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With a career-spanning retrospective opening at MoMA next week, a new album (her first since 2011 and, by many accounts, her most personal ever), and an upcoming tour, Bjork has been in the public eye more than usual lately. Her latest recorded effort, the ultra confessional Vulnicura, chronicles the end of her relationship with artist Matthew Barney—the romance whose beginnings she celebrated on her 2001 album Vespertine.
The singer has been using her newfound openness and recent wave of press to correct some misreported ideas about her many-decades-long career. Too often, Bjork's success has been credited to her (often male) creative partners. But it's her ability to choose the right collaborators that makes Bjork a true genius, and a truly brilliant curator of her own art. In the age of the musical-aesthetic multi-hyphenate, Bjork's relevance and trailblazer status is more apparent than ever.
The producer/singer partnership is as old as the music business itself. From the 60's svengalis who built the girl group sound to Bjork's recruitment of Venezuelan producer Arca to help her built the backdrop of her latest album, artists rarely work in creative isolation. But the current artistic landscape now demands that each album be a multi-platform experience, and in order to get there, artists must cultivate partnerships across a wide variety of disciplines, including fashion. Particularly in rap, relationships between designers and artists have become commonplace—Kanye and Riccardo Tisci, A$AP Rocky and Hood By Air—but Bjork's been collaborating with designers, photographers, and artists since long before any of today's collisions of music and fashion were even nascent ideas.
One of the most important partnerships of Bjork's career began decades ago, when she first met Alexander McQueen. McQueen began working with the Icelandic singer in 1997, when he designed the cover for her album Homogenic, and helped Bjork shed the pixie image that had characterized her early career. Bonding over their shared curiosity about the intersection of technology and nature, the pair created an image that was simultaneously high fashion and totally rock and roll. Their shared aesthetic, combined with the sonic and lyrical content of Homogenic, created an immersive experience that went beyond the usual limitations of the recorded format.
This collaboration was not the first time Bjork worked with another artist to elevate her records to the level of a museum exhibition. On Debut, she partnered with Michel Gondry to create a darkly whimsical fantasy land in the video for "Human Behavior" that reinforced the fairy-like image that she was then cultivating. Her videos continued to be reflections of both her larger image within the pop landscape and the concepts and themes behind her albums, but it wasn't until Homogenic and her collaboration with McQueen that it became clear that the intention behind them was to communicatelarger ideas and images that her audience might not be able to understand from just listening to the record.
For Bjork, albums are obsessions that reflect multitudes. From taking on the minutiae of the universe on Biophilia, to falling in love on Vespertine, and now to divorce and heartbreak on Vulnicura, the themes of her records are massive, and as such, they are not, and cannot be, merely sonic. It is fortuitous that she built her career in the golden age of the music video—the ‘90s, when musical consumption was as reliant upon aesthetics as it was on radio play.
Now that MTV has moved on to reality television and records are sold or streamed piecemeal, largely without even so much as album art, where does the aesthetic fit in? The challenge of the contemporary artist is to subvert this new way of consuming music by making it even more involved—creating an immersive, 360-degree artistic experience. In order to do this, music has become, for artists like Bjork, more than just songs. Instead, it's fashion, art, installations, apps, and on and on, all inspired by the music at the core.
Undoubtedly one of the most infamous intersections of music and fashion occurred when Bjork wore the Marjan Pejoski-designed "swan dress" on the Oscars red carpet. The dress, which also appeared on the cover of her falling-in-love album, was largely maligned by fashion critics, who found it overly precious.
But this was not a throwback to the whimsy of her early career—Bjork's choice to wear the dress was an extension of the themes she was exploring on Vespertine. The album is about new love (with her now ex-husband Matthew Barney), and aesthetically and sonically, it explores themes of romance and winter. Swans, who are monogamous animals, fit into this theme perfectly, and by wrapping herself in the body of a snow white swan, Bjork was making her album a part of her public persona. While she may have remarked that "it's just a dress" when the uproar began, it was also a statement about exploring artistic themes outside of the traditional media.
2015 marks a turning point for Bjork, both personally and as an artist. She has taken the most personal aspects of her life and created something big and wonderful in Vulnicura. This album cycle also marks the artist's full and complete inclusion in the art world. Her MoMA retrospective includes compositions, music videos, costumes, and art. 2011's Biophilia, which was composed entirely on a tablet, is the first app to be included in the collection at the Museum of Modern Art, implying that records and even a whole career can make an impact far from their most easily-defined medium.
Not only will the retrospective be an unprecedented opportunity to take stock of an immense career in one place, but it also serves as an acknowledgement that Bjork is the curator of a multi-media empire, from her work with McQueen, to co-production with Arca on her most recent album. This is a rare thing for the mainstream art world to acknowledge, especially for a woman. By recognizing Bjork as the mastermind of her empire, rather than as a woman who has been lucky to work with a lot of talented men, MoMA is empowering her to push boundaries even further—not that she ever needed, or asked for, their permission.