Björk. There, I said it. After living the country for some time one gets the feeling she has become something of a taboo in her own homeland. When her countrymen do speak about her, it is almost if they are talking about the one that got away. That girlfriend from high school who was so winsome and promising but you were too young and stupid to realize it. And now she’s gone. Moved on to greener pastures. And here you stand 15 years later.
The world has come to see her on her own terms : not as Björk Gudmundsdóttir, the quirky, punky girl in the local Reykjavík music scene, but as Björk, the ethereal songstress and artist from whom untainted genius springs eternal. Unlike Halldór Laxness, Sigur Rós and Leifur Eiríksson (just to rattle off a few Icelanders of note), Björk has made a name for herself above and beyond her nation. In fact, I can say from experience that the majority of foreigners (i.e., not Icelanders) think of Iceland as a symbol of Björk and not the other way around.
I find that some Icelanders are a little bitter because they think the forty-something international music icon has left the island by the wayside. But when she comes back to perform it is a phenomenon like none other I can explain, to hear the totem of a nation serenade the people she emblemizes for the rest of the world.
But there is a bit of animosity when the de facto sovereign of any nation up and leaves to put down roots elsewhere. You don’t see Elizabeth Regina packing up her game and shacking up with some arty-farty yahoo in New York. The Brits would go berserk.
That said, as an emigrant living on foreign ground, I myself can say, with a certain level of credibility, that the umbilical cord to the motherland stretches far and wide. One’s born-and-bred nationality follows one around like an old dog—whether you want him there or not. And it becomes even more apparent when you leave your home and are no longer surrounded by your people.
With this in mind, I took a look at Björk’s newest video, Declare Independence from her latest album Volta. In the video she strands on a soapbox dressed like a uniformed insurgent, screaming through a bullhorn to a gathering of marching soldiers. On their arms are the flags of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, Iceland’s closest brethren in the North Atlantic. Both nations are still under Danish rule, which the Icelanders cleverly escaped in 1944 while the Danes were busy looking the other way at the Nazi invasion.
Björk proclaims to her troops : “Declare independence ! Don’t let them do that to you !” She follows this with a litany of nation-making measures : “Start your own currency ! Make your own stamp ! Protect your language !”
For the first time in long time, Björk struck me as a tried-and-true Icelander. In recent issues of Iceland Review I’ve interviewed some of the nation’s loudest voices on the fate of the little island in the midst of globalization. These voices, though not wailing through a megaphone, have more or less given the same message that Björk uses to implore her soldiers to declare independence.
In the latest issue, 45.04, Gudrún Kvaran, the head of the national language committee, tells me “It’s crucial […] to prevent foreign languages from having too much influence on Icelandic.” And earlier this year in issue 45.01 I spoke to Arnór Sighvatsson about the conundrum of Iceland maintaining an independent currency (while everyone else is cashing in for the Euro) all because, in Dostoevsky’s words, “Money is coined liberty.”
In fact, a running theme in the last several issues has been how Iceland holds on tight to its national identity and independence in the face of overwhelming globalization. When I say it like that it sounds pretty prosaic, I know. Like the title of some wrist-slittingly boring master’s thesis. But when Björk stands up and screams it, all the blood and vigor behind these efforts becomes real, both visually and audibly.
So even though the first lady of Iceland may not be local, like so many of us compatriots abroad, her heart is still native. In fact, she has left the rock like an emissary of Icelandic will and seems to be disseminating and proselytizing the word of her people loader than any king, queen or sliver-tongued diplomat ever could. If anyone has lived the story of the independent people, the Icelanders know where to look. Or perhaps I should say listen.