September 2009

Paul Franz


Björk by Nicola Dibben

Why a book about Björk? Why now? In the opening pages of this entry in Indiana University Press's new Icons of Pop Music series, Nicola Dibben, a professor of musicology at the University of Sheffield in England, suggests several reasons why "a book-length study of her artistic output is appropriate." First, there is Björk's widespread cultural impact, as measured in record sales, awards, and her reported influence on other artists. Later, in a similar vein, Dibben points to questions the Icelandic singer's work raises about the relationship between collaboration and authorship, and the position of "sometimes uncompromisingly experimental" music within "a record industry environment which thrives on classifiable genre distinctions." These may be good reasons; but doesn't Björk, a founding member of the artistic collective Bad Taste, whose 1986 manifesto promised "to fight everything that can be branded 'good taste' and 'frugality,'" deserve more than the merely "appropriate"? Fortunately, what goes without saying has not been left entirely unsaid. Buried in the middle of Dibben's list of reasons, we find a crucial recognition of Björk's "seemingly radical changes in style," and the word "innovative" repeats itself like the start-up of an electronic beat.

To be sure, Dibben tells us that her main aim has been to "examine the cultural significance" of Björk's work, but she also positions her study as "partly a response to [Björk's] exoticization by the print and broadcast media, which arguably underplays her achievements." Artfully hedged though it is, this polemical stance suggests that what Dibben really means by "examine" might be forcing the prevalent cultural understanding of Björk to take an exam -- for credit. But if Dibben intends to assign grades based on her own better understanding of Björk's actual work, why does she claim to be focused on its reception? Whatever her reasons, if her book is not exactly what it claims to be, this is just as well. Dibben foreshadows her most distinctive contribution when she observes that "[s]cant attention is generally paid to musical materials and processes in the critical reception of popular music, so this book attempts to rectify that situation by attending to Björk's sound." Although other aspects of her work have their merits, Dibben is at her strongest when redressing this imbalance.

Before turning to Björk's music, however, Dibben covers some preliminary ground. Thus, her first chapter is devoted to an overview of the singer's life and career to date, focusing in particular on her eclectic musical training and experience. Although much of the information in this chapter is already widely available, Dibben enlivens her account with material from original interviews she conducted with Derek Birkett (the punk musician and owner of the One Little Indian record company, to which Björk is signed) and other figures from the singer's life. This biographical survey is highly readable, and provides a useful frame of reference for the rest of the book. The second chapter, entitled "Nationalism," also serves as a propaedeutic, in this case by showing how Björk's self-understanding and worldview have been shaped by conventional notions of Icelandic identity. In terms of Dibben's overall argument, this chapter is most important for setting up the cultural tension -- hardly unique to Iceland -- between romantic conceptions of nature and modern life in technologically advanced cities. It is her desire to resolve this tension, Dibben argues, that underlies Björk's juxtaposition of acoustic and electronic sound sources.

The next two chapters, "Nature" and "Technology," provide a more detailed exploration of Björk's pursuit of "unity" through her work in a variety of media. Generally speaking, Dibben argues that Björk imaginatively resolves the tension between nature and technology in favor of nature, yet through technological means. One example of this is Björk's naturalization of typically futuristic sound media, such as when the "large, distorted, and un-pitched beats" of her song "Jóga" come to stand in for the rumbling of Iceland's "geologically active landscape." And yet, Dibben's analysis goes beyond merely identifying this type of sonic mimicry; her chapter on "Technology," for instance, contains a discussion of how Björk and her collaborators have used micro-beats composed of sonic "glitches" both to make technology "audible" and show how its supposed defects can make it hospitable to imperfect, instinctual life. Particularly interesting is the next chapter, on "Sound," which identifies a similar set of thematic concerns in the musical structure of Björk's songs. As Dibben points out, many of Björk's tracks begin with the vocal and background electronic elements at marked tonic and rhythmical variance; the song's unfolding then seeks to bring these elements into cohesion, another metaphor for the union of the natural and the technological.

Two more chapters round off the book: "Emotion," which contains many observations of general relevance to the production of emotional effects in music, and a final section on Björk's "Contribution," which mostly sums up and fleshes out the conclusions of the preceding sections. However, the chapter on "Sound" is probably the most valuable. Though perceptive discussion of Björk's musical achievement can be found throughout the book, this discussion is most notable for treating not only composition and performance, but also programming and audio production as key factors determining musical structure and texture. Provided this book reaches its intended general audience, it is this passages that stand the best chance of improving our understanding of popular music, and of Björk's work in particular.


Björk by Nicola Dibben
Indiana University Press
ISBN: 0253220653
224 Pages

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