Erykah Badu’s latest offering is one of the year’s most anticipated releases for me. A long-time fan, Mama’s Gun changed my perception of the world. Carrying on the artist’s tradition of bridging personal reflection with political awareness, 2008’s New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) evinced the work of a maturing artist and mother with an insurrectionist’s heart. Released during the twilight of the Bush Administration and somewhat of a musical departure with its use of digital composition and recording software, Badu linked the political climate to the addiction and disease that destroyed many people of color during the “greed is good” Reagan years. Sometimes, as with TV on the Radio’s 2008 release, Dear Science, Badu suggested possibilities for change. But most of these moments came from within and not out of hoping a political leader would make any profound difference for the citizenry.
While 4th World War should be judged on its own merits, another reason it was so interesting was that it was the first installment of a two-part series. And if this album was so forward-thinking and challenging, what lies ahead in part two?
The answer will be the focus of this entry. Released at the end of March, New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) was preceded by a controversial music video for lead single “Window Seat.” My first introduction to the song was about a week prior to the video’s release. She performed the song with The Roots on Jimmy Fallon, and I was pumped.
Some reviewers have been disheartened by this album, which basically focuses on a disintegrating romatic relationship. Jody Rosen claims it’s too consciously strange at times and is lacking in many actual songs, which is a claim I think you could make about 4th World War upon first listen. Jessica Hopper believes the album’s inward focus lacks the energy and cultural relevance that propelled the series’ first offering.
While I’m an admirer of both critics, I think Oliver Wang‘s assessment most closely mirrors my thoughts. While 4th World War may have been more outwardly political and Return of the Ankh more personally reflective and at times self-pitying, I find Badu to be consistent, and her newest release only bolsters my opinion. Going back to Baduizm and including Worldwide Underground, Badu’s oft-overlooked follow-up to Mama’s Gun, all of her albums contain moments of self-reflection and political consciousness (sometimes in the same song, as on “Other Side of the Game,” “…& On,” and “Danger”) celebrations of love, and outpourings of grief (Mama’s Gun‘s “Orange Moon,” “In Love With You,” and “Green Eyes”). Her albums are also punctuated with skits and asides that suggest that Badu is at once strange, silly, and smart (“Afro” and “Amerykahn Promise,” for starters).
All of these moments can be found here. There’s reflections on the personal and professional juggling that Badu tires of in “Window Seat.” “Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY)” focuses on capitalism in ways that to me recall Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings protest “Money” and P!nk’s “Stupid Girls,” which mockingly indicts status-obsessed starlets. But these concerns have always been in Badu’s mind.
Album opener “20 Feet Tall” features Badu reminding herself that she is strong enough to get over her heartache. Studio riff “You Loving Me” is an example of Badu’s self-deprecating humor that may have been cut from another artist’s album out of a need to showcase more polished, “important” work. And closer “Out My Mind, Just In Time” recalls the wordplay and drama of “Green Eyes” though is messier, more emotionally conflicted, and ends in discordance that recalls Joanna Newsom’s “Does Not Suffice,” from another great 2010 break-up record, Have One on Me. I also think the last track is a promise of things to come: Badu may be wounded for now, but she’s got unfinished business to tend to.
And while 4th World War wasn’t as lavish a production, all of her albums show a clear indebtedness to funk, soul, and jazz in their arrangements. They also feature hip hop’s common practice of sampling (revisit “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop)” or take a look at her production team for clearer evidence of Badu’s fandom). As Wang points out in his review, samples provide multiple layers of meaning that gesture toward the time in which Badu came of age as well as her influences and personal history.
I’d also like to reclaim the break-up album a bit, as women have made art out of them, processing personal feelings with little filter and suggesting how power dynamics are gendered in heterosexual couples. Joni Mitchell did it with Blue. Björk did it with Homogenic. As with Mama’s Gun, I think Badu is continuing in that tradition.
Finally, while its contents may lack obvious political content, I think Badu and Kyledidthis created visually stunning and connotatively loaded album art. On the cover, Badu is drawn as a robot — perhaps the robot girl she sings as in “Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY)”. Black female artists have referenced the cyborg and the android in their work, notably Missy Elliott, Lil Kim, and Janelle Monáe. Cultural critic Steven Shaviro neatly unpacks the potential connotations of Elliott and Kim identifying as cyborgs in his essay “Supa Dupa Fly: Black Women as Cyborgs in Hiphop Videos.” In a culture that privileges whiteness and still clings to racist ideologies, whether consciously or not, black women especially have been dehumanized because of presumptions about their sexuality and pressures to abide by Anglo/Eurocentric beauty standards.
Robot Badu confronts her potential audience on the cover, her gaze direct. Human Badu emerges from her skull, naked, sitting in grass, holding a tuning fork, and under a tree with branches that spell her name. Surrounding the robot is the flora that continues to grow amidst human-made weapons, airplanes, government buildings, and foreclosed houses that accompanied images of dead babies, fast food, television, and drugs on 4th World War‘s cover. While nature is long associated with female identity, Badu acknowledges her continual presence in both worlds. This album’s growing on me, and evidence that one of pop music’s most original artists is herself still evolving.
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.
Back in September 2007, Björk headlined the Austin City Limits Music Festival (’round these parts, we just call it ACL). She came to support Volta, which was released in May of the same year. Many of my friends were clamoring to go, and may have interpreted my reticence to go as snobbish or elitist (or maybe they thought I was just being a hater). I would’ve loved to have seen Björk — I’ve been a huge fan since I was ten — but knew I wasn’t going to be happy with her show in a festival setting. It would’ve been hot, I would’ve been sweaty, I probably wouldn’t have been able to see her, much less hear her, and there weren’t enough other musical acts I wanted to see that in my mind validated buying a pass. It very well may make me a hater.
All of this is to say that, apart from actually being there, the performances in Björk’s Voltaïc is exactly how I would have wanted to see her. It’s a must-see.
Voltaïc is actually a four-disc set, complete with one DVD of music videos for songs from Volta, one CD comprised of remixed versions of songs from Volta, one live CD, and one live DVD featuring two very different musical performances. This last aspect of the collection will be what I focus on in this post.
The first performance on the DVD is a concert in Reykjavík. The venue is Langholtskirkja Church. She performs several pieces from Medúlla, which features songs primarily arranged in a capella and the voice providing a myriad of surprising instrumental possibilities. She has a mixed choir backing her for songs like “Mouth’s Cradle” and “Who Is It?” and what I wouldn’t give to have been in that ensemble. And when she does perform with more traditional instrumentation, as she does with “The Dull Flame of Desire,” she is backed by an all-female Icelandic brass ensemble. Churches tend to be built for sound, and Langholtskirkja is no exception. The space allows Björk and her various ensembles a larger, deeper, richer sonic resonance for their musical interplay.
The second performance, which is from a show in Paris, is a wild, post-global, post-colonial affair. Fitting for a tour to promote an album that boasts songs like “Earth Intruders” and “Declare Independence,” the set is draped with flags that depict frogs and trees as national emblems. Female members of the backing band are slathered in day-glo war paint and feathers.
It may be easy to theorize these accoutrements as reductionist in their allegiance to primitivism (or as petty theivery to the imagery global pop stars like M.I.A. have popularized), but I hasten to abide by this argument without knowing more about Icelandic folklore. Also, there is a concerted effort made to juxtapose traditional instruments with electronics, thus providing a larger set of possibilities for how popular music can sound and how it can be made. On this stage, a harpsichord and a brass ensemble can co-exist with a Reactable, a Tenori-On, and a tricked-out drum kit. Likewise, the instrumentalists are notably mixed gender (though not mixed race); Jónas Sen plays harpsichord, Chris Corsano of Don Caballero is on drums, Mark Bell and Damian Taylor fiddle with electronics, and Björk’s brass ensemble appear again, suggesting that this new nation will be run by a bunch of pissed-off female warrior punks who have no real use for man’s phallic preoccupation with guitars. It’s a world I’d be fine with.
But both performances put primary importance on the voice, as it’s clearly the instrument Björk values most. Indeed, she is quick to remind, the voice is an instrument, and thus the vocalist is not simply a site of objectification but a portal of subjectivities. You get a sense in these performances, which are at such contrast with one another, how sensitive, durable, and complex Björk’s intonation and phrasing are and just how distinct her voice is. Oh, that voice. If we want to borrow from Roland Barthes and his discussion of the grain of the voice, we might put Björk on one end of the spectrum and, say, Neko Case, on the other. If Case’s voice has no grain, and is perfectly pitched and clear, then perhaps it would be fair to say that Björk’s is all grain — excitingly, exhuberantly, defiantly flawed.
I also appreciate how Björk incorporates stage presence as an extension of her voice, and how the performances capture this as a set of discursive practices than singular entity. Maybe I come up with the word “reverent” because of the venue, but her Reykjavík performance is meditative, quiet, and thoughtful. By contrast, her Paris performance is, to borrow from the title of an earlier tune, “violently happy” (made all the more remarkable for me when I read that she was sick during that particular show).
Likewise, I appreciate how she uses clothing to convey mood and reflect the tone she’s trying to convey in her set list. In the Reykjavík show, we see a slinky, celestial Björk in a form-fitting sequined dress, purple tights, red wedges, and her hair wrapped in braids. Through fashion, Björk suggests that this performance will be self-possessed, intimate, and a bit sensual (amen!). In the Paris concert, however, her costuming is wild and colorful, pairing wide, brightly patterned, ruffly dresses with metallic leggings that allow her to take up maximum space on stage. Notably, her hair is down, waving about her shoulders. Her feet are bare. This is a great physical reflection of her set list, which emphasizes the punkish electronica of Volta, Homogenic, and Post.
And yet. All of this madness, all of this self-containment, all of these contradictions, and all of this joy is organized by one pixieish Icelandic woman who thrives on the beautiful chaos generated from multiple players, multiple instruments, and multiple personas. But she’s the same person who responds to the end of each song with a shy nod or a politely clipped “merci, bien!” Whether in church or going hunting, she’s always Björk.
So, I just got back from a Drafthouse screening of Björk’s Voltaïc (where I saw my girl Morgan from GRCA). I’m riding on a bit of a high. I’ll write up a review tomorrow. For now, I thought I’d get us in the spirit by showcasing the complete collection of music videos she’s done with Michel Gondry. Both artist and director helped launch each other to a higher level in their career and tried out musical and filmic ideas with one another. They also share an investment in childhood, nature, repetition, domesticity, and alternative parenting.
Shameless plug: If you want to read more on their work together, feel free to check out my master’s thesis. You can borrow it from UT.
“Army of Me“
(Note: Björk’s love interest is played by Toby Huss, a man Tina Fey justifiably refers to as a “friend of comedy”)
It’s pretty easy to objectify and make normative lesbian sex (for more on the subject, I recommend Ann Ciasullo’s essay “Making her (in)visible: Cultural representations of lesbianism and the lesbian body in the 1990s” as a starting point). Music videos, which already have a bad rap for objectifying female bodies for a (presumably) male audience, are no exception. But what happens when the musician is having sex with herself. And not just masturbating, but going to town on her twin?
First up, we’ve got Björk.
And, more recently, P!nk.
I for one think this is awesome — simultaneously an assertion of the self, the self’s sexual desires, and the self’s fragmentability. Also, this assertion is channeled through queerable female bodies (Björk as cyborg; P!nk as a model of “butch feminine”). An assertion from famous, marketable pop stars, no less.