The Case for Bjork: Pop Music’s Most Eccentric Artist

By Leah Dillon, ’24

Staff Writer

Perhaps you’ve heard of her. Maybe you haven’t. Breaking records in her native country of Iceland, and eventually carving a niche for herself in the worldwide cultural zeitgeist, there’s nobody in the music industry quite like Björk. From her unique merging of new musical styles, the deeply intimate themes embedded throughout her whole discography, to her vivacious and strange personality,  Björk presents the music industry with one of the most artistic performers in recent history.  

Björk Guðmundsdóttir first began her music career at the age of 11 by releasing a collection of traditional Icelandic folk songs. Soon after, she rose to prominence within Iceland as the lead singer of alternative rock band, The Sugarcubes, among other punk and post-punk bands that she performed in. During her time in The Sugarcubes, however, Björk became dissatisfied with the limits posed by the guitar, and began seeking out other instruments and other styles of music through which she could actualize her artistic vision. From classical piano to electronic trip-hop, the burgeoning artist immersed herself in as many genres and instruments as she could find. While The Sugarcubes continued to top charts in Iceland, Björk herself remained relatively unknown in Europe and the Americas for the duration of her early career. All the while, her thirst for new music to immerse herself in led to internal tensions within The Sugarcubes, which culminated in her decision to leave the group in pursuit of a solo career. Entering the ’90’s, Björk embarked on the beginning of a long and fruitful artistic journey, now uninhibited by the conventions of a single genre and able to express ideas that were wholly hers.

Her debut album, named simply Debut, yielded a few hit songs, notably, “Venus as a Boy” and “Human Behavior,” which prevail as some of the most popular songs in her discography. Only two years later, Post was released, truly launching Björk into the wider musical world. Her style, which combined the emergent genre of electronic music and the then-waning genre of classical orchestra, was distinct and easily recognizable. “Hyperballad,” a song hailing from the album Post, exhibited this unique blend of genres, layering her three-octave voice over an electronic beat and a wide array of orchestral instruments, from the trumpet to the violin to the bass and drums. Her music also ruminated on themes that were seldom discussed in the industry at large; “Hyperballad,” for example, frames itself as the story of a woman who lives on a mountain and spends her morning throwing small objects over the edge of a cliff, exploring ideas of suicidal ideation in a tender and sympathetic manner. “I imagine what my body would sound like, slamming against those rocks,” she sings, “and when it lands, will my eyes be closed or open?” The song ends with her returning to the arms of her lover, remarking that going through this ritual of throwing small objects allows her to be “safe again.” “Hyperballad” exhibits a level of vulnerability and raw, unfiltered emotion that is absent from most of the music industry, which favors more easily palatable songs for its top charts and radio stations. “Hyperballad” is far from the only vulnerable song Björk has created; her whole discography is laced with a sense of intimacy that reads like a diary entry, or as a conversation between friends. Through and through, Björk’s discography shines with her unique artistic voice and deep sensibilities. 

While her records sold, and her music gained popularity, much of her work was dismissed by critics as strange, with Björk herself being largely written off as some batty Icelandic lady. In a sense, that assessment wasn’t wrong. Every piece of her work blurs the lines between genres and breaks well-established musical conventions. Her lyrics can be viewed as strange, and many of her beats are discordant. Her music videos are equally unusual, with one of her videos, “Pagan Poetry,” being an explicit tape of her own body (albeit heavily distorted, and hard to recognize upon first viewing). Her manner of speaking is notably off kilter, a fact which many interviewers chose to hone in on, as opposed to the actual content of her music. Many of these interviews and videographers seem to have skewed their depictions of her in order to favor the popular perception that she was strange; one such report narrates a video of Björk attacking a reporter, choosing to gloss over the fact that this reporter had been harassing her and her son for four days, further cementing the impression of her being erratic and unpredictable. Other interviewers have asked her invasive and condescending questions about her personal life, seeming to regard her as a spectacle or some exotic animal. “Isn’t she cute?” one interviewer asks the audience after having asked Björk whether or not she was going to get angry (in reference to the video of her attacking the interviewer). Many reviews go so far as to describe Björk as some sort of an alien. But once you peel back the flashy layers of clothes and makeup and discordant instrumentals, the discerning listener knows that she’s quite the opposite; of all music that has been released, hers is some of the most authentically human. 

Björk’s unrivaled creativity prevails to this day: just this year, at the age of 57, she released a new album, Fossora. In it, Björk appeals to the increasingly disconnected nature of our society, using fungi and mushrooms as a metaphor for the unseen connections between people, and urging us, the listener, to “find a resonance where we do connect” in spite of our differences. In today’s especially polarizing society, her message rings as urgent, but optimistic. “Hope is a mussel that allows us to connect,” she sings. Hope is a theme that extends through all of her music, even in her darker songs (such as “Hyperballad” or “Victimhood”). Even her older music yields messages and themes that are cutting edge today; her earliest music still prevails as the music of the future.

Björk is not only a rare musician, having blended several genres into her own eclectic style and possessing stunning vocals, but a rare person; somebody who sees through the veil of accepted conventions, and who dares to break them. While much of what she presents to the world is likely a persona meant to further her artistic vision, her art still challenges everyday conventions with a fierce individuality, and encourages the listener to do the same. Every song she writes is embedded with her unique artistic voice, one which dares the listener to break convention too, to live a life uninhibited by restrictive conventions and the thoughts of others. Björk dares the listener to examine every part of themself, the good, the bad, the ugly, and the unorthodox, and to live it wholly and unabashedly. She urges us to have hope, to connect. Above all, Björk asks us to be human. An artist isn’t just somebody who makes music; this is what makes an artist.

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