Once Again Into the Björk

Reading Time: 3 minutes

With the intention of listening painstakingly (I mean this word as literally as possibly it has ever been used) to each cut on Vulnicura, which is Björk’s newest album released two days ago, and having made it so far through most of one song I have this much to observe.

She seems to speak English as the circumstances require. I don’t know what the circumstances of recording this album may have been, but she speaks it in the lyrics (which she wrote) as if it were, say, a 27th or 32nd language, after a great many more more important ones in front of it. I guess I should say she sings them, but the singing, hmmmm, how shall I say this?… Having been given to understand that she is admired by some musicians for the extraordinary range of her voice (I could only account for previous experiences attempting to listen to her music, and about which I recall mainly very high pitched keening, and very low pitched moaning—so I guess technically it is correct to say “range” and it is also, as far as I’m concerned, appropriate to say “extraordinary;” I don’t know that I’d use the two terms together, and I know that previously I had an extraordinary amount of trouble allowing myself to use the term “singing” with regard to whatever she is doing with her voice) I thought I’d give her performing another chance.

All I can say, beyond what I’ve said, at least with regard to that first song, “Stonemilker,” which I’m supposing has something to do, at least by some law of allowing variation at one or two removes, with the expression “you can’t get blood from a stone” and so maybe the song is about something impossible that occurred in spite of expectations to the contrary, and that this something has to do with emotions (disclosure: I looked at the booklet that accompanies the album and I see that the English word “emotional” does appear at least twice in the lyrics; I had to read it, because I couldn’t quite decipher it from the sounds emanating from my high fidelity loudspeakers). In all events, just to finish my very preliminary observations, and only about one song, what the English she is pronouncing sounds like is a rendition of what a person in the process of being strangled would sound like, as the English, by way of scientific linguistic description, is at best, strangulated, very highly accented, but with no discernible roots as to the native language of the speaker.

Having listened to that much, I realized that though there have been many forays on my part, boldly and intrepidly, to make my way through an entire album in the past (Biophilia, her last album, and a masterpiece by some accounts, was simply beyond my obviously far too fragile and undeveloped sensibilities), I have never heard any recordings or appearances wherein she had a conversation with another living human creature. So I repaired as we all do in such circumstances to Youtube, and found that she had appeared and been recorded as a guest on several talk shows. One of these was British, and the other was German, though the interview was conducted in English.

I was astonished to hear her speak with a perfect British accent in the former, almost an exact rendition of the accent of her interviewer, the host of the program. I was then further astonished, listening to the German TV show, that her accent had been transfigured entirely into a German inflected sort of English, again, an exact recapitulation of her host’s accent speaking his otherwise perfectly fluent English.

It was also in this latter interview that she responded to the host’s questions about her travel through Germany by train, and she explained, when he pointed out that it was certainly to be anticipated that a celebrity of her stature might be expected to travel by plane, as she could certainly afford it, that she didn’t like to fly because, as she put it in her minuscule soprano German-inflected little girl voice, “The air pressure forces the molecules to go tiny.”

What rushed back into my consciousness, more or less simultaneously, as a kind of aggregate wave of thoughts, essentially a tsunami of cognitive energy, billions of synapses firing simultaneously, was that every previous impression of Björk to which I had allowed myself to be subjected had been exactly the same, and that is, she is clearly the most famous, and possibly the largest, dingbat on the planet.

Stay tuned, as I subject myself to further cuts on this new album.

I will try to capture my impressions, if it’s possible.


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Response to an Interview with David Byrne in Salon (December 2013)

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“Do you really think people are going to keep putting time and effort into this if no one is making any money?”

What always vitiates the value of these kinds of discussions is the emphasis is always on the economics, when, it seems to me, the real conflict is in the arena of ethics.

Where the two converge is about a cultural phenomenon, always a part of the ethos of American life, but especially since the advent of broadcast media, that is, radio and television, whereby there is an expectation of entitlement about that which is offered unbidden and is always received passively. What these media taught the entire economy and all of its constituents, but especially the largest segment, that of consumers, is that somehow what entertains them—the substance of the transaction that occurs between producers and consumers—is free, because, after they acquire access to the means of reception, it costs them nothing but time, the time of consumption. This phenomenon, and the underlying attendant matrix of the value proposition, has only intensified, of course, and likely has exponentially, if not logarithmically, multiplied since the advent of the Internet.

It’s rarely asked expressly if this is fair. I would go further and point out that except among the producers and the talent (or artists, if you prefer that terminology) this question never ever arises among the consuming population… neither expressly, or even implicitly.

And of course, culprits must always be found, without so much as lifting a finger to exercise even the most rudimentary tools of analysis. Spotify is the latest avatar of the rapacious spectre of technology, exploiting, if not virtually raping, the talent that provides the raw flesh so eagerly devoured by an increasingly voracious public. A 30-second inquiry online reveals, with figures and charts supplied by Spotify themselves (who, whatever else they may be desirous of hiding, are not hiding the gross statistics about who pays and what’s being paid). It seems that as of the latest figures, just slightly more than 20% of the listeners to Spotify are paid subscribers (why this category is always called “premium” is not only mystifying, but, as well, gets my hackles up for its small contribution to the degradation of meaning in the language). Presumably whatever other revenue Spotify receives arrives in the form of advertising, which is undoubtedly not offered at premium prices (I don’t know much, but I know about advertising, and the fact is, ironically, true premium audiences—high spending, well-heeled consumers of carriage trade products—are accessible through media that can command higher prices for such access). I have no doubt, unless the owners and management of Spotify are utterly unscrupulous, that if the ratio of paid to unpaid subscribers were reversed, there would be a lot more hard capital to distribute and there would be far less talk of how the musicians are exploited.

But people, that is, the consuming public, don’t want to pay for anything (from taxes for public services to the cost of certain consumer goods and services in the economy that have been devalued systematically because of a long history of deferred and indirect payment—for example, marketing costs are part of the purchase price; or, the entire infrastructure of the Internet, constituting a system, and utterly blind to and ignorant of the actual content of the data stream, which is the sole product of that system, is a closed economic engine, with disproportionate distribution of the flow of revenue, with the least of it going to the preponderance of those actually creating that content).

It’s always been the case, since the invention of radio, that people cannot be educated to value creative goods. As long as art is seen as a luxury (and that is its history), it will be expected that truly only the rich can afford it. If people paid for their Spotify or their Pandora, the increasing imbalance (with artists getting the increasingly smaller share of the distribution of wealth) will only worsen.

All of this is in the context of free enterprise, of course, and no one (for practical purposes) is questioning that Spotify or whoever is entitled to find a way to create a product or service that people will use, and in using it somehow will generate revenue at an acceptable level of profitability. What is not clear (as unclear as it is to David Byrne what he is actually being paid in royalties by Spotify, if anything) is whether there is a formula stipulated whereby someone knows what proportion of their subscribers must pay for the service so that artists get a fair and equitable share, given their contribution and popularity.

Finally, and I’ll say the least about this, even though there is more to be said about this than any other factor, greed as a factor is incalculable, because greed is the first thing that gets hidden, whether it’s in demeanor, facial expression, or the double-entry accounting. Eliminate greed, and you eliminate a lot of the murkiness of the economic picture. But ethics is where I started these remarks, and as for greed, the notion that “radix malorum est cupiditas” was ancient even before Chaucer immortalized it The Canterbury Tales (for which he was paid handsomely, in kind).

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