Björk: A queer icon

Following Karen Pollock’s controversial piece on ‘straight queerness’, Lee Williscroft-Ferris evaluates the queer credentials of his music idol, Björk.

I’ve written before about the ups and downs of growing up gay in the 1990s.  The pre-Internet age, combined with the hangover of endemic AIDS panic, contributed to a perfect storm of isolation for many LGBTQ+ teens, me included. It was against this backdrop that the 14 year-old me, for so long starved of accessible queer role models and influences (my Catholic upbringing had made Madonna, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and their equally ‘outrageous’ contemporaries anathema chez nous) found myself one day in 1993 peering through the window of my local music store. There, displayed prominently, was the 12″ vinyl of an album that would go on to become one of the best selling records of the decade – Björk’s Debut.

The album cover that left me mesmerised in 1993.

Having never heard of the Icelandic artist beforehand, let alone seen her, what I found most mesmerising was the inherent androgyny in the now-iconic album art. Squinting in an attempt to focus my discombobulated eyes, I searched for visual clues of binary gender and found none. Ambiguous gender aside, the singer’s apparent timidity, insecurity, and lack of self-assuredness also spoke to my own introverted turmoil. Björk has been a huge part of my life ever since.

Fellow curator, Karen Pollock, stirred up controversy recently by asking whether or not ‘straight’ people can be ‘queer’. For me, Björk personifies this quandary. All of her public high-profile relationships have been with men and she has made no pronouncements suggestive of anything other than a cisgender identity. In a 2004 interview with DIVA magazine, she made the following, slightly dubious statement on fluid sexuality:

I think everyone’s bisexual to some degree or another; it’s just a question of whether or not you choose to recognise it and embrace it. Personally, I think choosing between men and women is like choosing between cake and ice cream. You’d be daft not to try both when there are so many different flavours.

Having never sought to define her own sexual or gender identity in concrete terms, Björk is, nonetheless, in the public consciousness at least, a cisgender heterosexual female. She has, it seems, channelled her perceptions into her art. In doing so, her work has always resonated particularly profoundly with the LGBTQ+ community.

'Cocoon': intensely sexual lyricism combined with pseudo-androgynous imagery.
‘Cocoon’: intensely sexual lyricism combined with pseudo-androgynous imagery.

Always intensely personal, Björk’s discography chronicles staging posts in her romantic, emotional and sexual journey. The scene was set on her earliest solo oeuvres, with a characteristic blend of brutally forthright, yet intensely evocative songwriting on tracks such as ‘Venus As A Boy’ (He’s exploring the taste of her / Arousal so accurate / He sets off the beauty in her), ‘Big Time Sensuality’ (It takes courage to enjoy it / The hardcore and the gentle) and ‘Violently Happy’ (Since I met you, this small town hasn’t got room for my big feelings / Violently happy ’cause I love you). Indeed, love, sex and heartbreak feature to varying degrees on all of Björk’s studio albums. The unique aspect of her output is that she is able to juxtaposition outright sentimentality and absolute unfettered filth on the same recording. 2001’s Vespertine is the perfect example of this. Compare the romanticism of closing track, ‘Unison’ (I never thought I would compromise / Let’s unite tonight / We shouldn’t fight / Embrace you tight) with the explicit coital allusions of ‘Cocoon’ (He slides inside, half awake, half asleep / We faint back into sleephood / When I wake up the second time, in his arms / Gorgeousness, he’s still inside me). Case in point.

It is on sophomore album, Post, and her most recent release, Vulnicura, that Björk exposes the very human consequences of relationships reaching their end, both sonically and lyrically. On the former, genuine anger is palpable on tracks such as ‘Army Of Me’, while ‘I Miss You’ and ‘Hyperballad’ provide further evidence of a more nuanced mind at work. On Vulnicura, the singer chronicles the breakdown of her marriage to US artist, Matthew Barney in heartbreaking, and sometimes profoundly sexual detail – additional proof of her ability to throw both unbridled sexuality (Every single fuck we had together is in a wondrous time lapse) and raw emotion (My soul torn apart, my spirit is broken / Into the fabric of all he is woven) into the creative cauldron to produce the perfect sonic concoction.

The ‘Pagan Poetry’ dress: a sight to behold.

Björk has repeatedly shown her middle finger to those who would seek to place her in an aesthetic straitjacket, both in person and in her music videos. The multiple award-winning ‘All Is Full Of Love’ features two androgynous robots in Björk’s image kissing and becoming intertwined, while ‘Hunter’ shows the artist morphing alternately between a toples, shaven-headed version of herself and, yes, you guessed it, a CGI polar bear. Why the hell not? The promo for 2001’s ‘Pagan Poetry’, is no less sexually confrontational, with blurred images of fellatio, ejaculation and pearls being sewn into the skin, forming the upper half of an Alexander McQueen dress. That’s a whole load of queer points racked up right there.

It would be remiss in an analysis of Björk’s queer credentials to omit the singer’s unique voice. Lauded by fellow artists from across the musical spectrum for her vocal abilities, she possesses a soprano range and can oscillate between child-like and explosive in a beat. Feminine hushed whispers segue seamlessly into spine-tingling visceral wails on countless Björk tracks.

So,  how ‘queer’ is Björk? Undoubtedly, she has made an immense contribution to queer culture over the last 25 years. Her natural disregard for binary concepts of gender manifests itself in all aspects of her work, be it her lyrical genius, her sartorial selections or her visionary celluloid ingenuity. An artist who has always done everything on her own terms, her queerness is as instinctive as it is honest.  The world – including this queer person’s life – is all the richer for it.

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