Unlimited Norse power

Sydney Morning Herald, 1er janvier 2008

Forget the oddball dress and general weirdness : Bjork’s the real deal.

Some day someone will sit down and explain just how, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Björk Guðmundsdóttir is considered close enough to the centre of popular culture to actually be a headline act at both the Sydney Festival and the Big Day Out.

Sure, she gets by with just a single name but she doesn’t make pop records. Not like a Kylie, Madonna or Beyonce. She sells records around the world, from Paris to Perth. But nowhere does she do that with anything like the heft to challenge a Foo Fighters or Justin Timberlake. She made a movie. But that was directed by a Danish madman, not a Spielberg, and seen by a hardy dozen or so.

Some day someone will describe how a tiny Icelandic woman, who speaks with an accent that’s part Norse, part Norf London, who is best known by non-music fans as the person who turned up at the Oscars dressed as a swan and who, a few years ago, made an album consisting of nothing but voices, doesn’t just get this attention but deserves it.

And when they do explain it they may make reference to nights like the one earlier this year, at the Coachella Festival in the desert of southern California. That night, Björk and a large band, all in floridly colourful and often bizarre costumes (Björk herself arrived in a hat seemingly made of five giant pompoms) took to a stage dotted with video screens, flags and unidentifiable objects d’art and blew our tiny minds.

Around me were gobsmacked faces, some mutterings of the “what is this weird shit” type (including from a few music journalists, it should be noted) and many a bemused but beaming face figuring that even if this wasn’t making any immediate sense it was sure enough staggeringly entertaining. And funny.

Björk has commented that people take her more seriously than she would like, that they forget the humour and fun. On the phone from somewhere in Central America (she’s sailing from Peru to Mexico, reading South American novels on the way) Björk murmurs agreement as I say that while Coachella was a fantastic explosion of colour and movement and pleasure, not everybody reacts that well to humour in music.

“Coachella was our first show and it was a bit of a rehearsal,” she says brightly. “We were a bit wooden and nervous and I think we are more flexible now. We have rehearsed more songs now so every show is different. We can be calm and poetic and then we can be hooligans or we can do a mix of the two.”

In that odd accent with its idiosyncratic pronunciations (“thank you” comes out more like “sank chew”), the word “hooligan” sounds both odd and appropriate. Her music can be delicate and almost ephemeral, light and danceable but also pulsating and driven by electronic energy. If you’re not careful it can mug you and leave you stunned.

What determines the kind of show we will see—is it how she woke up that morning ?

“Coachella was probably a hooligan show because we were playing really late and it’s hard at a festival to play a lot of calm songs because people have been there a long time and the concentration is different so you end up playing a lot of hooligan songs,” Bjork explains. “We try to take in how everyone is feeling in the band. Our first show here [in South America], an hour before we played our keyboard player found out that his father had died, so the show was really sombre and quiet. It was one of my favourite shows of the tour. But then three days later we played a completely different show, totally different songs and some people who saw both shows couldn’t believe it was the same band.

“With the humour, I’ve said it a few times now but it’s strange because I think it would be obvious. I think eight out of 10 of my lyrics are like self-parody. Most of my friends I’ve had for 20 years know this but I think when you talk about me in the context of other pop, things go a bit pear-shaped. It’s all supposed to be very serious and there is just not a lot of room for humour.

“I also think it’s the times. Things are very conservative in the Bush years. Unfortunately, the older I get the more I realise that the President does have a lot of influence culturally across the world. It’s a pain in the ass but it’s true. I’d like to see Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix walk down the red carpet at the MTV Awards but I think they would just be ridiculed. There’s just no room for this when it’s so conservative.”

Some conservatives argue that things are too serious right now to be laughed at but they forget that that is exactly when it’s important to laugh.

“I just think it’s a fear of death. People don’t want to be deep. It has to be superficial, so it’s dressing in armour with black sunglasses, very cool but not revealing, not thinking. You know, people may misunderstand me but that’s OK, I get enough appreciation. I hope that when Bush leaves people will loosen up a little bit.”

Just as big a mistake as ignoring the humour in Bjork’s songs and show would be to see only the humour. Her recent album, Volta, whose songs will make up the bulk of the shows she’ll play in Australia, has several tracks addressing cultural and political independence, military adventurism and, in the most powerful and controversial moment, a female suicide bomber in Palestine.

In that song, Hope, Bjork sings : “What’s the lesser of two evils : If a suicide bomber/Made to look pregnant/ Manages to kill her target/Or not ?/What’s the lesser of two evils/If she kills them/Or dies in vain ?” There is no answer in the song but Bjork declares that “nature has fixed no limits on our hopes”.

What sort of reaction does she get when she plays Hope live ? It’s hard not to respond to it, emotionally and viscerally.

“We played it at [British festival] Glastonbury with [African kora player] Toumani Diabete and it was incredible. But I don’t think people were listening to the lyrics, it was more an emotional thing,” she concedes. “For me, writing the lyrics was an emotional thing. Obviously it’s about such a traumatic event and then, to put it in a ballad, I found really funny. It’s just my warped sense of humour, singing a ballad and singing something that would be [and she puts on her best Celine Dion warble] ‘I love you, I want to have dinner with you’ and you’re actually singing about a pregnant suicide bomber.

“There is sort of irony in it but it deals with facts, the situation you read about and you can’t get your head around it.”

Was she trying for her own sake to understand the thinking behind such an act ?

“I felt at the time I was just trying to get into that woman’s head, what she was thinking and what would drive her to do something like that,” Bjork says. She is critical of the media “who should be neutral but there was so much fury”. The woman was vilified “for daring to play with something so sacred as pregnancy and fool us” with what was assumed to be a fake pregnancy. When it was realised later that she had been pregnant “they were kind of forgiving because it must have meant so much to her that she killed her own baby. This song is sort of about that double standard.”

There’s a reason—actually, many reasons—why Bjork isn’t like the other pop stars.

publié dans Sydney Morning Herald