who has the biggest stack of Marshall amps race. It´s not about who can shout the loudest, but its still aggressive music. Passive-aggressive, if you will. It´s their way to give everything the finger.”
The politics of supermodels
Björk gives me the finger to express her point. Still on the subject of revolutions, she looks out the window. At Austurvöllur, a protest is in full swing.
“They´re protesting over the demise of democracy, aren´t they,” she says, “now that the referendum over the media bill seems to have been recalled. It´s funny how the hippies and the punks tried to get rid of the conservatives, but they always seem to get the upper hand in the end.”
Didn´t the punks in a way move away from politics, but after September 11th it´s been reintroduced into music? I ask, trying to find validation for a previous editorial..
“In the past three years, I´ve been logging into newssites everyday to find out about what´s going on. And if I, of all people, am developing an interest in politics, then a lot of other people must be as well. Now, even supermodels are discussing international affairs between themselves.
The good thing about all this is that now people like me are learning more about Islam. We´re learning more about the way people think in the American south and becoming aware of things we didn´t know about before.”
Protesting in front of Idol
Outside the window, the protest is over and the protesters are walking away in an orderly fashion.
“Do you think it will change anything,” she asks. I don´t know, I answer.
Above the protestors heads hangs a giant banner displaying Bubbi and his cohorts advertising the next season of Idol.
“Will that be on again?” she asks. Finally, a question I can answer, I think to myself. “Yes,” I say, before moving on to another profound question. Is commercialisation ruining music, I ask, or words to that effect.
“You know, a hundred years ago, if you wanted to do music you would probably be playing on street corners. I could have been in a hundred Rokk í Reykjavíks and fifty Sugarcubes then and still not become famous. But when all the money started coming into music it attracted a new type of person who hadn´t been there before, gambler types who like to wager a lot of money on this and that, hoping for giant returns. Now, with the internet, people are going to have to ask themselves whether they want to go into music even if they may not become multimillionaires.”
Might that account for why the Icelandic music scene has remained interesting, because its very hard to become rich making music here?
“Partly, but I think its got more to do with the absence of God.”
A godless country?
I am a firm believer in that God should be kept out of politics. But this is the first time I´ve heard this being applied to music.
“Compared to America, or even Europe, God isn´t a big part of our lives here. I don´t know anyone here who goes to church when he´s had a rough divorce or is going through depression or something. We go out into nature instead. Nature is our chapel.”
But aren´t we desecrating that chapel these days with heavy industry?
“Its strange how the whole Kárahnjúkar project seems to be plagued with human and natural disasters. It´s almost as if its got some sort of bad karma hanging over it.”
Are the nature spirits intervening?
“There is this stereotype of Icelanders all believing in spirits, and I´ve played up to that a bit in interviews too. As a member of Sigurrós said, whenever a foreign record company comes over to sign an Icelandic band, the first thing they do is ask the band members whether they believe in elves, and if they do, they get signed. I hate to sound grumpy, but there are a lot of people out there who believe in a 2000 year old fairy tale. Both sides are waiting for their Messiah to arrive. And then people point their fingers at us Icelanders and say we are superstitious.”
So Björk is not superstitious then?
“You know, its ironic that just at the point the lawyers and the businessmen had calculated how to control music, the internet comes along and fucks everything up. That almost seems like devine intervention.” Björk gives the finger again, this time waving it into the air, challenging, no doubt, that great lawyer in the sky. “God bless the internet,” she adds.
And what about you, then?
“I´ll still be there, waving a pirate flag.”
When I went to interview Björk, this was precisely what I hoped to hear her say. And so she did.
Björk´s new album, Medulla, will be out on August 30th.