Explaining Björk To Non-Björk Fans

You know Björk. Everybody knows Björk. Even your parents know Björk (most likely because Janice Battersby once impersonated her on Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes, or because her iconic swan dress consistently pops up in those brain-numbing nostalgia list shows that seem to fill most of the Channel 5 evening schedule). However outside of being Icelandic, "It's Oh So Quiet" and said swan dress, not many people know all that much about Björk. "Eccentric" is the adjective most likely to accompany her name when she's written about in the media. But what does that mean exactly? As of today, Björk is inviting you to get inside of her head – quite literally in one case – at her new exhibition 'Björk Digital', held at London's Somerset House. 'Björk Digital' is a very different type of exhibition to anything I’ve ever seen. There is no imagery on the walls, no costumes to peruse, no handwritten books of song lyrics from her youth. The exhibition takes place almost entirely through a virtual reality headset. You just sit on a swivel stool in one dark room after the other, deep within the depths of Somerset House, and plug into Björk’s consciousness. The show is a highly evolved version of Björk's eighth studio album, Vulnicura, which was released last year to rave reviews. A frank, confessional album, it literally documents the breakdown of her marriage and subsequent heartbreak, annotating the album booklet to the month of the marriage breakdown each song corresponds to. The exhibition turns the songs into fully-realised 360 degree panoramic worlds using the power of virtual reality. “Mouth Mantra”, for example, positions the camera inside of Björk's mouth, giving the viewer a tour of her throat that veers several times on being more than a bit gross. “Notget” stars Björk as an embroidered mask, gradually growing into a huge colourful warrior, and “Stonemilker” sets you on an Icelandic beach where several Björks clad in lime green gently serenade you.
'Björk Digital' is a remarkable, unique experience and, artistically, is beyond anything you might have reference for – which is the point where some people may mentally check out. If I had an Icelandic Krona every time somebody told me they didn't "get" Björk, I would find myself rather wealthy at this stage in life. "She sounds like a screeching whale," I commonly hear people mutter when I mention that I'm a fan; "I respect her, but I don't particularly like her" is another frequently heard response from the more diplomatically-minded; "she was in the most depressing film I've ever seen", "she doesn't have any bangers", "she lost her way after the first album”. Whatever the specified reason, Björk just doesn't connect with the grand populace. But let me tell you, you're missing out. It's time I said it: I think that people who dismiss Björk are either naïve or lazy. The only problem with Björk is that she takes effort. She takes time and focus. She likes to convolute and complicate things at every opportunity. Her music can be like a frustrating jigsaw puzzle – initially a jumbled mess, but with a little consideration it quickly becomes something beautiful. Her body of work is rich, encompassing and intense, but it spans music, film, literature, technology and fashion – even knowing where to start can be overwhelming to the uninitiated.
I had been vaguely aware of Björk growing up, be it through her singles “Play Dead”, “It's Oh So Quiet” or “Army Of Me” (which really stuck in the mind with a TERRIFYING Top Of The Pops performance) but I first properly encountered her once I started buying music for myself. I was in our local Our Price record shop (now long defunct) and saw the Homogenic album cover. The sleeve intrigued me so much I can still remember exactly where it was in the shop. I bought the CD and listened to it that night. Having been raised on a diet almost entirely of 2 Unlimited, Homogenic was a tough listen. The strings were harsh, the beats strange and the complete lack of catchy repetitive choruses to cling onto borderline terrified my 13-year-old self. But I stuck with it, and soon the beats started to fall into place and sound less alien. The spaces where I felt I needed a chorus started to disappear. Björk had changed my understanding of a basic song composition, and she had me hooked. I started to explore her earlier records, discovering "Hyperballad" from her Post album, still widely considered her career high. I ordered a weird early Icelandic jazz album she had made called Gling Glo and pretended to like it. I took the train to Camden Town and bought a poster with the Debut artwork on it and proudly displayed it on my wall. My favourite possession became an original Björk t-shirt from the mid-90s I found on eBay. It features the artwork to her single "Isobel" on the front and has "BJÖRK" written across the shoulders in a special orange font. I've never seen another one like it on eBay, in real life or by trawling through Björk fan forums. I wear it whenever I want to feel strong or powerful, and it'd be the first thing I grab should my house ever go up in flames.
I get why people aren't as Björking mad as myself. Her boundary-pushing peers – ANOHNI, PJ Harvey, Roisin Murphy – are all met with a similar collective shrug from the majority, all too weird or too involving to truly bother to make an effort with. But consider that, like these people, Björk has consistently pushed the boundaries of technology, costume and performance (encouraging impersonators like you, Lady Gaga). As an obvious example, Vulnicura and 'Bjork Digital' combine to make the worlds first true VR album. She effortlessly followed this up at the London "Björk Digital" launch by appearing as a 3D avatar live streamed from Iceland instead of opening the exhibition in person. Whether the world at large is paying attention or not, she is a trail-blazer and an innovator, and everything she does will eventually bubble its way up to the mainstream. So, go and see 'Björk Digital'. If not to get inspired, to gloat at your friends when Beyoncé inevitably rips the idea off on her follow-up to Lemonade. You might even find that you like her music while navigating a 360 degree panoramic experience of the inside of her mouth. Spend an hour or so in the basement of Somerset House with her, at the very least you'll hopefully move from the "she sounds like a whale" camp to the "I respect her, I just don't really get her" camp... before finding yourself Spotifying her back catalogue at work and truly wondering where on earth you've been all this time. I'm not the first person to say it and I won't be the last, but Björk is a true artist and inspiration. I honestly believe her work will still be studied, referenced and listened to 200 years from now. Respect her, even if it's somewhat begrudgingly. Bjork Digital is open at Somerset House now.

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