Back in 1996, when I was a child growing up in rural New South Wales, an alien from outer-space came crashing down on earth and her name was Bjork.
Like a lot of people, my friend and I quickly became fixated by her single, ‘It’s oh-so Quiet’, maybe because we developed good taste in music at any early age, but probably because it was the first time we had heard screaming intertwined with a melody. In any case, it was better than listening to Celine Dion.
That same year, I opened up a magazine to find that someone had written in to the letters page begging for Bjork to be admitted to a mental asylum. Bjork the dork was the crass headline invented by the sub-editor.
I didn’t know much about Bjork, and even less about her country; though as an adult I decided – on a whim – that Iceland seemed like the most attractive place in the world to visit. It was with little more than her name and the knowledge that the world’s first lesbian prime minister had also been in Iceland that took me to the fish-shaped country of 323,000 people.
All it takes is the flight to Iceland from anywhere to realise why Bjork might be mistaken for a spirit or extraterrestrial life form. Touching down on the landscape below is commonly referred to as like landing on the moon, though to my mind it is more like stroking against an artist’s easel: a rush of sea and snow and arid desert that rises, falls and reforms. It is a portrait not yet finished, in part because the artist doesn’t seem to know which direction he or she intends on taking: something primitive, abstract or still life. In any case, in-flight entertainment should really be banned (or maybe not, the local airline which I flew with, is the only one I’ve encountered that actually knows how to market itself and its country). The back of passenger seats give instructions on how to speak Icelandic, along with random facts like pointing out that the prime minister’s phone number is listed in the phone book. Where other airlines offer the usual mix of classical, pop and children’s music, passengers can listen to all of that, plus Bjork, Sigur Ros and watch local cinema. But anyway, this isn’t an advertisement …
Just as Bjork garnered criticism in Australia, she also courted considerable controversy in her own country for dancing around, stomach exposed and heavily pregnant, singing. The story goes that one elderly Icelandic woman who watched the performance on television suffered a heart attack and tried to sue. The local newspaper received countless letters of complaint and anger.
When asked, Bjork summed up the situation in just a few sentences, which is probably at least one sentence more than the situation deserved: I shaved my eyebrows, I was very pregnant and I exposed my belly on a TV show, performing in my band KUKL, a jazz punk thing. One woman had a heart attack while she was watching and sued me. Fortunately, she lost!
Today, Bjork is nothing short of revered in her native country where she still spends much of her time. Indeed, the Reykjavik 101 district has a three-star hotel named after her and even if it is bland and uninspiring on the outside it would still attract die-hard fans unable to resist the opportunity to take a photo of themselves beside the sign that reads BJORK HOTEL.
Not that the staff are quick to brag about it. When I emailed to enquire about the success of the hotel’s name, I received the following polite reply, which is typical of Icelandic people:
I can just tell you that we do have a lot of booking during the summer, but I do not have the information if they are Björk´s fans or not wrote the receptionist.
It was music that put Iceland on the map. After Bjork came rock band Sigur Ros. Both, despite global critical acclaim, have remained true to and fiercely proud of their country.
I’ve often wondered what it is about both artists that has compelled people around the world enough to make them consider visiting Iceland even if they don’t care for volcanoes or Vikings. Although I can appreciate and enjoy both Bjork and Sigur Ros, I don’t love them the way that others do.
My friend Jordi, who is a bigger fan than I’ll ever be, told me: “Listening to Sigur Ros is like hearing a song with your heart, rather than your ears or brain.”
This may explain why I’ve never had the same intense experience with their music. For me, the lyrics are always more important; I’m so ignorant to music that I couldn’t care what type of guitar is used or whether there’s no bass or drums. When I think of Bjork, I think of how elating it was, aged twelve, to hear someone sing the words:
My name Isobel
Married to myself
My love Isobel
Living by herself
Hearing those words sent an electric spark down my spine, similar to what I would feel as a teenager when I read Lady Macbeth declare: “Unsex me now.” There were other people who knew other ways of living and maybe I could find that in Iceland.
And what I found was air that smelt like sugar, weekend parties that sounded like riots, sun that stretched for centuries and that hitchhiking was not only safe, but encouraged.
Sometimes, when I am feeling nostalgic over Iceland I will listen to Bjork, though more often than not it’s Sigor Ros. Whichever I choose, the voice is always ethereal. When I walked under Iceland’s midnight sun for the first time, I thought: if light were music, it would be a harp: a slow, delicate plucking. Now, I think that if light were a person it would belong to one of the two artists. I have heard its voices.