The Possibility of Björk’s Utopia

We have to dream up a cultural future that’s better than the pillaged Cracker Barrel gift shop we’ve got right now.

The time has come to hold a new Björk record to unrealistic expectations of personally transformative power: Utopia is out in the world! A friend told me he is scared to listen to it. “Fear not,” I texted back, “It’s great, and one of the more uplifting albums you’ll hear this year.” He responded, “I’m not afraid of it being bad; I’m afraid of the mental work its greatness/other-ness is going to make me do! Haha.”

We all expect a lot from Björk because she consistently delivers so much. Normally, I’d balk at an artist with the audacity to promise so broadly, and so much, in titling an album Utopia. An album imagining a more perfect society released the year we’re more certain than ever the world is ending? I’m gouging my eyes out from constantly reading the newspaper and probably flushing my phone down the toilet after I call my senator about opposing the newest tax bill, BUT: I’m all ears, oh great one.

Utopia is a gorgeous, high-functioning multitasker. The album sounds like right now, but its shimmering, psychedelic timelessness is a hallmark of Björk’s songwriting abilities. The exactingly translated, ecstatic emotion her songs convey sound like they’re from another dimension. It reminds me of that Amy Adams movie Arrival, and the human confusion at the holistic, no-linear-time language the aliens used to communicate: The film is loosely based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: that language determines thought, and thus shapes reality. This isn’t really a pop record with traditional bangers, but it still has enough hooks that I’m thinking about it in a pop context. What makes it interesting, for me, is that I’m still picking up on stuff I didn’t hear the last time (today, the wordless hook in “Saint” that I’ll come back to later), and I’ve been listening to this record daily for two weeks.

“Body Memory,” track five, is 10 minutes long, cut from an original 20. Despite claiming she was initially perplexed about what to do with this leviathan, Björk clearly figured it out. A narrator not unlike the ones from Post’s “Isobel” and Homogenic’s “Bachelorette” is interrogating her habitat and physicality. Her relationships to nature (to moss, mist, and rolling hills) are part of her body, too. “I mime my home mountains,” she sings, “The moss that I’m made of, I redeem myself.” Björk wrote arrangements for the Hamrahlid Choir, a 60-person ensemble from Iceland, for “Body Memory.” She also included the sound of Harmonic Whirlies, an instrument invented by the Australian composer Sarah Hopkins. Harmonic Whirlies produce “celestial-sounding pure harmonic music whilst simultaneously providing powerful vibrational healing,” which illustrates one reason of many why Björk is so fucking sick: POWERFUL VIBRATIONAL HEALING is the most exactly-what-I’m-trying-to-hear 2017 shit I have ever heard of.

One Little Indian Records politely declined my early request for Utopia’s lyrics, saying, “This one’s about the music” (they’re on Genius now, don’t worry). While I wholeheartedly agree that this album, and any other, should be “about the music,” I don’t understand the differentiation between lyrics and music. Being a lyricist, I believe words are music just as much as flutes or Harmonic Whirlies. Utopia’s music is lush and untameable―like the narrator of “Claimstaker” and “Body Memory,” it explores the opposite of city life. Vocal melodies weave in and out of fluttering collages of bird sounds, digital magic, harps, flutes, and drums playing rhythms my Western pop-music-trained ears find as fascinating as I do confounding; as agitating as they are comforting. Utopia exists in a web of paradoxes: a story about life born from death (“The Gate”), about intimacy from the barriers of communication (“Blissing Me”), the cognitive dissonance of love and loss (“Features Creatures”), and music as a personified, matriarchal “Saint” attracted to “deathbeds and divorces […] I dreamt she cared for my dying grandfather, lying naked face-down on his bed.” Oceanic in its crashing and rescinding sounds, “Saint” is one of my favorites on the album. “Music heals, too, and I’m here to defend it,” she sings. The song’s melodic, wordless refrain (unmistakable when you listen for it)  sounds like the entire album’s ultimate message.

Earlier this year, the Danish writer Rutger Bregman released Utopia for Realists, an easily digestible read suggesting strategies for building a more widely prosperous future. Why not give out free money? How about a 15-hour work week? We usually don’t even wanna think about stuff like this, because where do you even begin? It seems so hard. “The real crisis of our times,” Bregman suggests, “is that we can’t come up with anything better” than the dismal, unsatisfactory reality we’ve built for ourselves. For Bregman, the root of our trouble is in our lack of dreaming and imagination. Björk’s Utopia is a counterstatement to Bregman’s hypothesis. Affirming herself as an artist with a sense of interdependent duty to the rest of the world in W Magazine this year, Björk said, “i can suggest the musical poetic angle [of how to make a better world], which is that, after tragedies, one has to invent a new world, knit it or embroider, make it up. it’s not gonna be given to you because you deserve it, it doesn’t work that way. you have to imagine something that doesn’t exist [italics mine], dig a cave into the future and demand space. it’s a territorial hope affair. at the time, that digging is utopian, but in the future it will become your reality.”

I think what she’s getting at is we have to struggle through some work we don’t even yet know how to do to build the future we desire. We have to unlearn a lot of what is false, kick bad habits, and unravel a lot of commonly unexamined ideals. To create Björk’s Utopia, we have to engage with art in a way that suggests we actually give a shit about humanity, and that we actually want to put some effort and imagination into dreaming up a cultural future that’s better than the pillaged Cracker Barrel gift shop we’ve got right now. Björk understands the power of her social role as both a celebrity and a creator. In interviews, she attempts the herculean task of shifting mainstream creative conversation away from romanticizing despair and towards celebrating and facilitating health, wellness, and procreation. Lyrically this album is less direct, more mantra-like: ”Your past is on loop, turn it off,” she sings on “Future Forever.” “See this possible future and be in it.”

One of my favorite things Björk has said in this album’s press cycle is, “it’s a pro-life statement to make things,” as if pro-life is not already a cultural signifier of an entirely different meaning. The role of an artist is to be a visionary: quite literally, to see. That could mean rearranging what already exists in order to inflict harm and making it into something fortifying and generative. It could mean inventing what isn’t already there at all. An artist’s responsibility is to look through the binoculars and shout back at everybody else on the ship that, yes, there’s a tiny thing in the distance, yes, hang on, there is a place out there, I can see it, and I think we’re headed in the right direction. From a social standpoint, there is so much shared power in enabling artists and making space for their work to flourish. Kanye West once said, “If you know an artist, there’s only one thing you can say, give, or ask them when you see them. There are two words: ‘Thank you.’” I’m grateful to Björk.

I don’t think it’s fair to this artist, or to any other, that our dominant marketing structure in the music industry demands music writers fully digest what might be a horror-shattering, VIBRATIONALLY HEALING (hello), masterful (pardon the gendered terminology) recording as fast as humanly possible, and then for them to spit out a synthesized, cohesive observation about what the work might mean for everybody else. IDK―seems like a great way for everybody to learn to feel alienated from, and eventually grow to hate their own work: using talents which could be instrumental in bettering our world and our societal relationship with art, (which could inspire the salvation of civilization, IDK) to shovel money into the pockets of stupidly rich and greedy CEOs of streaming platforms, negligent publishers, social-media networking sites, global “entertainment” conglomerates, and other ciphers of death leading our present apocalyptic march towards unending cultural collapse. On “Sue Me,” Björk sings, “Let’s break the curse so it won’t fall on our daughter and her daughter and her daughter,” and IDK, MAYBE WE SHOULD JUST DO WHAT THE LADY SAYS and start imagining and creating some stuff that doesn’t yet exist.

We could start with a culture that respects and adequately compensates artists of all kind. Under capitalism’s commodity-driven, highly worker-explotive marketplace, art is increasingly deemed valueless. The arts are deemed so culturally unimportant, they’re seen as superfluous to school curricula and often ridiculed or exploited by those in the best position be their champions. Last week on Twitter, the writer Liz Pelly wondered, “Why do so many culture critics & tech critics think music is a joke instead of a life-affirming element that’s routinely devalued and currently being exploited/ruined by billion-dollar tech companies?”

Seems like part of the problem is that we love to feel like shit. Mass media corporations love to indulge us: A 2014 study found that the most popular themes in chart-topping music were “loss, desire, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration, and nostalgia.” It makes sense that stuff like, say, envisioning a better future, steadfast confidence in the capabilities of humanity, and actually overthrowing the man wouldn’t be high on most artists’ lists of “stuff I need to write songs about,” since there’s little incentive, in a practical, bill-paying sense. But, hold on―2017 has been a shitshow of external world-crushing despair! Lots of pop musicians, like Eminem, Katy Perry, and Maroon 5, suddenly seem like they just heard “We Are The World” or “Rhythm Nation” for the first time, and they’re tryna get in on some of that “higher-consciousness” action (pardon me whilst my eyes roll out of my head). These artists still don’t often rise to the challenge of creating visions of the future we can believe in, or even suggest we ought to turn our gaze towards the imaginations that do. Unlike the tacky newfound Wokeness™ many pop stars are peddling to sound fresh in dystopic times, Björk’s sentiments on Utopia are poignant, breathing, lived-in. They sound like they came from the minds of human beings, from experiences―not from a marketing team. Save for Vulnicura’s abyss of total darkness (something all the more powerful, because it’s a territory she so rarely treads for long), Björk’s work has always been about John Bergerlevels of better ways of seeing and living.

Fans don’t raise their eyebrows at Björk’s larger-than-life statements because not many artists of her stature are up to the challenge of expressing the complexities of wellness―the humor and nuances to feeling healthy, living, and functional―the way that Björk always has. In the past she’s outlined the paradoxical, thrilling and frightening nature of a new crush (“Violently Happy”), celebrated erotic feminine appetite (“Venus As A Boy”), the fortifying intensity of platonic intimacy (“Jóga”), and the confidence in letting go of (and possibly masturbating to?) that which you cannot control (“It’s Not Up To You”). Even early in her career, there is a faint, knowing sadness to her excitement on “Like Someone In Love” (originally a hit for Bing Crosby) that belies the truth of infatuation: while this feels like being in love, it’s not really that at all, not yet, at least. Björk’s feel-good music is the antidote to robotic, saccharine songs that claim to tread the same territory. Perhaps the most quintessential and paradoxically complex of all, “Hyperballad,” is about going to great imaginative lengths (technically, some level of suicidal ideation) in order to “feel happier to be safe up here with you”―and it’s a pop song. Despite its subject matter, “Hyperballad” is a profoundly catchy, soaringly devoted love song. Happiness is not an ending for Björk. It is a continual challenge that involves self trust and great feats of emotional and intellectual strength. We need more artists describing these realities so that, you know, if Fox News goes bankrupt or the entire governing body of the USA is replaced by J20 Defendants, we might actually know how to handle being happy and well! Utopia’s musically celebratory sensibilities (if “Arisen My Sense” doesn’t make you feel weepy in that why-am-I-so-happy Björk-how-are-you-even-DOING-this-to-me kinda way, I am concerned) are the most recent entries in a career built on looking forward.

Utopia’s emotional core echoes the prophetic words of Rebecca Solnit’s Hope In The Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, published in 2004 as the Bush administration plunged into a deeply wrongheaded war in the Middle East. “The most foundational change of all,” Solnit explains, “the one from which all else issues, is hardest to track. It means that politics arises out of the spread of ideas and the shaping of imaginations.” Solnit explains that, so long as it’s coupled with critical thinking, optimism is one of the most powerful tools for defeating all kinds of darkness, both personal and societal. The act of evolving, becoming something new, is in its essence invisible to the naked eye. She wasn’t the first to strike this powerful, paradigm-shifting chord. “The revolution is in your mind,” explained visionary Gil Scott-Heron, when asked about his oft-repeated, oft-misunderstood quote that the revolution wouldn’t be televised. “The thing that’s going to change people is something that will never be able to be captured on film.” Utopia, in its defense of music, is here to show us how evolution, and revolution, could sound.

Much like P. Diddy, Katie Alice Greer is a musician and record mogul. Her band Priests released Nothing Feels Natural in 2017 on their own label Sister Polygon, and now her solo debut, Barbarism, is out on Four Four Records. You can follow her on Twitter here.