Vagina Hearts and Dandelion Heads: Notes From Bjork at Carnegie Hall
Björk is waiting in the wings. She’s wearing something that covers her entire head, something that makes her look like a giant dandelion. I say “something” because I still can’t tell what it is, even after examining pictures of it closely. This headpiece is important for reasons no one has yet mentioned. In fact, so much about Björk is important in the same way. We’ll get to that in a moment. First put yourself in Carnegie Hall with me.
The Hall’s decor demands a sense of awe — it drips with European filigree, which is the only way Americans know how to make a building seem awesome — all burgundy plush velvet and ornately carved pillars. Now make the letter “C” with your left hand, and that is the shape of Carnegie Hall’s seating arrangement. The stage is placed at the opening of the “C,” so that it extends from your forefinger to your thumb. Sit with me in a cramped opera box on the second level. Your seat, looking at the “C” again, is somewhere near the base of your thumbnail. It isn’t the best view of the stage, but you can see straight into the backstage area where the forty-nine-year-old Icelandic phenomenon stands waiting to wash over the crowd with her latest album, the crushing Vulnicura.
Preceding her onto the stage are percussionist Manu Delago, Venezuelan producer/DJ Arca, and a fifteen-piece string orchestra. Then, the woman herself. The crowd’s reaction reminds you of a football game. It isn’t just respectful — it is rabid. This brings up another important thought, but we’ll get to that in a minute, too.
She opens with “Stonemilker,” a song about heartbreak that is so perfectly drawn and sung, it sneaks up on you and becomes you, insinuates itself inside you. It stops all thought. You realize that Björk isn’t singing about her recent breakup from her longtime partner and the destruction of her family. She is describing your own experiences of heartbreak with a precision you’ve never imagined. It is hard to explain this feeling. In a way, it is a profound release. She has done all the work. All you have to do is listen to understand yourself.
The song ends and the crowd’s reaction is almost embarrassing. Such a level of shouting, whistling, screaming, clapping in Carnegie Hall is surely improper. Which brings us back to that rabid applause when she came out, and the important thought that came with it. An artist is someone who has the courage to stand emotionally naked in front of complete strangers. Björk is such an artist, and our rabid applause comes, at least in part, from our relationship to her courage. We respond to it on an elemental level because so few of us have it.
This brings us to the first aspect of Björk that is misunderstood, or at least not often mentioned. Her courage is so great, it allows (compels?) her to create music so original that it actually limits itself. This fact illuminates the narrow nature of being an iconoclast, which Björk is. In other words, Björk can’t be anything but Björk. She has defined a new world in music, and as a result she is stuck in that world. She exists on a very narrow band of experience. You don’t take Björk to the beach, for instance.
This is why you love her, and also why, by the end of a two-hour-long concert, you’re exhausted. Björk requires intense work from the listener. She rarely gives the ear what it wants to hear. She gives it what she wants it to hear. At no point does she capitulate with an easy beat you can tap your toes to, or a melody you can predict, if not understand. Her music doesn’t seek to engage you. It demands that you engage with it. More than that — and here comes that courage again — whether or not you engage with it doesn’t matter. Her music will not be denied. It is a force. Engage with it or not, your choice exists in relation to it, and the music will stand either way.
Perhaps the most misunderstood part of Björk, however, is her sexual power. Reviewers tend to paint her as impish, girlish, almost immature. This is incorrect. Björk uses sexuality in her work in a powerful and mature way that few female artists have done, or are allowed to do. In her videos, she has gone fully naked and explicitly sexual but always in bizarre, challenging ways. Her recent installment at the MOMA in New York features a video showcasing her embrace of vaginal imagery, as does the cover for Vulnicura, which features her in an outfit on which appears what can only be described as a vagina-heart.
She uses many of the same tools as sex-positive artists like Madonna or Lady Gaga — outlandish costumes, an intense physicality in videos — but the difference, it seems, is that Björk isn’t interested in shock value. In a very real way, she is the descendent of modernist and surrealist female artists of the 20th century. Visually, she is Georgia O’Keeffe meets Frida Kahlo wearing black latex. Watch the video for “Pagan Poetry” and you might see a moving O’Keeffe painting with Björk wearing a sort of S&M version of the dress in Kahlo’s “The Broken Column.” Even that dandelion headpiece outfit she wears at Carnegie Hall — here it comes again — is a sort of freaked out, modern version of Kahlo’s “Self Portrait as a Tehuana.” Clearly, the lines between the three female artists are not straight ones, and they might not even be conscious ones for Björk. But the point here is, like O’Keeffe and Kahlo, Björk’s work is an open threat to a patriarchal art world. It reclaims female sexuality — the most physically creative force on Earth — as an artistically creative force.
We risk getting too academic here, but few will disagree that the music industry — and the society it serves — are male dominated. Some will take that to the logical next step of asking why, and that is a dangerous question. Björk forces that question simply by standing on that stage and having the courage to face us with honesty.
After playing most of Vulnicura and encoring with a few older songs, Björk exits, followed by her band. The rabid applause explodes like shrapnel once again, nearly 3,000 people begging for one more encore. From your seat you can see her standing in the wings, and you know she is not coming back. She has given all she can give. She has sounded the depths of her heartbreak and your own. She has exposed her courage and touched your latent courage.
The rest is up to you.