Who is Björk? A mysterious woman in a swan dress? An Icelandic weirdo? A musical genius? Does the pop culture version of Björk hold any truth — or is Björk is just playing us? In this episode, we'll get to know the "real" Björk. We'll discuss her childhood, her early career, and yes, even that one time she attacked a reporter. We'll sort fact from fiction, discard the stereotypes, and discover how Björk sees herself.
Savannah Wright: You’re listening to Björk Unravelled — a series that demystifies Björk’s music one piece at a time. I’m your host, Savannah Wright.
When I bring up the artist Björk, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
When I hear the name Björk the first thing that pops up in my head is her swan dress.
And like it looked like a dead swan and like the neck went like around her neck. And it’s face like cov-
Wait, like a real swan?
No it was meant to…
So I learned about Björk from an episode of Gilmore Girls where the main characters make a snow-woman who looks like her and then…
The only reason I even know there’s a person named Björk is because in Celebrity Jeopardy Lucy Liu played Björk on SNL.
And see I know Björk, the Kristen Wiig Björk on SNL, and she knits a sweater for an octopus and leaves an extra hole for its hopes and dreams.
So is she famous for being weird or is she famous for her music?
I think if you listen to Björk you can pretty easily trace a lot of Radiohead’s sonic development specifically around the time of Kid A and…
Are we even saying the name right?
I don’t know [laughs]
Savannah Wright: The answer to that last question is no. I admit I’ve made the same mistake for years, but it’s “Be-yerk,” not “Be-york.” Rhymes with “jerk.”
Anyway. While there is some truth to each of those impressions, our image of Björk has been distorted by how the media portrayed her early in her career.
I know that doesn’t sound revelatory. (Wow, a celebrity is misunderstood by the media? Tell me more!) But what’s different about 2020 is that a celebrity can take more control of their image through social media.
When Björk was starting her solo career in the early ‘90s, she didn’t have that luxury.
So, to better understand “the real Björk,” let’s talk about her childhood.
Björk was a child prodigy. At the tender age 3, she was putting on impromptu performances for her family, and two years later she enrolled in the Icelandic Conservatory of Music.
She spent her days growing up flitting between her mother, who lived in a hippie commune, her father, and her grandparents. She became independent and self-sufficient as early as age five.
...and she didn’t really fit in.
She said: “I liked the kids at school, but it was like they didn’t really get me. I thought I sort of got them, but I didn’t find them very interesting. I was quite an introvert — but a happy introvert. I made up a lot of stories. It was gorgeous, you know, a lot of songs, a lot of walking. I remember walking between school, my granny, my mother’s house, my music school, and my father’s house, and sort of singing on the way, making up songs.”
I love that detail because throughout her career Björk has mentioned how much musical inspiration she gets just by walking around in nature. That’s why a lot of her songs have that 4/4 rhythm; they’re composed to the beat of a steady stride.
But walking around by yourself doesn’t really help your social life. She did have friends, but they were also the odd ones out.
As a girl, Björk was teased for her appearance. She said: “...I always had this feeling that I had been dropped in from somewhere else. That was how I was treated at school in Iceland, where the kids used to call me ‘China girl’ and everybody thought I was unusual because I was Chinese.”
To clarify, Björk is a pure Icelander.
But she used that estrangement to her advantage. Here’s what she said: “It gave me room to do my own thing. In school, I was mostly on my own, playing happily in my private world making things, composing little songs. If I can get the space I need to do my own thing by being called an alien, an elf, a China girl, or whatever, then that’s great!”
Reflecting on her childhood, you can see the roots of Björk’s personality that the media latched onto: the alien, the girl off in her own world, the one raised by hippies, the child prodigy.
But how did we get from there to the Björk caricature we know today?
The more I learned about Björk’s history, the more that caricature didn’t seem to be tied to Björk herself so much as her nationality. Sure, Björk can be strange and mythical. But that side of her was only accentuated by the mythos of her home country. To oversimplify: she was an “alien” artist from an “alien” nation.
There’s an SNL skit from 2002 that gets at this idea. In this clip Björk, played by Winona Ryder, is competing in Celebrity Jeopardy and has just buzzed in:
[2002 SNL clip of Winona Ryder as Björk in Celebrity Jeopardy 3:50 - 4:06]
Will Ferrell: Björk!
Winona Ryder: Sometimes when I’m putting oranges in a circle, I think of my thoughts and they make me laugh.
Winona Ryder: No?
Will Ferrell: Are you Icelandic or retarded?
Savannah Wright: You get the idea.
In his biography of Björk, music writer Mark Pytlik argues that our image of Björk was formed by journalists trying (and failing) to capture her enigmatic personality.
He said that over the course of the 90’s they referred to her as: “elfin, the elf child, herself the elf, the elfin alien, a pixie, a deranged pixie, pixie-faced, the Icelandic pixie, impish, the Icelandic imp, the worldly-wise imp, the quirky flighty Icelandic imp, the otherworldly Icelandic diva, playful sprite, media kook, extraterrestrial, bonkers, Bjonkers, nordic child-woman, the girl who fell to earth, Björk the dork, lunar astronaut, the world’s only cheerful techno surrealist. It goes on and on.” (Pytlik x)
Notice how often Iceland is tied to these monikers. This was before Iceland was a huge tourism destination. Outsiders knew little about the country and its residents, so they got their impression from stereotypes. They expected Icelandars to be: blonde and blue-eyed, pagan, believers in elves, trolls, and fairies… and heavy drinkers
They expected them to live in igloos and to all be in bands. If you saw the Eurovision Song Contest movie this year, then you’ve seen all of those tropes in action. Like all stereotypes, these ones have a kernel of truth — but journalists relied on them so heavily, that they often failed to see Björk as her own person.
You can hear what I mean in her interview with Johnny Vaughn in 2002:
[2002 interview with Johnny Vaughn 6:04 - 6:33]
Johnny Vaughn: You know, listening to your music over the years there’s kind of a. I don’t know. And I don’t mean this in a patronizing way or whatever. A kind of childlike sort of purity or beauty to what you do. Is that, do you think you or is that an Icelandic thing? Is that the sort of purity of where you’re from?
Björk: Hmm… I think it’s probably not fair on Iceland to think all the people over there are like me.
Johnny Vaughn: Okay.
Savannah Wright: If you trace this Björk caricature back in time, you’ll find its origin in her media appearances to promote her first album Debut. At this point in her career she was still figuring out her identity as an artist, so she did play up her Icelandic punk origin and childlike mannerisms. What they expected, she delivered.
[1993 interview on Naked City 2:26 - 3:00]
Interviewer: So what do you do on a night out in Iceland usually?
Björk: You put on your skiing costume, grab a three box of vodka, and go downtown in a blizzard and get really drunk. I mean we like to do things properly, you know. You don’t do them or you do them. And I still think the manners of the people who drink here [in England], sometimes get a little red wine glass in the middle of the week. I think it’s a bit waste of money, you know.
Björk: And it’s a bit sort of. You’re a bit of an alcoholic if you drink everyday, do you know what I mean? I’d rather just drink once a week and then drink sort of two boxes of vodka or something and do it properly, get it over and done with and get to work on Monday morning.
Interviewer: You’re a woman after my own heart.
Because she was new to the game, Björk was open about the details of her life at first. But as the press became more voracious, she had to draw the line. She had to decide how much of herself she would give away and how much she would keep private.
One aspect of her life that she kept intensely private was her son, Sindri. Björk gave birth to Sindri when she was nineteen, so he was a child during her early career, and she wanted to protect him from the spotlight.
So when the paparazzi started pestering her friends and family, Björk reached a breaking point. When she arrived in Bangkok for a tour date, this infamous moment happened:
British news anchor: Maybe it was the pressure of the press. Perhaps it was the jet lag. Whatever, it took just one reporter and the simple greeting “Welcome to Bangkok” for the popstar to lose that Icelandic cool.
Female reporter: Welcome to Bangkok.
Female reporter: Oh my god! Ow!
Savannah Wright: Yep, Björk attacked a reporter. To be fair, she later claimed that the reporter had been harassing her on the phone and trying to talk to her son.
1996 TFI Friday interview 1 [4:11 - 4:55]
Björk: It was like 9 TV channels with 4 people on each TV channel, so that makes about 40. Thirty six to be precise. Too many. And all day I’m not expecting them. And they ask you all these questions. And you’d be all polite and you’d go, ‘Listen, come tomorrow and I’ll do a proper interview with them.’ And they’d start talking live on TV. They’d go, ‘Oh, she’s too arrogant. She doesn’t got any time for us because she’s a pop star from Europe!’ and all that thing. And I was just polite and I’d be like ‘Oh huh yeah.’
And then! Guess what they did then. They went and started talking to my son.
Chris Evans: Oh, that’s not fair.
Björk: And they started, ‘Oh it’s really hard to be the son of a pop star isn’t it? Ooh.’
Chris Evans: So you beat the crap out of them.
But yeah, not a moment the media would let her live down.
That last clip was from a 1996 interview, so the year after her second album Post was released. That press circuit seemed to mark a turning point in how Björk dealt with nosy journalists. Yes, she’d play along… but she’d also subtly push back.
MTV News 1995 interview: [2:21 - 2:35]
Björk: I mean people are always going to misunderstand me. They always are. And I’m quite pleased with it. Because they just don’t know me. But so I might as well make it into a game, the misunderstanding, and enjoy the misunderstanding. You know?
Flash forward five years. Björk has just released Vespertine. At this point, she’s probably heard every Iceland joke in the book — yet she still gets hit with one in every interview. But, instead of getting exasperated, she has fun with it. She turns the tables.
Here’s a clip from her interview with German late night host Harald Schmidt.
Harald Schmidt 2001 interview [2:25 - 3:18]
Harald Schmidt: For example, younger people who don’t drive cars or how do they travel in Iceland?
Björk: Oh young people there drive cars. They have Jeeps. It’s the most common vehicle there.
Harald Schmidt: Yes?
Björk: It’s Jeeps with four wheel drive.
Harald Schmidt: You need it in Iceland?
Björk: Yeah, it’s the biggest hobby. We don’t have so much things like golf, and squash and stamp collecting.
Harald Schmidt: You’re lucky people. You’re lucky people!
Björk: Or butterfly collecting.
Harald Schmidt: Yes, so you’re lucky. You’re lucky, yeah?
Björk: People go on the weekends and they drive into the unknown. And they go over glaciers and they might fall into the cracks and die. And then they’re many together. And then one Jeep has to, people in the one Jeep have to rescue people in the other Jeep. And then they come back and they have very good stories to tell.
Björk plays into their expectations to show that a ridiculous question deserves a ridiculous answer.
That game continued in a 2002 interview with Johnny Vaughn:
Johnny Vaugn 2002 interview 2 [9:16 - 9:42]
Johnny Vaugn: And lastly you said that Icelandic humor is better than British. What sums up Icelandic humor and do you got an Icelandic joke for us?
Björk: [speaks Icelandic]
Johnny Vaugn: Uh, I don’t know. [tries to repeat her Icelandic]
Björk: [speaks Icelandic]
Johnny Vaugn: Which means?
Björk: I’m not telling you.
[Johnny and audience laugh]
And in a 2004 interview with Jonathan Ross:
Jonathan Ross 2004 interview [0:33 - 1:07]
Jonathan Ross: You are from Iceland originally.
Jonathan Ross: You are Icelandic.
Jonathan Ross: I always get a little bit confused. Is that where the eskimos live? In Iceland?
Björk: No. [laughs]
Jonathan Ross: You’re sure?
Björk: Yeah, I’m very sure. I’ve been asked and done some research and double checked many times.
Jonathan Ross: But do you know what’s odd is I was under the impression, and obviously incorrectly, that just about all people from Iceland looked like Annika Weis. Kind of like blonde and blue eyes and...
Björk: They sort of do actually. I’m the odd one out.
Jonathan Ross: You’re the eskimo.
Björk: [laughs] I’m the eskimo.
And it’s not like she’s exacting “revenge.” She’s very good natured in these exchanges, despite the interviewer purposefully misunderstanding her or trying to pigeonhole her. It’s like she has accepted her role as an “icon” — even if that icon doesn’t represent her true self.
German MTV 2001 interview [14:50 - 15:39]
Björk: I think there’s a choice. There was definitely a choice in my life around ‘96 if I wanted to be a full time celebrity or if I wanted to be, make music. And I moved to Spain to make music. But I don’t think a celebrity is bad. But I think it’s a full time job, and it invades your soul and it’s sort of a bit like being Mother Teresa. Because you sacrifice your personal life for the public. And then it’s something that’s very needed by the public, otherwise it wouldn’t exist. I think it’s as important as being a doctor or a taxi driver. It’s a very important role in society, but I’ve got offered it and I decided to rather stay a musician.
Björk’s values are clear. It has and always will be about the music for her. So forget what you’ve heard. If you want to understand Björk the person, you have to spend time with her music.
Now, when I first started writing this podcast, I thought my goal was to bring Björk’s music down to earth. I fell into the trap, maybe created by the press as well, that Björk’s music isn’t for everyone. That it’s the music of intellectuals.
But after learning and listening more, I’ve come to see Björk’s work for what it really is: pop music.
Ok, I know what some of you are thinking. Pop music? I know pop music, and Björk is not that. And you’d be partly right. Björk’s music doesn’t fit the bubblegum pop sound of the late ‘90s and early 2000’s — when she was releasing some of her greatest work. She uses a wider variety of instruments and fairly unconventional vocal techniques. But she keeps the pop structure. Enough of the bones of a pop song are there that we can get our bearings and enjoy the ride.
So, to say I’m bringing Björk’s music down to Earth supposes that it’s some intellectual body of work that needs to be explained. No, Björk’s music is an often misunderstood collection of art pop that needs to be appreciated. We just need to spend a little more time with it to get used to her style.
But, in time, you’ll find that her music is meant for a general audience. Björk’s discography has a wide variety of emotions and sounds that can appeal to anyone. Just as she intended.
1997 documentary about the making of Homogenic: [17:00 - 17:24]
Björk: I’m a pop musician, and I make music for everyone. Not for VIP or or educated people or something like that. So I want to make that. It has to be pop music. You know that everybody can relate to. So it’s a challenge. It’s experiment, and I haven’t got a clue if it’ll work or not, but you have to try.
Like Björk, I don’t have a clue if this podcast will work or not. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get you to put aside your misconceptions so you can understand and enjoy her work. But I have to try.
You’ve been listening to “Björk: Unravelled,” a series that demystifies Björk’s music — one piece at a time. “Björk: Unravelled” is produced independently by me, Savannah Wright.
In the next episode, we’ll dive into the genre-bending instrumentation of Debut and Post to see how Björk writes songs that are so original yet so catchy.
If you liked this episode, please share it with a friend and submit a review on whatever podcast app you’re using. For more on the show, follow me on Facebook and Instagram at Björk Unravelled.
You’ll find a new episode in your feeds every other Thursday. Thanks for listening.