In 1988, the music scene was still, for me, a melting pot of innovation, when “cool” artists paid as much attention to their look as they did to the unique sound they carried into studios. The rise of grunge rock in the early 1990’s, however, would soon find me mourning the loss of one of the most explosive periods of creativity in musical history, replaced by a guitar-heavy alternative rock sound I was never impressed with.
A Short History of 1980’s Music
It’s possible you naturally gravitate toward the music you grow up with, in your teens and early 20’s. This is why the ‘80’s were great, and why music of the 1990’s made me feel like I’d lost a loved one. Many of the enigmatic glam-rock bands I’d grown up with – The Cure, Depeche Mode, Sioxuie and the Banshees, Tears For Fears, The Smiths – were, seemingly overnight, wept away like yesterday’s dust.
Consequently, the culture change caused by Nirvana’s debut release, Nevermind, in 1991 was, for me, largely depressing. It seemed as though every recording engineer henceforth would habitually turn up the distortion on anything they tracked.
MTV was the highlight of cable TV for me, a music channel I’d once spent hours watching, mesmerized by an endless stream of well-directed videos, documentaries, and special-interest gems like 120 Minutes.
Like an ex-girlfriend who suddenly became just “somebody I used to know,” MTV began a long, embarrassing descent in popularity by systematically abandoning those who made it famous, giving birth to such reality-TV forgettables as Lunch With Jesse and Date My Mom.
Of A Shining Star, A Dying Breed
Nevertheless, I digress. During this time, I still had the good fortune to hear the song Birthday, the debut single from The Sugarcubes’ first album, Life’s Too Good (1988). I was instantly blown away by the tiny lead singer’s powerful, lilting voice, that effortlessly changed from delicate flower to guttural car-horn in the span of a single phrase. Her name, Björk, was equally unique.
The magical combination of weird sounds and playful rhythms that made up the single’s success would rarely be matched over the 6 years The Sugarcubes were together, and the band had split by 1992, in part due to Björk’s determination to expand her potential and groundbreaking depth as a solo artist.
Björk’s one-of-a-kind voice was destined to be heard for years to come, so no surprise she was at work as early as 1990 on songs that led to an aptly titled record called Debut in 1993. Since then, the Icelandic native has recorded 8 studio albums, achieved 30 Top 40 world singles (22 in the UK), and is estimated to have sold between 20 and 40 million records to date.
Björk’s popularity and respect within the music industry, as a singer-songwriter and innovative artist, is due, in part, to an immense imagination that remains fervent through four decades of musical productivity, utilizing the best in audio and video technology to add personal experience and narrative depth to her compositions.
Her success as a recording artist is fueled by the musical courage to fearlessly reinvent her public persona, always remaining true to a unique vocal style and delivery that consistently strives to pull the listener in. The singer’s musical phrases simultaneously soothe, demand, and capture your attention.
Throughout my long-time fascination with her music, I’ve often wondered how one person could be so simultaneously introspective, sophisticated, playful, avant-garde, whimsical, and blatantly sexual. Individual phrases sung by Bjork have, many times, sent chills through my body. It’s a feeling you, thankfully, don’t soon forget.
Great Performance, More Respect
I recently watched a premiere performance on You Tube, recorded in December, 2001, at Royal Opera House. I was amazed at the versatility and virtuosity of the ensemble of performers accompanying Björk on stage that night, emoting a host of sounds as diverse as shoes through rock salt, music boxes, a sonorous electric cello, and controlled electronic processing that has made the character of her music so unique.
Despite the technically challenging nature of the material itself, Björk’s performance on stage was easy to digest, with a notable and refreshing absence of pomp and circumstance that might characterize concerts of similarly “famous” performers. Ever focused and demure when not singing, only a simple thank you bridged brief gaps between songs before she dove into another of 22 songs she performed that night.
The significance of Björk’s musical library, to me, is that it provides a salve for the wound that will not heal – my pleasure in, and departure from, the ’80’s music I still enjoy listening to.
Her catalogue shows that artists can be both successful and creatively unique without relying on formulaic songwriting and predictable instrumentation, in generating hit records that reach deep into the depths of a listener’s soul.
Wikipedia (2016). Björk. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bj%C3%B6rk.