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EPISODE 2

In 2020, when artists like Lil Nas X, Billie Eilish, and Lizzo try on musical styles like they do designer clothing, genre seems irrelevant. But that’s a pretty new development. In fact, back in the mid-90’s, when CD’s reigned supreme, genre was everything.
So when Björk released her first album, Debut — a record that sampled a different musical style in nearly every song — the music world took note. Her chameleon-like ability to adapt to any genre, and then make it her own, set Björk apart from other artists. So in this episode, we’ll talk about how Björk bends genre and why it matters.

 
 

TRANSCRIPT

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.


So a few weeks ago you probably saw a bunch of people share their Spotify Wrapped. One of the more unusual categories Spotify tracks is how many genres you listen to. Apparently I discovered 119 genres this year? Which seems unbelievable. 


But Spotify has become super niche in the way they categorize music. Gone are the days of the big ten genres: Christian, classical, country, jazz, rap, rock, soul, soundtrack, standards, and world. Now, we have permanent wave, chamber psych, vapor soul, melodic metalcore, the list goes on. 


In 2020, when big artists like Lil Nas X, Billie Eilish, and Lizzo try on musical styles like they do designer clothing, genre seems irrelevant. But that’s a pretty new development. In fact, back in the mid-90’s, when CD’s reigned supreme, genre was everything.


So when Björk released her first album, Debut — a record that sampled a different musical style in nearly every song — the music world took note. Her chameleon-like ability to adapt to any genre, and then make it her own, set Björk apart from other artists. So in this episode, we’ll talk about how Björk bends genre and why it matters. 


Björk had been a part of several punk bands growing up and was a vocalist and keyboardist in an alternative band called The Sugarcubes. So Debut was an opportunity for Björk to establish her artistic vision as a solo act. Tired of the guitar music of her youth, she immediately turned to pop music.


But the sounds she chose weren’t typical for 90s pop music. No. When asked about her dream collaborations for the album, she requested the World Saxophone Quartet and jazz harpist Corky Hale. 


She also drew inspiration from electronic, house, trip hop, and even Bollywood music. 


The result? “A successful marriage of seemingly incongruous forms and philosophies into something complete, vibrant, and whole.”


That’s a quote from music journalist Mark Pytlik, who wrote a biography about Björk called Björk: Wow and Flutter. I’ll be referencing that book throughout this series.


He goes on to say: “Better yet was how accessible it remained. Unintentionally, Björk had birthed a rare bird — a pop record that united all factions.”


So let’s dive into a song from Debut that captures this winning combination of originality and accessibility. It’s one of Björk’s highest charting singles of all-time: “Human Behavior.”


[Human Behavior chorus]


A lot of critics classified Debut under experimental pop, so let’s talk about what makes “Human Behavior” different from the pop music of its time:


The single was released in June 1993, a month before Debut hit record stores. What was happening in pop music in 1993? Let’s look at the Billboard year-end hot 100.


Number one on the list: Whitney Houston’s iconic cover of “I Will Always Love You.” 

[“I Will Always Love You” chorus] 

To me, this is the kind of saccharine ballad that played at the end of every 90’s rom-com.


Number two: “Whoomp! (There It Is)” by Tag Team. 

[“Whoomp!”chorus] 

A classic. Tag Team was basically a one-hit wonder, but this song captures the late 80s/early 90s hip hop sound that took over the radio.


And then this song wasn’t on the US Billboard charts in 1993, but it’s worth noting that 1993 marked the height of grunge in the world and the beginning of Britpop in the UK. It’s the same year Radiohead released their first studio album: Pablo Honey. 

[“Creep” chorus]


So you have all that playing on the radio: contemporary ballads, hip hop, grunge. And then there’s “Human Behavior.” 


[“Human Behavior” 0:00 - 0:10]


"Human Behaviour" features a "bouncing riff" sampled from Antônio Carlos Jobim on the timpani. Timpani are kettle drums often used in classical music.


That’s already pretty different from the crunchy guitars, sampled beats, and sentimental piano we heard on the Billboard charts. 


But remember: this single, and Debut as a whole, was a huge mainstream success. It could use different instruments, but it had to be familiar enough to still be considered pop music.


Like, listen to this part at the end of the song. 


[“Human Behavior” 3:14-3:24] 


Remind you of anything?


[“The Power” by SNAP! (1990) 0:07 - 0:17]


It also has a 4/4 beat even though the timpani syncopation might throw you off. And that’s the most common rhythm used in pop.


Now, while this was the lead single of Debut, I wouldn’t say it’s representative of the entire album. Because the album doesn’t stick to just one style. There’s some Bollywood influence of “Venus as a Boy,” which Rolling Stone called an ambient track.


[“Venus as a Boy” 0:30 - 0:47]


There’s techno and acid house, like in the crowd pleaser “Big Time Sensuality.” 


[“Big Time Sensuality” 0:40 - 0:57]


And right before that track? A beautiful harp cover of the jazz standard “Like Someone in Love.”


[“Like Someone in Love” 1:37 - 1:56]


So why the diversity?


Here’s what Björk said: “I think pop music has betrayed us… The problem is that too many people dismiss pop as crap because nobody has had the courage to make pop that’s relevant to the modern world. Pop music has become stagnant. This is really a paradox because it should change and evolve every day… I want [Debut] to be pop music that everybody can listen to. I think not sticking to any particular musical style makes the album real. Life isn’t always the same. You don’t live in the same style from day to day, unexpected things happen that are beyond your control. That’s this record. One song is about the mood you’re in walking to the corner shop, another is about being drunk and out of it on drugs in a club, and the next one is about feeling romantic and making love.”


Björk’s former manager Netty Walker said something similar about the record: “...it was like everyone seemed to find one song on the album that they really liked. But they found the album itself quite confusing in some ways because they couldn’t love it all. That’s great, because life’s like that — you can’t like all of it.” 


I wanted to touch on this aspect of Debut because it shows how versatile Björk is. She tries on multiple different musical styles, and one of them will stick to you — regardless of your taste in music.


I’ll admit Debut was not my favorite starting out, but it has grown on me. What actually hooked me first was her follow-up record: Post, which is somehow even more musically diverse.


[MUSIC TRANSITION]


Björk wrote Post in London, where she lived after her Debut days. There, she got inspired by the multicultural music scene. You hear that influence all over the album. 


  • She plays with jungle and Latin in “I Miss You”

  • industrial music in “Army of Me”

  • Classical in “Hyperballad”

  • Trip hop in “The Modern Things”

  • Electronic in “Possibly Maybe”

  • Big-band jazz in “It’s Oh So Quiet”... and

  • Experimental in “Headphones”


Even the album cover shows this global influence. In the photo, Björk wears a white coat that has the red and blue stripes of a postal envelope. She stands in Piccadilly Circus, basically the Times Square of London, surrounded by lights and screens. In a 2008 Stereogum interview, she said: “My musical heart was scattered at the time and I wanted the album to show that.”


She also described the album as “musically promiscuous” and “spastic.”


Listening to it back-to-back, Post feels like a natural evolution of the colorful sounds of Debut. Here Björk continues her exploration outside of guitar-based music, but I argue that Post sounds slightly more focused. It’s a step up.


And a lot of Björk fans would agree with me. Post has a lot of favorites, like “Hyperballad,” “It’s Oh So Quiet,” “Army of Me,” and “Possibly Maybe.” 


Although it’s her most popular song, I’m not gonna cover “It’s Oh So Quiet” because it’s a cover of a song by Betty Hutton. I know, I know. The Björk version is iconic, but I want to talk about two complete originals instead: “Army of Me” and “Hyperballad.”


Let’s start with “Army of Me.”


[“Army of Me” 0:00 - 0:14]


What you’ll notice listening to Björk’s music is how she can capture the full range of human expression. This song falls somewhere between rage and righteous indignation.


That pounding industrial beat, menacing bassline, and clashing synths all propel the song forward and underline her frustration.


Here’s Björk said about the inspiration for the song: “[My younger brother] had been a bit out of order for a while. I'm not sure why I wrote it. Maybe I felt that Debut had been such a polite, shy album – there was a side of me that was so shy and such a beginner, I was very flattered when everyone loved Debut but also a bit confused because it wasn't really me. Maybe 'Army Of Me' was an attempt to balance it out."


I love how this quote from Björk completely upends the stereotype of her being a whimsical, mystical creative elf. This is how she sees herself: bold, assertive, and in control.


[“Army of Me” verse]


In a 2012 interview, Björk added: "Imagine you're in a club full of heavy metal types and grunge people; 'Army of Me' is like someone's granny blasting out over the PA and saying, 'Snap out of it! Stop whining! Wash your hair! Smarten yourself up!'"


This quote is hilarious, considering the ubiquity of grunge music when this record came out. This feels like an answer to every whiny grunge song on the radio. Like here’s Thom Yorke singing, “I’m a creep! I’m a weirdo…” And Björk is like, “You're alright / There's nothing wrong.”


[“Army of Me” 1:11 - 1:31]


Now, let’s talk about how the musical style underscores the message — because her use of industrial music is purposeful here. 


It’s not rock because, remember, Björk hates guitar music. But it does draw from that thrashing beat of industrial rock. This genre started in the 70s with bands like Cromagnon, Throbbing Gristle, and Skinny Puppy. 


[Throbbing Gristle - “Dead on arrival” clip]


It didn’t reach the mainstream until the mid-90s — when Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, and Marilyn Manson brought it to the radio.


[Marilyn Manson - “The Beautiful People” clip]


Industrial rock is known for its cacophonic loops, harsh synths, and gritty vocals. The lyrics are often aggressive and stand off-ish, making it closer to metal than it is to grunge — which tends to skew more into introspection and angst.


This might explain why Björk used industrial sounds to underscore the message of “Army of Me.” What better way to convey an army than through an ominous bass line and clashing synths?


[“Army of Me” chorus]


So while some artists might play to genre to establish their identity, Björk plays with genre to amplify the message of each song. She isn’t beholden to any one style.


Let’s listen to the transition from this song to the next one because I couldn’t have imagined the musical thread that could unite these two. But it’s there.


[Hyperballad 0:00 - 0:22]


...that throbbing bass has slowed down to a pleasant hum.


This is “Hyperballad.”


In this song, Björk mixes EDM synths with orchestral strings, a combination that she’d perfect in her next album Homogenic.


She sings about throwing random things off a cliff to get out her frustrations, to feel more alive. It’s a celebration of life, a ritual. 


[“Hyperballad” first verse]


In an interview with Record Collector, Björk said this song “is about when you’re in a relationship and it’s going really well and you’re really happy and maybe you have given up parts of yourself. To fall in love and be in a relationship for a long time is like giving a lot of parts of you away because the relationship becomes more important than you as individuals. It’s a bit of a tricky balance. I think everyone in a relationship needs to know not to forget themselves… Obviously, it’s imaginary and didn’t actually happen: she wakes up before him and sneaks out and throws stuff off a cliff so she can climb back into bed and go ‘Good morning, honey’. There’s maybe a side of you that you can’t fit into a relationship." 


How does the instrumentation reinforce this image? 


Well, the drums give a sense of anticipation. It feels like your heart is pounding.


The instrumentation gradually builds throughout the song and peaks in the second chorus. That’s a feature of EDM that you heard all over pop in the 2010’s. Producers called it “the pop drop.” 


And then there’s that breakdown at the end. The electronic sounds feel like they’re being pitched down (like the objects). 


[“Hyperballad” plays]


Then there’s the feeling of freefall, with the higher pitched strings zipping towards you. 


[“Hyperballad” plays]


And, at the end, the strings lower in pitch to give a feeling of safety.


It makes sense that Björk would adopt the joyful synths and four-on-the-floor beat of EDM in this song. Think about it: dance music in the 90s was happy and carefree. Songs like “The Rhythm of the Night” by Corona and “What Is Love” by Haddaway were for dancing your problems away. So when these sounds enter the chorus, they mirror the joy Björk feels after her alone time.


Personally, this song makes me feel alive; my heart skips a beat when I hear her sing “to be safe again.”


[“Hyperballad” 2:50 - 3:00]


And that emotion is important. In an interview with MTV Brazil a year after Post, Björk said that making her listeners feel something was her barometer of success. 


1995 interview at the Reading festival [0:48 - 1:20]

Björk: Well basically I think all people are very different inside. And they’ve got all these different sides to them. Like a silly side, a clever side, a sad side, a painful side, a happy side, and musical styles are not — shouldn’t be taken too literally. They’re just like something to make these moments, the emotions bigger. You know? And that’s how I look at it. So I was. I’ve always been determined that my albums have got all the emotional scale in them. And whatever it takes to make that.


Björk bends genres so easily because she doesn’t care about artificial barriers. She didn’t purposefully set out to write an EDM track or an industrial track. She didn’t intentionally pull from other artists making that kind of music. She simply used the sounds that best conveyed the emotion of the song. 


Her music is diverse because emotions are diverse. Her music is like real life.


[MUSIC]


One critical way Björk conveys emotion is through her voice. It’s her most powerful asset — and also her greatest liability. Because if there’s one common objection I hear from Björk skeptics, it’s that they just can’t get on board with her vocal style. In the next episode, I’ll tackle that critique head on.


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. 


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.