by Lucas Fink
Rick Altman wrote about how Hollywood narrative cinema is basically structured around and propelled by a character with easily-understood motivations progressing through a series of events chained together causally. So, things like spectacle and pathos (musical numbers, action scenes, sobbing, screaming, bright colors, etcetera) are outside, are in excess of, this dominant Hollywood system. Altman offers a crucial nuance here, though: this excess is only conceived of as such relative to the system that asserts itself as dominant. The implications are that excess, secondary logics, minor positions, spaces of subversion, or whatever you want to call them are not in themselves excessive. In his words, “Unless we recognize the possibility that excess – defined as such because of its refusal to adhere to a system – may itself be organized as a system, then we will hear only the official language and forever miss the text’s dialect, and dialectic”(35).The rub here is that, if given the chance, that which is repressed by a given dominant system could very well organize itself into its own system. I wish ask if this has ever actually happened, if oppositional elements have ever been allowed to flower into a system of their own. The song “Brother Sport” by psychedelic pop group Animal Collective presents, I think, a decent approximation of such a system, a system in which the marginal becomes the dominant. The dominant’s status as such, then, is a product of contingency, and forever precarious.
First, we must define the dominant for pop music. Altman here is working with film, and thus defines the dominant for film: “With few exceptions they[film theorists of the past two decades] have stressed omniscient narration, linear presentation, character-centered causality, and psychological motivation … [as well as] the importance of invisible editing, verisimilitude of space, and various devices used to assure continuity”(15). It is in reference to these dominant standards of storytelling that Altman identifies the excessive: contingency/coincidences(33), parallelism/multiplicity of perspectives(20-26), overlong spectacles, and unabashed pathos. What, then, constitutes the dominant for contemporary pop music?
We can, with little research effort, determine that the vast majority of popular music adheres to the “verse A – chorus - verse B – chorus – bridge - chorus” structure, or some mild variation. It is now apparent why pop music is often said to be “hook reliant”, for the dominant structure is designed to foreground a singular catchy refrain. Everything that is not the hook/chorus then takes on a supportive role, becoming connective tissue which justifies the song’s existence as a song - as more than just one random earworm - usually via the delivery of some narrative related to the chorus’s lyrical content. Pop’s lyrical content is impressively diverse, making it difficult to explain the genre’s dominant in terms of lyrics. Whatever the song is “about” superficially, though, the lyrics almost always situate the listener comfortably in either a physical setting, interpersonal scenario, or psychological condition. Importantly, because of pop’s unswerving loyalty to its central refrain, the situation the listener finds themselves in is usually static; a given song is obligated by its structure to repeat its one refrain, and whatever lyrical content therein, multiple times. Charli XCX’s “Vroom Vroom” is about driving really fast; the listener begins the song in a fast car and ends the song in a fast car. Lorde’s “Royals” is about class resentment; the listener begins the song simultaneously fetishizing and repudiating inaccessible opulence and ends the song doing the same thing. However, just as Altman discusses the necessary presence of a counter-logic wherever there is a dominant logic(31), so too is the marginal present in pop. The verses, being the only non-repeated element of pop songs, are the marginal. More specifically, the verses’ promise of change, of a meaningful evolution throughout the song, is the marginal, even though this is a false promise. The verses exist to trick the listener into thinking the end of the song will be different from the beginning, just as unpredictable beginnings in American film exist to veil the fact that the ending will almost certainly be a happy one(Altman 32).
How does “Brother Sport” systematize elements that would otherwise be subordinate/tertiary? The track engages in a wholesale jettisoning of classic pop structure such that it becomes impossible to even locate a verse or chorus. Instead, the listener encounters three rhythmically distinct hooks woven into a lush soundscape of twinkling synths and thrumming African/Latin-inspired percussion. The second hook immediately follows the first, and the last hook is separated from the others by an unapologetically lengthy chunk of instrumental phantasmagoria. The rub here is that each hook – which, in the context of a classic pop structure, would be the centerpiece of its own singular song - is mercilessly excised from the track to make room for the next. The primacy of hooks/the revered status hooks enjoy in classic pop song structure is thus wholly undermined, indeed flatly rejected in favor of an entirely different system, an entirely different operationalization of hooks. “Brother Sport” then organizes itself not around the singular, imitable, omnipotent God-Chorus, but around a rhizomatic multiplicity of catchy lyrical nuggets, none of which are afforded more ontological significance than the others.
Furthermore, Animal Collective supplants the illusion of progression common to classic pop tracks by actual progression. In “Brother Sport”, the situation is an interpersonal scenario: the singer, whose father has just died, is giving his brother advice regarding mourning. Here’s the icing on the cake, though: the song, in virtue of its atypical structure, ends differently than it began, for the writers have the gall to conclude with a hook other than the one they began with. We begin with refusal of tragedy(“I know it sucks that daddy’s done but try to think of what you want”) and end with hopeful, future-oriented euphoria(“You’ve got a real good shot […] Keep it real; give a real shout out”). “Brother Sport” then affirms that, however naturalized the classical system may be, its position as such is perpetually tenuous and contingent on the subduing of its excess, excess which contains a world in itself, albeit unactualized. “Brother Sport” is this actualization of the worlds nestled in the crevices in the status quo.
by Maxwell S. Zinkievich
When I received my first car at sixteen and I got into the driver’s seat for the first time, my parents had already placed CDs of Björk’s studio albums Vespertine and Post in the center console. From a young age I had been attracted to her unique and powerfully realized personal drive to create and to innovate. Each album that she releases, each project that she works on, is distinctly of her own; unreproducable. I listened to her music in almost a religious sense, and before the 15th of February this year, I had yet to see her in concert.
I will say very little to criticize Björk and the production of this show within this “review” of sorts; I hope that it be taken more as a discriptive account of what this queer kid experienced rather than something that one would see in Rolling Stone. While this show has received critical acclaim from a myriad of critics (Rolling Stone included) with decades more experience and credibility than myself,, I will do my best not to parrot what has already been said before; even if my opinions mirror theirs closely. In short, the production that I saw on the 15th of February 2022 held at the newly constructed Chase Center in San Francisco is a triumph not only for the production staff, show director, and accompanying musicians, but also for Björk herself.
View of the set pieces and projector curtains.
source: Santiago Felipe via https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2022-01-25/bjork-cornucopia-tour-pandemic
I would like to begin by examining the air that was created as the crowd entered the stadium. A floral graphic was projected on the curtain of the stage, throwing off great amounts of teal and pink light into the surrounding stands. As people gathered and found their seats, the atmosphere was unlike anything I had experienced before. People dressed up to attend this event, but not in the manner that one would expect. Sure, there was a fraction that dressed in festival wear or another light-show techno ready attire, there was even a swan dress or two. The majority of the people in attendance, however, were in formalwear. Not many suits and gowns, but that distinctly SF/Tech world of spiffy clean haircuts and slick gray shirts and pants, maybe a slightly unconventional blazer thrown in for color. Nothing insane, but a step up from the usual uniform of All-Birds and Patagonia. These people were dressing up for something, something more than a concert or live performance. They were there to witness something between the lines of performance art and a symphony—and if anything, they were underdressed.
The show opens with an acapella performance from the Icelandic Hamrahlid Choir that set the mood and moment for what would take place after. Their vocals would be used onstage to back up Björk throughout the show, and play a critical part in building the soundscape. After this performance, the stage goes dark and the curtain reveals itself through movement to be a number of sheer and semi-transparent sheets placed at varying depths into the stage. These sheets would be used to catch projections that blended the digital space created by the show's technal art team. The curtains would be pulled in and out of their nooks on the sides of the stage for each track, finding a place where they perfectly work within the stage visuals and the music to build a cohesive and natural extension of the world that Björk was building onstage. Because of this digital canopy, the stage itself was fairly devoid of non-functional set pieces. A tiered system of fungi-looking platforms allowed for staging of the static musicians as well as a dance platform for the accompanying flute ensemble.
source: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images for ABA via
Here I believe that it is important to make note of the album that Björk is primarily drawing from for the setlist of this production, Utopia. As always, Björk trends to more abstracted and unearthly lyrics and methods of composition. She almost never utilizes a chorus in her work, and breaks away from musical tropes that would make her music repetitive. Her compositions always trend more along the lines of a story or abstract emotional ballad. Utopia is, for many, a pinnacle of this style of work. I would make the argument that none of the songs that Björk plays throughout this show could be termed “danceable”. Not that she is unable to create songs that are, but that the goals that she has as an artist do not fall within the realm of making the next big hit. Therefore, if the reader were to find any recordings of this performance online, I would urge them to watch under the guise of an opera-goer.
The production of the show is designed to create an immersive world that the viewer is allowed a glimpse into. One that does not exist outside of the temporal and physical space of the stage. Elaborate costumes grace the bodies of Björk and her accompanying floutists. Fashion houses Balmain and Iris Van Herpen designed the costumes of Björk herself, with elaborate face-embellishments designed by James Merry and make-up by Johannes J. Jaruraak (@isshehungry).
source: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images for ABA via https://consequence.net/2022/01/bjork-cornucopia-recap-los-angeles-shrine-auditorium/
I mentioned previously that Björk is an artist who is constantly on the cutting edge of what can be done technologically for her music. She was one of the first artists to include electronic instruments alongside an orchestral arrangement on stage in the mid 1990s and has continued to push the envelope in as many ways as she can. I also mentioned that she has very few non-functional set pieces with her on stage. What she does include that for me falls into the category of functional is a reverberation chamber that was specially constructed for her voice. This physical chamber is situated in the back of stage right and adds a unique flavor to the singer’s voice for certain tracks. She also includes an instrument that she calls “water drums” which take the form of large wooden bowls and a tub of water. The player places the bowls face down in the water and beats on the convex side of the bowl. This creates a uniquely full and reverberating drum sound that is picked up with an array of microphones around the water basin. Some of her tracks require the sound of falling or dripping water which are also captured live from this apparatus. Perhaps the most unique piece of instrumentation that was constructed for this show is what I term an “orbital flute” which is a series of four or five individual silver flutes that have been connected and bent into a circular shape. This instrument stays suspended high above the stage and is lowered around Björk. Thus, when the accompanying flutists play the instrument, her vocals are emanating from a literal encirclement of vibrating, musical air.
It is difficult to draw any conclusions about the experience that can be drawn out into the realm or reality. The metaphors of the album Utopia circle around creating a world that is free from a past of hate, anger and pollution. Before the encore, a recorded speech by climate activist Greta Thunburg is played to give the audience the state of emergency that the world is currently facing due to the climate crisis. Perhaps it was Björk’s goal to create a window into a world that is unbounded by these issues and to show the audience the unfathomable beauty and emotional expanses that can be seen if we band together in love to fight climate change.
In closing, the show itself was transcendent of the physical world that we inhabit and is a triumph of creative thought and execution. Uniquely visionary, confusing, fascinating, creative, captivating, alien. Uniquely Björk.
Björk in Balmain and surrounded by “orbital flute”.
source: New York City Photography/Santiago Felipe via