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EPISODE 4

Björk has a superpower that the best musicians do: she can create a character to tell a compelling musical story. David Bowie did it with Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke. Prince did it with Camille. And Nicki Minaj... has too many characters to count.

One of Björk's characters is Selma, whom she played in the 2000 film Dancer in the Dark. She said that the soundtrack she created for the film was her gift to Selma.  The songs serve as windows into Selma’s inner thoughts and dreams. Examining how these songs bring Selma to life demonstrates Björk’s brilliance as a storyteller — something that I think any film score fan or even country fan can appreciate. So in this episode we’re going to explore the rich interior world of Selmasongs.

 
 

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.


Björk has a superpower that the best musicians do: she can create a character to tell a compelling musical story. David Bowie did it with Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke. Prince did it with Camille. And Nicki Minaj... has too many characters to count.


Björk’s character is Isobel. She’s a fiercely independent heroine who leaves the forest to enter the city. Her adventures are told in three songs: “Human Behavior,” “Isobel,” and “Bachelorette.”


Isobel’s story was Björk’s foray into alter egos, but she’d go on to perfect that storytelling in the album she released after Homogenic, the soundtrack for a film called Dancer in the Dark. 


This was Björk’s big screen debut. She played the lead character Selma, and she actually won best actress at the Cannes festival for her performance.


It was a huge honor… but Björk cared more about getting recognized for her work on the soundtrack. One of the songs was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song, so she performed it at the 2001 Academy Awards — where, yes, she wore her iconic swan dress.


[clip from Björk’s Oscars performance]


She titled the soundtrack Selmasongs in honor of the character she brought to life. She said: “I see the album not as the soundtrack to the film but rather as the realization of Selma’s dream. I want this record to be my gift to Selma.” 


[Björk DITD clip 0:41 - 1:12]

It’s sort of the whole thing is for the love of Selma. Which of course is funny because she doesn’t exist. But that’s kinda why. And that’s even why I finally accepted the role that Lars kept offering me. I mean I’m a very stubborn person. I would have said no for another ten years easy, you know. But I kind of fell in love with her I guess a little bit and felt she needed defending, you know?


Savannah Wright: The songs aren’t just fun musical romps, although two of them definitely are, but they serve as windows into Selma’s inner thoughts and dreams.


Examining how these songs bring Selma to life demonstrates Björk’s brilliance as a storyteller — something that I think any country fan or even film score fan can appreciate. So in this episode we’re going to explore the rich interior world of Selmasongs.


[MUSIC TRANSITION]


To understand this record, we first need to know a little more about Dancer in the Dark.


The film follows Selma, a Czech woman who immigrated to the States to find her American Dream. She works in an industrial factory by day and stars in community theatre at night. She’s obsessed with musicals and wishes her life would become one. So the songs Björk wrote for the movie play during the musical numbers in Selma’s daydreams.


Despite that cheerful premise, this is not a happy movie. It’s heartbreaking. Selma suffers from a disease that slowly deteriorates her vision. Her son, Gene, has the same condition, and she has to save every last dime to afford the operation that can save his vision.


Each of the songs in the film accompanies a daydream of Selma’s. Because Selma is losing her vision, her other senses are heightening to compensate — her hearing in particular. These musical numbers often begin with Selma noticing a repetitive noise that then forms the beat of the song.


I want to talk about each of these songs in context because I feel like it’ll help you appreciate how they both develop Selma and drive the story forward. 


Fair warning, there are spoilers ahead. I mean the movie is 20 years old, but if you don’t want to know anything… maybe pause this episode and watch Dancer in the Dark first.


Ok, let’s start with the first musical number in the movie, “Cvalda.” This song introduces Selma’s penchant for fantasizing her life as a musical. In this scene, Selma is working at her job in a metal container making factory. To distract herself from the tedium, she focuses on the whirs and bangs of the machine. To Selma, even the awful din of a factory can be music. 


[“Cvalda” 0:50 - 1:10]


Björk shows this perspective in the music by turning the mechanical sounds into the beat of a big band number.


[“Cvalda” 2:25 - 2:48]

“A clatter machine / What a magical sound / A room full of noises / That spins you around”


Savannah Wright: Magical clattering, anything is music… sound familiar? That’s because this song became fodder for an SNL joke in 2002 when Winona Ryder impersonated Björk on Celebrity Jeopardy.


[Winona Ryder SNL clip]

Will Ferrell: Björk, this is the only thing that becomes toast.

Winona Ryder: Everything is music. When I go home I throw nickels into the oven, and it’s music. Crash! Boom Bang! Chickem! Choom! Gah!

[buzzer sounds, audience laughs]


Savannah Wright: Sure, this idea fits neatly into the Björk stereotype as a whimsical, other-worldly fairy. And it is funny the first time you hear it. But Björk said that this musical philosophy was a conscious decision.


[Björk DITD clip 0:06 - 0:38]

Björk: Since I was a child I wanted to do a musical that was not like the Hollywood ones where the magic sort of didn’t. You know you didn’t have to be American or have a lot of money or look great to have magic. It was something everybody could do in their own kitchen. And if this was a musical, like we would stand up and play the chair and throw that at the ceiling. And I would sing and you would sing. And we could only use what we have here. It would not be extra things.


Savannah Wright: “Cvalda” is a glimpse into Selma’s point of view — and her fatal flaw. Because as we’ll see later in the film, this romanticizing tendency — while helpful in getting through the mundanity of life — deludes Selma. And that delusion is an important setup for the conflict with her landlord that fuels the rest of the movie.


Ok, fast forward a bit. Selma has been gradually losing her vision. As she walks home from a late shift at work, her friend Jeff stops her to ask if she needs a ride. Stubborn Selma refuses and walks onto the train tracks to find her way home. Jeff persists, unnerved by her strange behavior. When a train rushes past, nearly hitting Selma, he asks her if she can see, and she deflects by saying, “What is there to see?”


So begins the next track I want to discuss: “I’ve Seen It All.”


Björk DITD clip [5:35 - 6:20]

Björk: The heart of the whole film was this “i’ve seen it all” train song. When I asked Lars, you know, ‘So where’s the love song?’ [laughs] And he’s like, ‘There’s no love in this film!’ And so I ended up. For a woman of that age, I mean that must be her first standpoint and the rest sort of falls into place around that. And the fact that she didn’t want love. She could have had it if she wanted but she didn’t want it. That has to be the core of her, you know. I mean, as a woman.


[“I’ve Seen It All” 0:00 - 0:15]


Savannah Wright: As you hear in that clip, the song begins roughly the same way as “Cvalda” does. Selma’s imagination turns the mundane sounds of the train tracks into a Hollywood musical number.


In the film this is a duet between Selma and Jeff, but for the soundtrack Björk wanted to elevate the song with a respected vocalist. So she asked someone she had wanted to collaborate with for a few years: Thom Yorke.


Yes, two of my favorite vocalists of all time on one track. If you don’t know already, I did a podcast about Radiohead called Fake Plastic Podcast. So in my mind, this is the best collaboration that ever happened in music history. 


Anyway, let’s examine the lyrics again because this is where Björk further develops Selma’s character. As we know, Selma is going physically blind, but the lyrics are about a different kind of blindness: pride. Throughout the movie we see Selma’s pride prove her undoing. She doesn’t ask for people’s help, and she refuses to admit her own blindness.


But in this song we also feel her pain. Deep down, she knows she’s losing her vision — and her ability to provide for her son — yet she pretends that it isn’t a problem. When Jeff points it out to her, she pretends not to care, as if to avoid feeling the pain head-on.


We hear this struggle between clarity and delusion in the two vocalists in the song. Jeff tries to remind her of all the things she’ll miss if she goes blind, but Selma feigns interest.


[“I’ve Seen It All” 1:45 - 2:05]

And the man you will marry / The home you will share / To be honest / I really don't care


Savannah Wright: There’s a line after this part where Thom sings,


[“I’ve Seen It All” 2:20 - 2:38]

You’ve never been to Niagara Falls / I have seen water. It’s water, that’s all.


Savannah Wright: There is a kernel of truth to it. We do romanticize natural wonders like Niagara Falls — when really it’s made up of the same components of any waterfall.


But what kills me is when he brings up priceless moments that she won’t be able to see. He sings about the man she will marry and the home they will share. 


[“I’ve Seen It All” 2:47 - 3:17]


Such tragic irony! Because of course Selma cares. She cares enough to sacrifice everything, to leave her homeland for America in order to get her son the operation that will save his vision. But to admit that she cares is to confront overwhelming, irreparable loss.


We can feel that loss when she sings the final chorus. On the surface she’s reassuring herself that losing her vision won’t matter, but the way Björk sings the lines shows that Selma is heartbroken.


[“I’ve Seen It All” 3:24 - 4:06]

I've seen what I chose / And I've seen what I need / And that is enough / To want more would be greed / I've seen what I was / And I know what I'll be / I've seen it all / There is no more to see


Savannah Wright: That last line almost has two meanings. “There is no more to see” because she’s refusing to acknowledge what she’ll miss, but there’s also no more to see because she’s already going blind. She couldn’t see even if she wanted to.


Before I move on to the next song, I want to highlight just how amazing it is that Björk collaborated with Thom Yorke. It was literally years in the making. According to biographer Mark Pytlik, “Plans to co-headline a North American tour with Radiohead [in 1997] were announced and subsequently jettisoned when it became evident that both artists’ elaborate stage requirements made it impossible to orchestrate the transition from one to the other with any degree of effectiveness.”


Such a nice way to put it, Mark. Basically Björk and Radiohead are just too extra to perform on one stage. They both use sophisticated visual components in their performances, so dismantling one set to reconstruct the other would take too long. 


Luckily, Björk persisted in recording at least one song with Yorke. Here’s what she said about working with him: “We were always just about to do something together, and we were just waiting for the right situation. I was really excited about this song. I thought that I finally had a song that deserved his voice, ‘cause he’s definitely my favorite male singer in the world.” (149)


Turns out, the feeling is mutual. Thom Yorke said that “Unravel” is one of his favorite songs in the world.


[“Unravel” by Thom Yorke cover]


Ok, I want to talk about two more songs. The first happens during a pivotal courtroom scene. Selma is facing charges for the conflict with her landlord. It’s a grim situation, so to avoid feeling discomfort or fear, she escapes into another fantasy musical number. It’s called “In the Musicals.”


[“In the Musicals” 0:08 - 0:23]


As you can hear, it starts with a hip hop beat made up of the sounds Selma hears in the room: squeaking shoes and pencil taps.


I think of this song as almost a reprise of “Cvalda.” Selma is turning a difficult situation into a musical fantasy to escape the discomfort. But in this one she can’t hold the fantasy together. Moments of reality break through in the verses — which, as you heard, are fairly dissonant.


It’s in the chorus when the fantasy is strongest. The strings swell, and the harp, and Selma sings about life in the musicals — where all will be made right in the end.


[“In the Musicals” 0:58 - 1:10]

“And there's always someone / To catch me / There's always someone to catch me”


Savannah Wright: I feel like “In the Musicals” shows Selma’s limits. She can keep trying to escape conflict through music, but she can’t escape its consequences. I hear that in the last line when the strings cut out and she sings “when I’d fall” a capella — as if acknowledging that her fall cannot be music-ed away.


[“In the Musicals” 4:25 - 4:37]


Which brings us to the end of the movie, when Selma does fall. I don’t want to completely spoil the ending if you haven’t seen it, so I’ll try to stick to the basics. The last musical number isn’t like the others. It’s Selma singing a capella in one final attempt to find solace in music. The lyrics are slightly different in the film version than the one in the soundtrack, but it’s called “New World.”


[“New World” 0:49 - 1:50]


There’s this scene earlier in the movie when Selma is talking to her landlord, and she mentions her love of musicals. She says she loves every minute except the last number because that means the show is over. So she leaves the theater in the second-to-last song — that way the musical can go on forever.


In the film version she sings a line about how this isn’t the last song — even though we as an audience know that it is. It’s one of those moments of tragic irony that can bring you to tears. 


[New World film version 1:30 - 2:00]


And the soundtrack version captures that hope that Selma maintains throughout the film. Sure, at times it’s basically delusion and can be damaging. But how else could she have survived as a struggling immigrant who’s losing her vision? The fantasy helped her endure.


That message is conveyed most clearly through the instruments in this song. The horns are majestic, providing a fitting end to a musical, but they also carry an undercurrent of sadness. Let’s listen to the very beginning of the song when they appear.


[“New World” 0:14 - 0:34]


The horns feel melancholy, as if they’re acknowledging the reality of her situation. But as the song continues, and Selma’s fantasy gains strength, the horns gain a greater majesty as well.


[“New World” 3:30 - 3:50]


To me, it’s like they’re sending the message that Selma’s body may be broken but her spirit isn’t. Her hope is resilient.


What’s also interesting about the instrumentation are the interplay of the beat and the strings. We know by now that arranging beats and strings is Björk’s specialty. Here, the beat propels the song forward. There’s a sense of anticipation, a new beginning. To compare, let’s listen to the opening “Overture,” which doesn’t have the beat.


[“Overture” 0:21-0:41]


And then here’s the version with the beat in “New World.”


[“New World” 0:21 - 0:34]


The overture feels brooding, whereas “New World” feels anticipatory. Exciting. There’s that sense of something beginning juxtaposed with the sense of finality from the strings.


A beginning and an ending. Just like Selma’s situation in the final scene of the movie.


[“New World” 3:55 - 4:10]


Think about your favorite song. Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be a Björk song. Just think about it for a minute.


Do the lyrics tell a story?


It could be as superficial as going to the club or partying with your friends. But still, it’s a story. It transports you to another place. Like a forest in Iceland. Or another time — when the forest spreads its roots into the city.


In Selmasongs Björk tells Selma’s story in multiple layers: through the instrumentation, the lyrics, and her vocal performance. When you listen with that angle in mind, you can really lose yourself in its beauty.


And as the world gets more chaotic, that escape feels critical to survive. To keep going in spite of it all.


So listen closely, find a thread, follow it, and listen again.


You never know where it might take you.


[MUSIC]


The “anything is music” concept we heard in Selmasongs became the foundation for Björk’s next album, Vespertine. On that record Björk made experimental beats using everyday sounds like shuffling cards and crunching snow. In the next episode, we’ll discover how Vespertine’s tapestry of beats unleashed Björk’s creativity as a producer.


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. Share your thoughts with me on Facebook and Instagram @bjorkunravelled.


You’ll find a new episode in your feeds every other Thursday. Thanks for listening.