When I began conceptualizing this blog in the ol’ brainspace, one of the first sections I came up with was “Records That Made Me a Feminist.” I knew Björk was going to get at least one entry. Homogenic and Vespertine each played a vital part of shaping my politics. So, I figured out I’d probably have to write about them together.
Pairing albums for this section of the blog is something I originally wanted to do this when covering Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, which I started listening to around the same time as PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. I liked the idea of dialoguing seemingly dissimilar work by female artists with one another, but I feared covering those two albums together would short-shrift the artists who made them. However, talking about two distinct pieces of work by one woman seemed easier. And essential. So here we go.
I must admit that covering Björk’s 1997 and 2000 full-length releases present its own political challenges that makes me think critically about how I understand and practice feminism. Both of these albums made me a feminist largely because of the boys I was preoccupied with at the time.
But while my initial reception and resulting connections to them were tied up with potentially normative feelings around romantic angst and heterosexual coupling, I feel the albums speak to my development at the time as well as transcend it. In other words, Homogenic and Vespertine may remind me of boys I used to date, but they speak to larger, more overtly feminist issues as well.
Of course, being a feminist doesn’t mean you can’t like boys or be hung up on them from time to time, so long as you don’t let them run your life. Which I don’t think Björk endorses in either of these records, even though she herself has an ambivalent relationship with feminism (though not with calling out the music industry’s sexist practices of attributing male engineers and instrumental songwriters).
Importantly, as both albums were prescient to my development, they also went over my head when I first listened to them. Debut and Post were more accessible and, as a result, I liked them almost immediately. It was hard for 10-year-old me not to fall for the girl dancing through New York City on a flatbed in the music video for “Big Time Sensuality.”
But Björk’s next two albums took more time to process. Both albums mark advances in the artist’s production sensibilities, approaches to music-making, and interest in electronic instrumentation. Thus, just as Björk had to evolve as a musician before creating these albums, I had to mature a bit as a person before liking them as a fan.
So, Homogenic came out just as I was starting high school. I don’t exactly remember when I bought it, but I think it was sometime toward the end of junior year. I completely ignored it at the time. Or rather, I listened to it once, went “ooh, so angry!” and put Post back on.
The particulars I’ll keep to myself for the sake of decorum. Suffice it to say that I dated someone for a little while, fell in love, we broke up, and I spent a little over a year trying to get us back together. It didn’t work out. Eventually I got over him and whatever I thought we were, but not without some pain and denial and then serious personal re-evaluation. The healing process involved some righteous anger, loud parties, several bottles of wine and other goodies, and burgeoning feminist development. After a rough start, 19 turned out to be a pretty okay year. Homogenic was its soundtrack.
Now, I have no problem acknowledging that this guy was a total jerk to me. But feminism isn’t only about recognizing and calling out chauvinistic bullshit. It’s also about self-empowerment, personal accountability, and un-learning heteronormativity and patriarchal co-dependence. It isn’t always just the guy’s fault, even when it is.
Thus, I also have to own up to being really needy and delusional at the time. I pinned my worth on whoever I was dating without questioning whether being with them was actually good for me. So I projected my own big feelings and insecurities on someone who clearly didn’t want to be with me. I was ignoring the reality of the situation and, as a result, my own well-being. I finally recognized what I was doing when confronted with the lyric “How could I be so immature to think he could replace the missing elements in me — how extremely lazy of me.”
Kinda appropriate that a break-up record got me over mine, no? Apparently, Björk made the album after breaking up with drum’n’bass musician Goldie while they were working on their own project. Hence lines like “So you left me on my own to complete the mission, but now I’m leaving it all behind.” But it pretty much hit all the right notes of melancholy, indignation, rage, and feisty recovery for me. I’m a quarter Norwegian on my mother’s side, so even the line “I thought I could organize freedom — how Scandinavian of me” in “Hunter” applied.
Attention must be paid to the album’s sound and how it marked a musical departure for Björk. Post was an eclectic mix that boasted songs like “Army of Me,” “Enjoy,” and “Headphones,” that opened up her sound to include state-of-the-art aggressive digital distortion and serene electronic minimalism.
While this was evident in the production work Tricky and 808 State’s Graham Massey did on Post, it wasn’t the focus. It would come to define the artistic work she began doing with producers like Mark Bell on Homogenic and would continue to do with Matmos on Vespertine. But I’d hedge that most casual listeners just remember Post‘s “It’s Oh So Quiet,” which was produced by Björk’s then-mainstay, Nellee Hooper, the man responsible for all the production on her breakthrough Debut. He was also responsible for “Hyperballad,” which I’d argue suggests the artist’s shift, which is fully evident on her next album.
Man, I wish I could post the music video, but WMG has apparently disabled the audio. All the more reason to check out Michel Gondry’s Directors Label DVD, or any of the other myriad DVD titles that have documented her videography.
So Homogenic marks a transition from being a pop star to an artist who challenges her listeners’ ears and expectations with each release. By 1997, we also heard alternative pop stars like Beck and Radiohead establish themselves similarly with Odelay and OK Computer. We would hear Radiohead do it again in 2000 with the mind-blowing Kid A, where they really demonstrated their love for electronic instrumentation and experimental production techniques.
Björk was already on this path in 1997, but while Radiohead looked outward toward the fallabilities of modern life, Björk looked inward at the seductive pleasures and wobbly peculiarities of domestic life and partnership on her next record, rapturing at her voice’s clicks and finding percussive possibilities out of shuffled decks of cards. I don’t think these innovations went unnoticed when Radiohead went to work on In Rainbows. To me, Vespertine‘s influence is all over a song like “Nude,” which was originally an outtake from OK Computer. This is further confirmed by the band’s rendition of Homogenic‘s “Unravel” as a tip of the hat. As if lead singer Thom Yorke’s backing vocals on “Náttúra” aren’t enough.
Hmmm. Maybe at some point, I’ll consider Yorke’s duets with Björk and PJ Harvey. Yorke is one of my favorite vocalists, a fact confirmed by a recent revisit of Hail to the Thief. If one of my friends ran a blog on male masculinity and music culture, I’d pen a guest entry in a second.
But I was afflicted with a troubled mind when Vespertine first came out. In addition to boy heartache, I was going through some considerable familial strife. I was also starting my first semester of college, so a tackier person might blame 9/11.
After seeing the music video for “Hidden Place,” I dutifully bought the album, along with My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, another at-the-time inscrutable release, at the Tower Records by campus. I listened to the album a few times, but my head was not in the right place for it. It was too contented and quiet. I couldn’t hear it. And then for a little while all I could hear was Homogenic at full volume.
To be blunt, Vespertine didn’t really make sense to me until I started having sex. Critics like Ryan Dombal would seem to concur. I remember seeing her performance of “Cocoon” on Jay Leno and thinking that it was really quiet, but totally not getting how micro-embodied intimacy is the song’s entire purpose. While I had a good understanding of mechanics and had engaged in related activities before going into my first listen, I don’t think a song like “Cocoon” makes sense to a person unless they’ve experienced it, to speak euphemistically, in a corporeal sense.
BTW, yes that is Bill O’Reilly adjusting his tie. If he was actually listening to the song, I’m sure he’d be appalled by how delightfully, defiantly sexual this song is and that it was performed uncensored on network television. Watching it now, I can’t believe I wasn’t really listening. Maybe I should have been leaning into the television.
Again, the particulars here aren’t really important. I was a week or so into being 20 and, frankly, didn’t want to be a virgin anymore. The guy was someone willing, it was fun, and didn’t last very long.
In short, the romanticism and emotional connectedness that is often built into such an experience was not there, nor do I regret that it wasn’t. I would find that later, which would make my understanding of those aspects of Vespertine more profound and further develop my feminist principles.
I bring sex into the discussion because I, to borrow briefly from Arrested Development‘s George Michael Bluth, find Vespertine‘s complex eroticism one of its most key contributions to what made me a feminist. Though perhaps a stretch and certainly not without its own distinctions, I tend to think of this album in accord with Audre Lorde’s wonderful essay “Uses of the erotic: the erotic as power.”
And while I don’t know if this entry’s subject has read the essay, something tells me that the same woman who identifies as bisexual and recognizes the erotic potential in mundane activities would concur with much of the theorist’s thesis.
Of course, feminists must also have the wherewithal to recognize that eroticism, even ephemeral evidence like orgasms, are luxuries to some women and girls. Not everyone is given a space, a country, or a political system that allows them the safety and freedom to enjoy and explore these possibilities.
But eroticism isn’t about cataloging who did what to whom for Björk. As David Fricke gestured toward in his review of the album for Rolling Stone, it might be everywhere, at once tangible and theoretical.
This is where I think it’s important to consider the album’s production sensibilities and Björk’s particular uses of her voice. In addition to non-conventional practices like sampling and turning seemingly non-musical domestic items into instruments, the singer’s voice is the album’s real focus. Because of how closely she’s miked, you can hear every tic, breath, whispered turn of phrase, and any other sound coming out of her mouth. As a result, her voice becomes a varied and vital instrument, an idea she has continued to develop and that has continued to stay with me.