It must be rather dull being Björk nowadays. After all the groundbreaking albums, cutting-edge music videos and outlandish outfits, the unpredictable Icelandic superstar is running out of ways to surprise her adoring public. But this week she managed it at a concert in Shanghai with imploring cries of "Tibet ! Tibet !" over the closing bars of a song provocatively entitled "Declare Independence".
This attack on the Chinese government was a bit like throwing pebbles at an elephant. If Steven Spielberg can’t influence the policies of the People’s Republic, what chance a leftfield musician like Björk ? Initially, the incident was not even reported on state television, but yesterday, finally reacting to the waves it made elsewhere, China’s culture ministry announced that it would impose stricter rules on foreign artists from now on, to prevent any more embarrassing outbursts. Björk, the ministry’s statement said, had hurt the Chinese people’s feelings.
Perhaps the authorities had thought the singer’s back catalogue indecipherable and harmless, but had they listened more closely, they might have heard her dissent coming. Back in the 1990s, Björk played at two Tibetan Freedom concerts in the United States. Just days before the Shanghai show, at a concert in Japan, she dedicated "Declare Independence" to the newly sovereign state of Kosovo. Her management claims this earned her a ban from Serbia, where she was expected to perform in July. The song, from her most recent album, 2007’s Volta, was originally written on behalf of the rather less controversial Faroe Islands and Greenland, both of which remain nominally under Danish rule.
Björk, who is 42, has always styled herself as an anarchist and a punkish outsider. She has never voted in Icelandic elections, preferring to make political statements in other ways. Take her dress sense. She won’t wear jeans and a T-shirt, she once told an interviewer, "because they are symbol of white American imperialism, like drinking Coca-Cola".
Her activism took on a new urgency after she visited Banda Aceh as a Unicef ambassador following the Asian tsunami of 2004. The experience prompted her to release a charity collection of remixes and covers, and had a big impact on her new work. "Earth Intruders", the opening track on Volta, is a strident rebuke to our leaders that envisages a tidal wave of righteous protest "grinding the sceptics into the soil". "Maybe a tsunami of people would just come and hit the White House," said Björk of the recording, "and scrape it off the ground and do some justice."
Björk Guomundsdottir has rebellion in her blood. Born in Reykjavik, she was brought up in a commune by her mother, a feminist activist turned homeopathist, and her stepfather, a blues guitarist. Her father, Gudmundur Gunnarson, was famous before his daughter as the leader of the Icelandic Electricians’ Union. As a child, Björk trained as a classical pianist, and recorded an album aged just 11. In her teens she played in a succession of punk bands before forming the group that would first earn her international recognition, the Sugarcubes, in 1986.
The Sugarcubes’ 1988 debut album, Life’s Too Good, was a hit in the UK, an unprecedented achievement for an Icelandic act. During this early flush of success, Björk had her first child, Sindri (who now performs in bands of his own) with the Sugarcubes’ bassist Thor Eldon, shocking conservative Icelandic audiences by exposing her midriff when pregnant. The couple eventually split, as did the band in 1992, and Björk moved to London to pursue a solo career in the country that had first taken her to its heart.
Even at home, Björk is thought of as an eccentric. Her innocent, elfin face, her ageless skin and childlike voice all hide a fierce, scattershot intelligence : she seems to operate in a creative vacuum, with no apparent competitors. She’s a total one-off.
That much was clear from Debut, her first solo album. Its 1993 release garnered Björk Brit awards in the UK and a platinum disc in the US, while the singles "Human Behaviour" and "Big Time Sensuality" were pop sensations. The follow-up LP, Post (1995), was another critical and commercial triumph.
Björk’s sonic innovation is brought to bear on electronica, dance, pop and rock, and she embraces elements of everything from Icelandic classical to Broadway musical. Her songs are structured with disregard for the conventions : the lyrics don’t rhyme, and the rhythm sections, melodies and musical phraseology consistently defy all norms. Her taste for radical instrumentation made her an early adopter of pioneering electronic instruments, and a populariser of neglected traditional ones. Then there is her voice, turning from the whisper of a childish innocent to a ferociously sexual roar. She has operatic range and control, and an intonation that is unmistakable.
Thrust into the pop stratosphere by Debut, Björk soon discovered the downside of British celebrity, as her private life, specifically her romantic entanglements with fellow musicians Tricky and Goldie, went under the press microscope. A ferocious guardian of her own privacy, she has been involved in more than one scrap with the paparazzi.
Since 2000, she has been based in New York, where she moved in order to escape the British media scrum. Her style choices are still an understandable press fixation – there was the swan dress that she wore to the Oscars in 2001 ; an Alexander McQueen creation from the cover of 2004 album Medúlla ; and the 30,000 sq ft of fabric that she brought with her to perform at the opening ceremony of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
Yet Björk’s vast mainstream musical appeal remains somewhat mystifying. For Medúlla, she decided to make an entirely vocal album. This daring experiment became, perversely, her biggest US chart success to date. She manages to mine seams of dull metal in the dark tunnels of the avant-garde and come up with buckets full of pop gold. The only other act that can make a similar boast is Radiohead, but their slew of imitators has diluted the band’s impact. Björk is inimitable, but with a capacity to frustrate as much as enthrall.
"I’m not really a true believer in her music now," says The New Yorker’s music critic, Sasha Frere-Jones. "If I’m going to put on one of her albums it’ll be Post. For the last five years or so she’s really just been playing to her base, and some of the stuff is just awful. ’Declare Independence’ is a truly terrible song, and I think someone needs to tell her to bring back the tunes. But I love her for who she is. She’s with Team Weird and I think that’s great. What’s wrong with her recent albums is the same thing that gives her such amazing individuality in her persona, so I don’t think I’d ever want to change it."
Björk’s musical success has allowed her to spread her creative wings into other media. Always keen to surround herself with fellow innovators, be it in music, fashion or film, she has made it her mission to create videos with some of the film world’s most remarkable visual artists, among them Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham.
"She was at her best when she did "Army of Me" [in 1995]," says Frere-Jones. "It was a great song, a catchy, commercial song that was utterly original, and she’s easily beautiful enough to have taken advantage of her sexuality in the video, but instead she got Michel Gondry to make a brilliant promo about her going to a gorilla dentist to get a huge diamond pulled out of her mouth."
Björk’s first serious foray into feature films came from Danish auteur Lars von Trier, who asked her to provide the soundtrack for his 1999 movie Dancer in the Dark, then cast her in the lead role. The film, a melancholic musical tale of an immigrant worker struggling to save money for her son’s eye surgery, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes ; Björk took home the award for Best Actress. The shoot, however, had been notoriously explosive, with regular clashes between the director and his star that, she said, put her off the film-making process altogether.
That changed when she decided to work with her current partner, American conceptual artist Matthew Barney, on his 2005 film Drawing Restraint 9. (The couple have been together since 2000 and have a five-year-old daughter.) Barney and Björk starred in the film as an anonymous pair aboard a Japanese whaling vessel ; the impenetrable, if not downright barmy, narrative contains recurring motifs from Japanese spiritualism and Barney’s surreal imagination. For Björk, it plays into a preoccupation with the ocean. Always ready to employ a metaphor drawn from nature, the singer likes to compose near water, and has said that as a child she wanted to "be the ocean". Asked which sounds were most memorable to her, she included (alongside Ella Fitzgerald, Public Enemy and car alarms) "the ships in the harbour in Reykjavik".
Far-Eastern culture has been present in Björk’s work before, too, and with controversial results. The video for her 2002 single "Cocoon", by Japanese artist Eiko Ishioka, was never shown by MTV, because it portrayed the singer’s nipples secreting a red thread, which grew into an enveloping cocoon. Among the guest artists on Volta are a Congolese kalimba group, an all-female Icelandic brass band, and a Chinese pipa player. Even if, in the past, Björk claims to have resisted organised politics the same way she’s resisted organised religion or anything else resembling a structured establishment, hiring such eclectic global artists is a political act.
Björk’s world tour brings her to the UK in April, and if there’s one thing her sell-out audiences will be sure of, it’s she’ll have a surprise or two up her sleeve.
A Life in Brief
Born Reykjavik, Iceland, on 21 November 1965 to a feminist activist and a union leader.
Education Learned classical piano at primary school. One of her teachers sent a tape of her singing to an Icelandic radio station, and she recorded her first album in 1977.
Career First hit album was Life’s Too Good (1988) as singer with the Sugarcubes. Her solo albums include Debut (1993), Post (1995), Homogenic (1997), Vespertine (2001), Medúlla (2004) and Volta (2007), as well as a 2002 greatest hits collection. Her film roles include Selma in Dancer In The Dark (2000) and the anonymous lead in Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9.
Family Met her partner, artist Matthew Barney, in 2000. They have one daughter, Isadora, five. Björk has a son, Sindri, 21, from a previous relationship.
"If I don’t make music, I don’t function. It’s an urge I was born with. It’s like sleep or hunger."
"She has this little girl kind of way, but she is extremely clever. I’ve never worked with anyone like her" – film director Lars von Trier.