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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: How Björk Became a Genre Unto Herself

On “Hyperballad,” one of the finest moments in the Icelandic singer’s catalog

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Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 25, which explores Björk’s “Hyperballad” with help from Rumaan Alam.

Björk Guomundsdóttir was born in Reykjavík, Iceland, in 1965. Technically she recorded her first album as an 11-year-old; she sings the Beatles’ “The Fool on the Hill” in Icelandic. A decade or so later, she joined the Sugarcubes, Iceland’s premiere art-rock band. They sounded like Twilight Zone Roxette. The first and best Sugarcubes record, Life’s Too Good—it’s got “Motorcrash” on it—came out in 1988, the year they played Saturday Night Live. Matthew Broderick was the host.

The Sugarcubes put out two more records and had a beguiling junk-drawer chemistry to them, but anytime Björk’s voice pulled into anything past second gear, it was obvious where she was headed—or, let’s say it was obvious that only she knew where she was headed. And thus, in 1993, did her real first solo album arrive. She called it Debut. In her first music video as a solo artist, for her first single, “Human Behavior,” she is eaten by a bear. Beavis and Butt-head reacted accordingly.

High praise.

A quick word on genre, if I may. On the show, I’m gonna talk about a bunch of other artists whose Venn diagrams overlapped with Björk’s, starting here in the early ’90s, in terms of vibe, in terms of fearless experimentation, in terms of a cutting-edge collision of the organic and the synthetic, in terms of a mellow but slippery ominousness. All of that sounds vague, I realize, but can we agree that “trip-hop” is the dumbest name for a musical genre that emerged in the 1990s? Can you imagine yourself saying the words “trip-hop” to the face of an artist you associate with trip-hop? Not even Björk can redeem the words trip-hop. Debut has some legit house-music jams, some bangers. One of which is called “Violently Happy.” It’s got avant-garde jazz. It’s got 23rd-century synth pop. It’s got a harp ballad called “Like Someone in Love” that makes it sound like nobody had ever written about being in love before. Sometimes the things I do astound me.

Debut’s genre, if you gotta assign a genre to it, is Björk. Björk makes Björk music. There’s a needle to thread here though, as her star ascends in 1993, and as we gird ourselves for the decades of Björk excellence and flamboyance to come. A quick summary of the last 25, 30 years of Björk. The truly extraordinary run of mind-bending music videos. “Bachelorette” especially, shout-out Michel Gondry. The increasingly avant-garde album covers. Utopia especially. The titanic avant-pop influence of the albums themselves, Post and 1997’s Homeogenic especially. The Timbaland album. The beatboxing album. The phone-app album. The starring role in Dancer in the Dark. (Terrible movie. Terrible movie. That movie does Björk dirty in every conceivable respect. Do not talk to me about Dancer in the Dark.) The Oscars swan dress. The coffee-table book. The other book. The other other book. Like 400 box sets and compilations and so forth. Lotta box sets. The MOMA exhibit nobody liked. The multimedia magical-realist universe that revolves around her. The needle to thread here, the challenge to accept here, is to marvel at the inimitable Björk-ness of Björk without infantilizing her or merely caricaturing her. There’s a tendency to reduce her to a woodland-fairy-type late-night-comedy routine. Remember when Winona Ryder did a Björk impression on Saturday Night Live, in a Celebrity Jeopardy! skit, in 2002? That’s the exact moment the ’90s truly ended, just FYI.

You gotta hold in your head two conflicting ideas here: Björk is not of this earth, and yet Björk is very much of this earth. Very few people in history are more of this earth than she is. Takes a while to wrap your head around this. I lived in Björk’s neighborhood, in Brooklyn, for many years, but I never would’ve put it that way at the time: I would’ve insisted that Björk lived on the moon, or on the rings of Saturn. But this does her a disservice; this denies her humanity. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of her art. There’s a difference between respecting her as an outlandish visionary and dismissing her as some sort of baffling space alien. That’s the needle to thread. As a generator of madcap ideas and highfalutin concepts, she’s superhuman, but as a singer of songs, as a fount of emotions, she is profoundly human. She sings the words I’m a fountain of blood because that’s literally what she is. A fountain of blood is literally what you are, while we’re at it. No one delivers words quite the same way Björk delivers words, but the intent, the sentiment of those words, quite often, couldn’t be plainer. This is the miracle of Björk, but she’s not a miracle. She’s just a girl, vamping in the showroom of a tire store, spinning amidst a sea of twirling umbrellas, dancing with a mailbox, and ascending on a crane until she’s dominating the frame of Spike Jonze’s camera with her finger to her lips, standing in front of you, asking you to love her.

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.