Pop Art

Thinking about the time Bjork made me cry

Seeing the musician’s new art exhibit unleashed a torrent of emotions that reminded me why I loved her so much in the first place

In the video for Bjork’s 2001 single “Pagan Poetry,” a woman prepares herself for marriage. A string of pearls is threaded, a gigantic needle pierces her flesh, and a flurry of abstracted movements, suggesting such sex acts as fellatio and ejaculation, pulse on screen. When Bjork appears—luminous, ethereal, shot in black and white—you realize she has been sewn into her wedding dress, a sublime pearl-and-lace number by the designer Alexander McQueen.

It is a powerful video, the most singular and honest portrayal of love and marriage in the realm of pop music. It drives home the truth that giving oneself to another person is the most radical, most hardcore thing a human being can do—akin to extreme body modification. And both the video and the song, with its delicate music-box melodies and sensual, propulsive beats, capture that transcendent feeling of complete, selfless submission.

More than 10 years after its debut, I still think about that video sometimes when I face the man with whom I have entered the crazy, wondrous bond of matrimony. In fact, the first mix I ever made for him, in the early days of our relationship, contained “Pagan Poetry,” a bold a move for the essentially cautious, shy young woman I was; he dug it.


Much has been written about the disastrous “Bjork” retrospective going on at New York’s Museum of Modern Art—that it turns the once-venerable institution into Planet Hollywood, that it’s a confusing mess, that it is unworthy of Bjork’s relentlessly experimental, boundary-pushing art. Yet, the show also fails to capture the best thing about Bjork’s work: the almost primal emotions and responses her songs coax out of the listener. (The first time I ever heard her gleeful, barbaric yawp, in her swinging 1995 cover of the big-band standard “It’s Oh So Quiet,” I leapt out of my chair and started dancing.)

In other words, “Bjork” fails to capture the Bjork I fell in love with as an adolescent—the young woman whose brash style and attitude taught me to embrace my own weirdness and feelings.


I first encountered Bjork not through her music, but through her fashion. I was 13 or 14, flipping through a magazine, when I saw her, swaddled in layers of techno fabrics, her hair twisted into tiny buns. There was something about Bjork’s eccentric glamour that spoke to me: her paper airmail jackets, ostentatious kimonos, and woodsprite-raver style. This woman did not care for society’s notions of what was appropriate or sexy or feminine—and that disregard was tantalizing to a serious, studious, well-mannered girl like me. I taped a photo of her to my bedroom wall, practiced replicating her hairdo in the mirror, and never looked back.

It helped that I loved her music, too. I grew up studying classical viola and piano, and my parents listened to opera, traditional Latin jazz and folk, so I found a lot of contemporary rock, frankly, boring. Bjork—who also had a classical background, and was something of a flute prodigy—fused the familiar, grand emotions of romantic orchestral works with world-music rhythms and trip-hop beats, and it thrilled me.

Her music wasn’t just intellectually stimulating, though; it also made me want to get up and move or destroy things or cry. “I don’t know my future after this weekend—and I don’t want to,” she sang in her early ode to one-night stands, “Big Time Sensuality,” and I nodded along, plotting my next minor act of rebellion. I danced alone to her club hit “There’s More to Life Than This,” dreaming of the day I would escape my parents’ home in suburban Pittsburgh and explore the world. I lay in bed, luxuriating in the celestial harp in “Like Someone In Love,” and wondered if my first romance would really feel like that—if it would cause my voice to crack and break the way Bjork’s did so beautifully, so painfully in that song. And there was “It’s Oh So Quiet,” with its candy-colored, Umbrellas of Cherbourg-inspired video, featuring Bjork doing a pas de deux with a dancing mailbox, which made me—still makes me—feel like a kid experiencing the joys of music and cinema for the first time.


It wasn’t until college, in the ‘aughts, that I got into Bjork’s third album, 1997’s “Homogenic.” I was miserable: I found many of my conservatory classmates petty and mean and narrow-minded; my first romantic relationship was wildly disappointing; and I got tendonitis my sophomore year, which put my musical career in question. “Homogenic” was darker than Bjork’s previous albums, with violent, volcanic beats and plaintive, lush strings. “Excuse me, but I just have to explode this body off me,” Bjork sang in the album’s most assaultive track, “Pluto.” It was an impulse that I felt almost every time I captured a glimpse of myself in the mirror—tired, heavy, with dark circles around my eyes and bad skin.

But the music offered hope too, in those transcendent string melodies, in the badass, wry, take-no-prisoners character in “Hunter,” and in the classic empowering break-up anthem “Bachelorette.” Sometimes, I would pull up the video for her otherworldly “All Is Full of Love,” and watch as two Bjork robots met and fell in love. It seemed the ultimate expression of that old maxim, love conquers all, and I would feel OK.

By the time I got around to listening to 2001’s “Vespertine,” with its glorious single “Pagan Poetry,” I was ready to open myself up to the world again, and the album’s intimate, quiet laptop whirrs and plunking harps provided the perfect soundtrack for falling in love. Her follow-up, “Medulla,” celebrated the human voice in the age of technology — and she largely abandoned her computers for the sounds of beat-boxers, throat singers, and other idiosyncratic vocalists. For 2007’s percussive, rousing “Volta,” she further expanded her horizons, hiring an all-female, all-Icelandic brass band to back her on a collection of political songs of dissent and revolt.

And in 2011, she took on arts education with her album-app-classroom-tour “Biophilia,” for which she worked with MIT inventors and engineers to create MIDI-operated pipe organs, robotic pendulum harps, and other sound-producing curios. Her songs still pulsated with wonder, still made me want to dance, still showcased her irrepressible personality, but they were more adult, concerned not just with the thrills and struggles of individuals, but with society’s, the world’s.

It is that generosity of spirit, and that universality, that is so lacking in MoMA’s show. “Bjork” is largely a trip down memory lane for longstanding fans only, with bits of wacky couture and snippets of songs along the way. It fails to portray Bjork as anything more than an eye-catching pop oddity. Which is a shame, because — despite the swan dress — Bjork actually seems like a rather normal person, with normal everyday concerns and emotions, albeit with an outsize, extraordinary talent, and rather unorthodox fashion tastes.

That Bjork is revealed, however, in two screening rooms on the second floor, in music videos including such classics as “It’s Oh So Quiet” and “Pagan Poetry.” Her latest one, “Black Lake,” commissioned by MoMA for the exhibition, is a brutal 11-minute reflection on the dissolution of her relationship with visual artist Matthew Barney, which is also the theme of her latest album, “Vulnicura.” She’s dressed in a copper wire dress, in a stark black Icelandic cave, eating dirt, beating her chest, and belting her heart out over a score of swelling, Mahler-like strings. It’s not her best work, but it’s visceral and raw and full of pain. It’s relatable. It’s human. It’s Bjork.

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