Saturday, March 14, 2015

Top 10 Björk Music Videos

Wow. Okay. So I’ve had this one Top Ten list on my backburner for, like, years, because when I first attempted to write it, I thought, “Nahhhh, it’s dumb. Björk music videos? Too niche.” I am, of course, very niche, and it’s high time I demonstrated my love for Björk. After all, she’s back in the spotlight right now because her new album, Vulnicura, is the best thing she’s done since the new millennium began. Also, there’s a crappy museum exhibit or something. I know she’s an acquired taste, never mainstream, always prone to questionable creative choices. But that exact boundless weirdness is why I adore her, and it’s best displayed with visual accompaniment, so here (with links!) are...


Big Time Sensuality
I’m dropping these in chronological order, so let’s start simple, with a fixed camera and a big ol’ endorphin explosion. If Björk wanted to gain some worldwide notice at the dawn of her solo career, she surely succeeded with the video for “Big Time Sensuality,” which finds the diminutive Icelander singing and dancing atop a flatbed truck as it wends its way through New York City. And when I say “dancing,” I mean...well, you have to witness it for yourself. It’s joyous, it’s awkward, it’s performed with a total lack of restraint. Björk’s freckled face is as expressive as her body; she’s a goofball in her own world, sparing barely a glance for the bewildered pedestrians in the background. This isn’t just a music video; it’s performance art, breaking the rules with benign glee. Björk is telling us, “I don’t care what you think; I just want to sing! Keep watching!” We did.

More black-and-white? Yeah, but for a different aesthetic. While “Big Time Sensuality” strips Björk down (figuratively, you perv), “Isobel” cloaks her in pleasurable mystery. Directed by frequent collaborator Michel Gondry, this dreamy video casts Björk as both storyteller and main character: she plays an organ that is also a scrying pool, in which images of nature and civilization are juxtaposed. Everything exists in a soft, eerie haze. Gondry’s trademark surrealism is out in force (children in skeleton masks, toy airplanes hatching from a garden of lightbulbs...and foot fetishism?), but Björk still takes center stage as the smiling empress of this twilit, monochromatic world. With long hair and a sedate demeanor, she’s less a pixie, more a mature woman. But still playful.

This may be my favorite Björk video of all time; it’s deceptively simple, yet so much unwinds before our eyes. For most of the song, the camera is panning back and forth across Björk’s motionless face as lights, colors, and images are superimposed over her. It’s an evocative use of two- and three-dimensionality, and is once again very mysterious. Is she dead? Merely asleep? Are we inside her mind? During this phase in her career, Björk was clearly interested in the connections between the natural and the technological, an interest she’s always maintained -- not only does she become a kind of living circuit board, but partway through the video she takes the form of a pixelated video game character. Both song and video contain hints of darkness (she imagines her own death to make her life feel more comforting), but it’s uplifting in the end; by turning inward, she’s unleashing her spirit to play. Thanks again, Michel Gondry! Every time I watch this, I find something new to admire.

Possibly Maybe
Now we’re definitely inside Björk’s mind, and it turns out to be a bottomless node of visual poetry. “Possibly Maybe” is a breakup song, not the sort of thing Björk tended to do back then (little did she know she’d release an entire breakup album in 2015). Rather than sad, it’s thoughtful. The video invites us to join Björk in a single blacklit room of glowing neon and distant lightning. Throughout the video, the room changes its color and mood. So does Björk; she cycles through different “characters” as she sings her way through heartache. Along the way, she takes a bath, eats watermelon, rocks an afro, and appears to lick lemon Kool-Aid off the floor. This sounds silly, but, as always, Björk makes her quirky behavior interlock with the lyrics and images, allowing us to admire how intensely she’s herself. As a video, “Possibly Maybe” is like a comforting box of chocolates.

All is Full of Love
Yep. The lesbian robots. It’s the one with the lesbian robots. Which is like saying Brokeback Mountain is the one with the cowboy buttsex. Flesh meets technology? Beloved ground for Björk! Step back and appreciate how elegant this video is. I just learned that the “remix” used here is actually the original version of the song. Its scraping percussion and eerie string-plucking are far superior. Robo-Björk inhabits a cold world of porcelain-white and Batmobile-black, but the eroticism begins early, as she’s assembled and serviced by phallic machines while milky fluid drips and flows in reverse time. And then, of course, the passionate and tender tryst between two ’bots, love in a seemingly loveless future. You could see it as a really weird prequel to Wall-E, but how about you just take it as the haunting work of visual art that it is? Love is everywhere. Who can argue with such a moral?

Pagan Poetry
Björk’s fourth album, Vespertine, was rather cerebral, which resulted in some hard-to-like music videos. I can’t exactly say I like the vid for “Pagan Poetry,” but neither I nor the music world can deny its impact. It is, by far, her most controversial: flashes of needles and thread piercing flesh and distorted closeups of explicit sexual acts segue into Björk performing with bare breasts and a “wedding dress” that has been literally sewn onto her body. She looks like she’s tripping balls and she probably is -- on pain endorphins. An alleged act of joy, a woman preparing to consummate her love, is twisted into a weird masochistic indulgence -- and it somehow works. It wouldn’t if Björk weren’t so committed to selling her own take on reality, if she weren’t so fearless. As it is, she embodies the joy and terror of womanhood, shocking us for a good reason.

Who Is It
Flash forward again and Björk’s next album, Medúlla, is a mostly a capella experiment in which human voices serve as every single tool in Björk’s aural arsenal. Well, mostly. The video version of “Who Is It” is all about the bells. Björk frolics across a stark volcanic plain, endless sky overhead, sporting a dress covered in thousands of silver bells. She is joined at various points by a somewhat eerie bell choir of black-clad children, and also by a pair of cute wolves. She and her minions seem to have sprung from the stark Icelandic landscape: playful sprites, icy cold, teasing us mortals with their music. I suppose Björk is part of her nation’s folklore by now. The imagery surrounding her is as evocative as ever and I want to visit Iceland someday, on the offchance I’ll glimpse her jingling amongst the boulders.

Earth Intruders
“Earth Intruders” is...well, I can’t call it mainstream, but it’s definitely one of Björk’s more accessible tracks, with its Timbaland beats and environmentalist slant. Thus, the video is easy on the eyes, but still very cool. Following Björk’s love for mixed media, venerable animator Michel Ocelot slaps the silhouettes of costumed tribal dancers onto a surreal marbleized background, while Björk’s singing face looms over all. Too goddess-y? Duh, it’s Björk; didn’t I just say she makes a good mythological figure? The dancing warriors are both naturistic and warlike; they even wield bazookas at one point, as Björk howls, “Turmoil! Carnage!” Is she saying humanity is destructive by nature? Probably, but she retains her sympathy for us and all our foibles. The ending of the video, which I won’t spoil, is a lovely moment of wordless benediction. Björk said, let there be Music, and it was Good.

This one almost seems like a cheat, because Björk isn’t really in it. Well, she is, but...back up. She held a music video contest for “Innocence,” allowing tech-savvy fans to put images to the song. The winners, a duo from France (man, Björk can’t go wrong with French directors), dove cheerfully into the Uncanny Valley and cooked up a singing CGI mannequin of Björk, which is really creepy, but fits just fine with the video. Archetypes of childhood run amok: Björk wears a toylike armored carapace (the same one from the cover of her album, Volta) and is surrounded by horrified-looking dolls and teddy bears, as well as lizards with Cheshire cat grins who perform martial arts. Or something. I wouldn’t call it profound but it’s super fun to watch. You’d think it’s just a meaningless parade of darkly whimsical images, but the filmmakers pull off a slick “twist ending” that I wholeheartedly approve of. It’s Björk in a nutshell...or a candy-colored cartoon shell. Whatever.

I’m happy. I get to end with a video that I swear is a minor freaking masterpiece. “Wanderlust” is everything great about Björk in one package. It’s weird, it’s epic, it’s dark, it’s mythic, it’s whimsical. It’s seven-and-a-half minutes of eye-popping beauty. Björk and her latest director, Encyclopedia Pictura, utilize every trick they can: claymation, puppetry, CGI, matte painting, even circus arts. In this dreamy folktale, Björk appears as a yak herder riding her beasts down a raging river, battling balletically with a mournful demon on her back, and attracting the attention of a river god...who may be fearsome but is not without compassion in the end. This video is as visually thrilling as any blockbuster, and while I still like “Hyperballad” better, I’d show “Wanderlust” to people as a more easy-to-appreciate example of how creative, how wonderfully outside-the-box, Björk has always been. She’s made two more albums since Volta and created more good music videos (“Mutual Core” almost made this list), but she has yet to top “Wanderlust.” And maybe she shouldn’t.

But, then, at 49 years old she’s as amazing as ever, and there’s no reason to think she’s gonna run out of steam any time soon. When you enter the world of Björk, you have to keep your mind open and your senses on synesthesia mode, but the rewards are many. Click those links. Feast upon, drink in, and inhale the videos. Give thanks that we have Björk.

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