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Dotting the Ös and crossing the Ts

[Originally published 1995 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

Oh, that Björk! Talk about an express train to stardom. She had barely managed to teach the world to pronounce her name as croonertrix in the Sugarcubes when she became an international megastar via subsequent solo albums Debut (1993) and Post (1995).

As a curmudgeon, I am a fan of neither of those albums when considered in toto. But chopping them into singles (with attendant music videos) creates a new gestalt entirely, and if nothing else, Björk Gudmondsdóttir will be remembered as a fearless arranger with a daredevil taste in music-video directors.

It verges on ethnic stereotype to note that Björk’s diminutive stature and ancient Icelandic features lend an air of exotica to her videos (iceberg fever, if you will), but whether you like it or not, c’est vrai. Björk clearly recognizes her uniqueness and, in videos, substitutes magic realism for real realism, with wildly improbable stop-motion animation, nakedly artificial backdrops, and dreamlike storylines playing contrapuntally against the wee lass’s tunes. These motifs do suit Björk widely varied musical styles and somnambulant verbal imagery, a talent none other than Madonna has mined. (Madonna’s video "Bedtime Story," from a song Björk co-wrote, is a kind of Björk clip with triple the budget.)

Björk collaborations with French director Michel Gondry situate the pixielike minidiva in nakedly surrealistic and imaginary settings that suit Björk to a T (or an Ö). In "Human Behaviour" (from Debut), Björk sits in a secluded forest cottage and delivers a monologue warning alien races what to expect from homo sapiens: "There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic to human behaviour... They’re terribly, terribly, terribly moody... then all of a sudden turn happy." An actor in a comically childish bear costume is chased by and ultimately outwits a Fudd-like hunter as the music echoes the bear’s steps. The cottage explodes away from Björk (how’d they do that?) and she is lifted into the sky... only to get caught in the crotch of a tree. A big wooden moth flits compulsively around a bare lightbulb with Björk looking on, tears dripping from the strong light.

Or "Army of Me" (from Post), where Björk has a diamond removed from her mouth by a gorilla dentist which blooms to boulder size just before she drops it under the dentata hood of the monster truck she’s driving. (Not a nitro-burning monster truck – the diamond is its fuel.) Having filled ’er up, Björk pilots the truck to a museum, which she blows up, bringing her boyfriend – a museum exhibit himself – back to life. The oom-pah-pah of the bassline and Björk’s clenched-throat delivery in this warning of grrrly fierceness ("And if you complain once more, you’ll meet an army of me") add a sinister air to this fantastical 007-like caper.

Or "Isobel" (from Post), which owes a debt to Canada’s own Guy Maddin in its layering of ancient fuzzy B&W sequences of running streams with Björk floating in said streams; the song is an ode to loving the bifurcated self ("My name: Isobel. Married to: Myself").

You’ve probably seen "Big Time Sensuality" (Debut), a high-concept clip with Björk installed on a flatbed truck cruising down Manhattan boulevards. But the hard-to-find vid "Venus as a Boy" offers bigger-time sensuality ("His wicked sense of humour suggests exciting sex"), though it’s symbolized by the eggs and butter Björk uses to fix herself breakfast. (Haven’t we all cooked a meal for someone we wish were there to share it?)

Spike Jonze is the hired gun de l’instant in the music-video demimonde. He does what I suppose videos are expected to do – attract attention. He turns Björk’s newly-released "It’s Oh-So-Quiet" into a postmodern production number set in an L.A. garage. The lovable, catchy song, which juxtaposes quiet and frenzy as a metaphor for the emotional zigzag of successive love affairs ("It’s nice and quiet – shh! shh! – but soon again – shh! shh! – starts another big riot!"), is winsomely embodied in the clip, which alternates slomo takes and big dance sequences straight out of Busby Berkeley. Look for the dancing oilcan and the atypical casting of overweight delivery guys and nice old ladies with parasols. Look also for the crappy stunts – there’s always something wrong with a Spike Jonze clip that escapes first viewing.

A 28-year-old single mother from a country of a mere quarter-million souls, Björk is a living example of how an unlikely amalgam of improbabilities can enrich the world. Sure, it’s only pop music, but that counts for something, doesn’t it?