I love voices. I love interesting voices. I love brave voices. I love voices that dare to be different. Bjork dares to be different – indeed there have been times when she has dared to be so different that those who cannot stand the idea of “difference” in any form have humiliated her just for that crime of “being different”. Remember the “swan dress”? Yes. How dare she… blah blah blah go the voices of beigeness… yadda yadda yadda go the voices of conformity… stop being so bloody weird, they say.
When did this idea of being different become such a cause for ridicule? I grew up in the 1980s when we all seemed to rejoice in the brilliant creativity of those brave souls who wore their difference like a badge of honour. Boy George? Annie Lennox? Alison Moyet (especially when, in Yazoo, she was “Alf”)? Steve Strange? The list could go on and on and on, especially if you draw that timeline back into the 70s and 60s. Hello Bowie. Hello Lou Reed. Hello Iggy. Hello Siouxie. Hello Poly Styrene. All my heroes were different. Who would want to be one of the beige and the boring?
Something happened in the 1990s when suddenly everybody felt the urge to become identikit copies of whatever the hell was going on, reaching the summit in endless copies (during the Britpop years) of the Gallagher brothers walking their funny imitation Manchester walks everywhere or the bazillions of plaid wearing Kurt clones (during the Grunge years) wearing their self-hatred and plaid shirts like a fucked-up badge of honour. Don’t get me wrong, I loved so much of the music because there was a rediscovered sense of energy and purpose that had been missing from much of the late 80s music output. It was great to redsicover that fantastic sound of a distorted electric guitar, but why did it have to be accompanied by such a backward step in attitude as people once again sneered at people just for the crime of being unique.
Bjork broke through just as Baggy / Madchester and the rave scene of the late 1980s (think smiley faces, baggy t-shirts, ecstasy grins and lots of blinkity-bleepy aciiiiiiiiid music) was fading away and the much heralded trip-hop culture blazing out of Bristol just failed to ignite the frenzied imaginations of the young kidz (go on, name five trip-hop bands that aren’t Massive Attack or Tricky). Or if you were a dedicated indie kid maybe your life could be made better by “shoegazing”. Yeah, try wearing a long coat and just staring at the floor for hours, listening to swathes of feedback as people desperately tried to copy My Bloody Valentine. Just not interesting. I wanted interesting music made by interesting people. I wanted original people making original music.
Nobody could ever accuse Bjork of not being original, and “Human Behaviour” immediately sets out her intention of creating an interesting and imaginative blend of musical influences and sounds. Have a listen:
Mad and brilliant at the same time, and that is without even acknowledging the fantastic video directed by Michel Gondry. “Human Behaviour” bounces along on a rolling rhythmic riff made from various snare shuffles, clicks and timpani… yes, you read that correctly. Timpani. I can’t name too many songs that make creative use of timpani. It is just a joyful combination of sounds and instrumentation, matched by the equally joyful sound of Bjork’s voice, that perhaps reflects the lyrical themes of the song.
If you ever get close to a human
And human behaviour
Be ready, be ready to get confusedThere’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic
To human behaviour
But yet so, yet so irresistible
The lyrics are apparently an indication of Bjork’s feeling of dislocation from other people, especially when she was growing up, when she would prefer to go off exploring nature and being in the company of animals because people confused and confounded her. Oh yes, I could identify with this feeling very strongly. When I was young, I was incredibly shy. I found it easier to hide in drawing pictures and writing stories, often putting the two together to create my own imaginary best selling novels (well, they were best selling novels in my mind). For a while, particularly as I found myself in secondary school, I hated myself because I thought my inability to behave in the confident way of my few good friends was essentially a fault with my personality.
Then something happened during my teenage years. Something snapped inside me. I remember it distinctly. I said “fuck it” metaphorically (and possibly physically too) and went slightly off the rails. I started drinking (quite a lot) at the weekly rugby club discos and started to find my confidence (possibly in the bottom of the bottles), and somehow I found myself with the reputation of being “the nutter”. Yeah, I did silly and stupid things and loved the fact that it got attention. So I did more stupid and silly things that got me even more attention. Maybe this was the influence of the good Captain Sensible coming to the fore. Whatever the cause, I got into drama and headed down a road that resulted in me working as a drama teacher for over 15 years before I found myself heading in a different direction and on a different life journey (for reasons that I might be able to openly and honestly explain one day… just not yet… it still feels like a wound that won’t heal properly, so I have to leave it for the moment). I was determined to leave my mark on the drama teaching world.
For a while, I wore these amazing tartan trousers to work. Maybe again it was just a little punk influence creeping into my teaching attitude. Then I found some citrus bright jumpers in lime green and vivid orange. I have no taste when it comes to colour matching, so I thought little about causing migraines or temporary blindness with my dress sense. Eventually my drama uniform settled down to typical regulation black roll neck jumpers but my beloved tartan trousers remained. One day, one of the assistant heads took me to one side and told me that I needed to attend to my dress code especially as I now had an additional responsibility as a deputy head of year. He expressed a concern that I wasn’t taking things seriously by the manner of my clothes. I went straight to the shops after school and bought a black suit, black shirts, black socks and underwear in a childish “fuck you” to a system which was more concerned by my appearance than by the fact that I was working my arse off and doing a bloody good job too. I looked great but did very little for the following week and nobody noticed my change of attitude. I had the suit. I had conformed.
And I hated myself for doing that.
Back to the music before this becomes an elongated therapy session.
They’re terribly moody
And human behavior
Then all of a sudden turn happyBut, oh, to get involved in the exchange
Of human emotions
Is ever so, ever so satisfying
Whilst the music trundles along in a rhymically satisfying manner, what is astounding about the song is the way that Bjork uses her voice in a way that sounds utterly fascinating. At times, she put in yelps and whoops of sound that almost sound animalistic or just simply not traditional singing, and there are lines of melody where I can’t say for certain whether she is singing in English, Icelandic or even possibly some made up language that only has meaning in her own fevered imagination. Kinda like the Cocteau Twins.
Oh, you don’t know the work of the Cocteau Twins? Listen to this:
What is that? Is it French or Italian or total gobbledegook? It is not a one off. Listen to any Cocteau Twins song and you will be confused and entranced in equal measure, and should we even care if it creates something that is spellbinding and imaginative and just plain different.
Oh no, I used that word again.
In order to appreciate the utterly bonkers nature of what she is doing vocally, have a listen to this live version that was taken from the Verspertine tour:
Isn’t that mind-blowing that she can replicate those vocal sounds without her lungs simply exploding?
When I first heard “Human Behaviour”, it reminded me of the first time that I heard Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”. Maybe it is something about sweeping and swooping female vocals but I was fascinated and entranced in equal measure the first time that I ever heard both artists, and it was the start of a long and interesting relationship with the music of both artists. Interesting music. Interesting people.
So every time I hear that a new album is due to be really by Bjork, I know that I will hear something that will be challenging and imaginative and probably very different from whatever it was that she last produced. Sometimes it might take some time to get used to it. Sometimes I might admire it rather than deeply love it. However, it is very rare that she will produce something that disappoints me. Very much like Bowie.
I hope that she will continue to create music with this attitude. I hope that sometimes she creates music that brings her enormous commercial success (as has been the case in the past) but I hope that she never feels imprisoned by this success to say “fuck it” and go off on a totally different creative adventure. I hope that she continues to dress like a swan or whatever she chooses, and that she never caves into the pressure to conform and “behave like a grown-up” and all that bullshit that society insists is the price that you have to pay to become an independent adult. I hope that she continue to be brilliant and brave and original because I can’t. I gave up. I gave in.
We need individuals like Bjork. Society needs people like Bjork whether that is in the music industry or in politics or economics or industry. We need mavericks who think in original ways. Without them we are doomed to doing things the same and getting less back every time.
I urge you to get out your cash and buy the next album that Bjork releases – if you don’t, it might just be the end of the world.