Channa Vithana: Bjork – The triumph of marketing over mediocrity? Taking a a view, and supplying evidence.

Ok, let’s start with Björk…

The first time I heard her was when she sang in The Sugarcubes. They were an Icelandic band, very much in the quirky, jittery indie-rock mould of the late 80s, but with a shocking difference in that they had Björk and her distinctive vocals upfront. Her vocals now, post Sugarcubes, and within the mainstream success of her career, are treated as a love or hate affair – so imagine all those conservative Daily Mail readers hearing Björk doing her guttural, primal screams to ‘Birthday’ from ‘Life’s Too Good’ (1988)!

This was quite literally a far cry from her latter chart-friendly cover version of ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ from ‘Post’ (1995). I rather liked ‘Birthday’ when I first heard it via the excellent ‘The Chart Show’ on TV; it was definitely an out-of-the-ordinary musical watershed for me and I made a mental note of this Björk ‘person.’

‘Birthday’ video

I was very surprised at the success of Björk’s first mainstream solo album ‘Debut’ when it was released in 1993 (she had previously released an eponymous solo album, in Iceland, in the late seventies around the age of 12!) as it came out pretty quickly after ‘Stick Around For Joy’ (1992) which was the last studio album by The Sugarcubes. ‘Debut’ sold very well and made Björk a worldwide pop-sensation. Interestingly, around the time of its release I remember seeing Eric Clapton on a TV interview mentioning that he really liked ‘Debut’ even though he wouldn’t normally listen to that kind of stuff…

‘Debut’ is a very good album and on some versions it features the excellent composer David Arnold (who did the recent Bond film soundtracks) on the wonderful, cinematic ‘Play Dead.’ I also think the production by Nellee Hooper is superb, and more complex and sophisticated than most modern pop-albums. Hooper is a brilliant producer; I like his work on Gwen Stefani’s ‘Love Angel Music Baby’ (2004) and U2’s expansive and lushly melodic ‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’ from the ‘Batman Forever Original Soundtrack’ (1995).

Hooper manages to create sleek, sweeping, and enjoyably melodic pop structured sounds from a wide variety of musicians, regardless of the subject matter of the lyrics and personal vocal style of the artist. And as such, Hooper’s work on ‘Debut’ is most enjoyable – I particularly enjoy ‘Venus As A Boy’ for its elegant, lilting compositions and also the outstanding lyrical content of Björk’s songwriting.

‘Venus As A Boy’ Video

I do think however that Björk is less successful as a performance artist and singer than as a songwriter and composer (better to be a superior songwriter than an entertainer, isn’t it?)

I prefer it that way anyhow, and as Björk is talented in this area It’s a good one-fingered-salute to those who poke fun at her ‘style’ because the real money in the music ‘business’ has always been with songwriting publishing… Some of her music videos are outstanding, while others are simply breathtaking - like the one for ‘All Is Full Of Love,’ directed by Chris Cunningham; the album version is on ‘Homogenic’ (1997). This video mix is also my favourite Björk song, closely followed by ‘Venus…,’ and while not as lyrically sophisticated, ‘All Is Full Of Love’ is a beautiful example of Björk when she sings with clarity and emotional resonance – It’s a song purely of ‘feel.’

‘All Is Full Of Love’ Video

The video for ‘Big Time Sensuality’ from ‘Debut’ is also wonderful, though not for Björk’s singing as she doesn’t convey such a great vocal on this track, as she intermittently sounds strangled or gargled.

It’s as if she can’t reach particular notes and therefore substitutes them with peculiar vocal burping. This video was parodied by Dawn French on ‘French And Saunders’ for the BBC. Here we see French blubbering along a truck which is moving down a city road (as in the original Björk video) and doing facial gurning, etc. I don’t know whether French really likes Björk, and thus thinks of herself as a fat version of the Icelandic artist, or she hates her for being the more creative, ‘kooky’ brunette that she never was? Nevertheless, it isn’t as entertaining as the Kenny Everett mocking of the Bee Gees replete with big wig and stick-out dentures on his early 80s TV show.

Dawn French Björk Video

The proper Björk video of ‘Big Time Sensuality’ captures her as a free spirit with an enjoyably creative sense of wonder in the way she looks. I knew a few female art-students while studying at university and they all really liked Björk for her ability to look attractive in a non-blonde kind of way and therefore they could also imagine themselves as someone like her.

‘Big Time Sensuality’ Video

Although I like some of her videos, which are more like mini-films, I’m more interested in Björk as a musician and songwriter, and as such she has the ability to communicate with an eerie sense of creativity, analogous to a great painting or sculpture, that is absent from most mainstream pop music. I think that most of Björk’s detractors look upon her music videos for ammunition which are clearly an affront to their Daily-Mail-reading ideals of what a pop-singer should look and sound like - Charlotte Church before the booze perhaps?

Also in my experience most of the people who don’t like her are men or middle-aged non-artistic women; they see (rather than hear) her as some shrieking, tuneless banshee, an annoying foreigner that can only speak with ‘broken’ English and wears a swan dress to an awards ceremony.

I don’t like all of Björk’s musical output though.

Her concert performances are second-rate in that they tend to be overly mannered and indulgent, unlike, ironically, the uninhibited creative expressionism of her music videos – shouldn’t it be the other way round? ‘Medulla’ (2004) was a disappointment as I felt it was an opportunity missed. Here Bjork made an album mostly out of vocals; this is not so alien - I can think of the deep, hypnotic and resonating sounds of Buddhist monks chanting for instance. However, the dissatisfaction lies within the textures and extension of the various voices used, as some (though not all) of them sounded crudely electronically treated and thus it was spoilt for me as these vocal textures were not as sophisticated or creatively applied as I would have hoped for from someone like Björk.

Even so, for a bit of perspective, here is a brilliant passage from an email I received from Anna Tooth, formerly of the Naim Music Label,

"...one of the things I love about Björk is her eccentricity. She's not afraid of what people think, and I totally admire her for that. Surely one of life's little luxuries is a bit of wilful silliness? I think fair play to her for being the incredibly successful musician that she is, and still in touch with her silly side. Don't you think there is far too much seriousness around? The world is full of devastating issues, but if you can't be Björk and dress up like you're trapped in an Orangina bottle on acid with Scottish feet for your new album cover (‘Volta’ (2007)), then.... I mean for goodness sake look at it!"

…And I completely agree. I used to be one of the ‘men/middle-aged women’ who thought Björk looked wilfully silly in some of her videos (‘All Is Full Of Love,’ songwriting and compositions notwithstanding) but with the persistence of time, and instead of becoming more closed-book, I’m the opposite and like Björk even more now than before.

Is Björk a triumph of marketing over mediocrity?

No way…

CV