Björk: Icons of Pop Music

Hope Chernesky

Nicola Dibben sets up her novel “Björk: Icons of Pop Music” by laying out how she plans to analyze Björk Guðmundsdóttir, her life, and her work, but it ends up feeling more like a dissection; taking apart her past, her childhood, her nationality, and, most notably, her music to understand how she works. In this sort of reverse engineering, however, Dibben’s writing still manages to feel human, the text radiating her respect and admiration for Björk as an artist and creative, no matter if her analysis is praising or critiquing her. The book focuses on the differences between Björk’s early work in a band setting and her more-relevant work as a solo artist, showing her evolution as an artist. Every chapter ends with a section summary, Dibben detailing in her own words the big ideas of that chapter and how it relates to her overall argument and thesis. This consistent rephrasing is a great help in putting endless examples, references, history and music lessons into context and in easier terms to understand.

Dibben sets up her analysis through 5 distinct sections of influences on Björk’s art; Nationality, Nature, Technology, Sound, and Emotion, then wrapping them up with a section on how Björk’s art has had an effect on the world as a whole. She describes how her Icelandic heritage influenced her musical ideas sonically and lyrically, and how the political climate in Iceland during her younger years influenced her to join the punk scene. Nature as a role can be seen visually in music videos, but also helps in Björk’s writing process, many of her songs emerging on walks through nature. While Björk prioritizes nature, she also loves to unify the natural and the mechanical by using technology to highlight or imitate nature. At multiple points, she uses direct quotes from Björk on her processes, inspirations, and motivations, providing a helpful perspective on such enigmatic work.

Björk is a very young artist for such a dissection, as is noted by Dibben in the introduction to her book, but there is no lack of material in writing about her and her art. Dibben writes a narrative of how all of Björk’s work can be unified with the 5 concepts she covers, and not only that, but how Björk’s work in general is about unity; “…techno and acoustic, modern and roots, man and woman, symphonic and rhythmic, sound and vision, words and music…” (119). This is a direct quote from Björk, but perfectly encapsulates Dibben’s narrative and thesis.

The biggest issue with this book as a whole is the lack of accessibility at times. It is a slow read, 200 pages feeling like more because of the specificity and density of the contents. The author takes extensive time to dissect Björk’s music, entire pages devoted to certain lyrics, musical moments, and pieces of sheet music. This sort of analysis isn’t the most accessible, especially to those that have no musical background, but could also be a welcome attention to detail to readers who do have that background. This is a book for musicians and those who have backgrounds in art studies, not the general public, but could still be interesting to someone who doesn’t necessarily understand every single reference and term used. Other issues include a lack of attention to Björk’s identity as a woman and how that affects her art, something overly present in her work. Other reviews note this issue as well: In Elise O. Takehana’s Review of Nicola Dibben, Bjork, she states “Dibben argues that Björk is in a state of transition where she faces the difficulties of wanting to avoid political diatribes and revolutionary or feministic rhetoric despite her disappointment in the stagnation many social and political problems face. This division between political conflict and utopianism forms the silent undercurrent that Dibben allows to surface only briefly with minor discussions of Björk’s relationship with feminism and globalism” (Takehana 7).

It is important to note that this book was released in 2009, and Björk has released 4 albums since then. Her most recent work, Fossora, focuses on her role as a mother, a sexual being, and the pain from her complicated divorce and custody battle. This continues the themes Dibben analyzed in her other works, specifically art as an emotional outlet and storytelling vehicle. Overall, this work perfectly encapsulates the enigmatic, yet accessible work and life of Björk, enjoyable for any reader, but especially for those in the music industry. One can only hope Nicola decides to write about the last few decades of Björk’s life at some point as well.