I was researching beatboxing for the British Pathe archive yesterday and part of that research involved talking to one of the world's most celebrated beatboxers Rahzel. I first heard the name Razhel in the autumn of 2004 when Bjork used his vocal beats for her acapella album Medulla.
Re-watching the video to Who Is It, the first Bjork song that Razhel worked on (according to Bjork the final version was recorded by Rahzel in its entirety on his first take!) I was surprised to learn from the comments section that Alexander McQueen designed Bjork's bell dress. In hindsight it's quite obvious:
Who Is It can act rather harrowingly today as a prophetic commentary on the Alexander McQueen story, and this left me wanting to know more about the working relationship between these two great artists...
Bjork first met McQueen in 1997 when he was fresh out of St. Martin's (when Lady Gaga was 10 years old - assuming her given age is accurate). Isabella Blow, a mutual friend, had just purchased McQueen's graduate collection and this drew the attention of the obscure Icelandic singer who was looking to break away from her bubblegum punk routes that had beed defined by her days as the lead singer of The Sugarcubes.
Bjork commissioned McQueen to dress and direct her for the cover of her album Homogenic. Both artists were interested in the relationship between technology and nature and Bjork's album Homogenic addressed this relationship directly, as well as using stereo intelligently so that you could hear the whole album with either just strings or just beats - the kind of project that won McQueen's interest (admittedly, Bjork was already becoming a bit of a gay icon and music mag pigeon-holers were clutching photos of her, one eye squinting, holding her up against the stained glass window of Kate Bush in their offices - to style Bjork was a big oppurtunity for the young McQueen). Homogenic became Bjork's most iconic cover:
McQueen then directed the video to one of the album's songs Alarm Call:
The clothing and activity in Alarm Call is quite subtle for McQueen really, just as the song is quite cheerful and rounded for a Bjork single. The important thing was that both artists were busy working and steadily sailing towards the mouths of their desired industries. Life was looking good and by the end of the decade both Bjork and McQueen were household names.
Earlier I mentioned Lady Gaga and before I discuss her more I feel I should point out here that I enjoy her pop music, own all of her records and don't want to fall into a YouTube-esque trap of comparing Lady Gaga against Bjork as they are both very different artists.
It is unfortunate that with all the razmataz of Lady Gaga's attention-grabbing high-profile pull-out-all-the-stops money-making tributes to McQueen, in which she sang her own on-the-shelves pop songs to audiences of millions, that some of the more truthful and heartfelt aspects of McQueen's earlier vision have already lapsed.
Some artists have a habit of overwriting and overshadowing the work of their predecessors, and whilst that may be commendable and due to their timeliness and relevance it also means that some of the more tender truths are left behind. So until somebody takes it upon themselves to write a pamphlet about Bjork and McQueen, battle-axe blogposts like this must remain.
It seems to me that whilst McQueen's partnership with Bjork was sensual and thinking, other parts of McQueen's later work was a practical joke on the pop industry. He sent Lady Gaga to collect an award looking like this...
You see, even this blog post is losing sight of its path, rapidly descending into a vapid bitch fest on nothingness, a world that didn't exist in 1997.
ANYWAY. One year after Bjork first met McQueen in 1997, she told the Chicago Sun Times "I explained to Lee that the person who wrote these songs is someone in an impossible situation, so impossible that she had to become a warrior, but a warrior who had to fight with love, not weapons"
If only McQueen had remembered those words 13 years later when his impossible situation had materialised and was threatening to engulf him.
Despite Lady Gaga's big song and dance at the Brits (the McQueen tribute aspect was big news at at the time, serving its purpose as journalistic firewood for Gaga's flaming hot career, but two years later it's boiled down to a rather disappoint glittery residue of "Look at these fabulous hoof shoes he made guys!") it was Bjork who was invited to sing at his funeral at St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
Bjork could have resurrected one of her hits from the 90s, perhaps re-issued the video of Alarm Call, or promoted material from her then forthcoming film. Instead she sang Gloomy Sunday, accompanied only by an organ. The extraordinary and yet modest performance was recorded on a shaky handheld camera and was not televised. Afterwards she published a small note on her website thanking Alexander McQueen and stating that he played a vital role in her formative years.
Bjork joined a long list of magical stars to cover Gloomy Sunday, including Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Marianne Faithfull and Sinead O'Connor. And so it came as no surprise to high fashion's inner circle when Nick Knight approached Bjork to work with him on his Alexander McQueen tribute video:
Perhaps it was Bjork who let McQueen down. She found her fans, she had a son and she found happiness. Bjork opened The Olympic ceremony in Greece before a TV audience of 50 million and yet it's almost as if nobody noticed. Bjork is for her fans' eyes only. McQueen sacrificed himself for those who still needed something to look at.
Bjork dedicated her career to nature and trying to preserve the earth, McQueen took the technological route with its holographic fashion shows, deliberately over-produced pop records and sea of flashing cameras. A world that eventually played a part in destroying him.
Bad Romance is a fantastic song that arguably captures that pain, chaos and yearning that McQueen might have felt at the very end of his life. The song has enjoyed 450 million YouTube views as of today and will go down in history as one of the songs of its decade, if not the song. Meanwhile Who Is It can only be viewed on YouTube in poor quality and the official Bjork TV version has only had a measly 15,000 visitors across 5 whole years.
But if Bad Romance has you reaching for the volume, it is Bjork's song that speaks volumes...
"Who is it that never let you down? Who is it who gave you back your crown? And the ornaments - they're going around. Now they're handing it over, handing it over" - Bjork, 2004.
"I want your ugly. I want your disease. I want your everything as long as it's free. I want your love. LAAV LAAV LAAV, I want your Leurrrrrrrgggggghhhhhhhhhhh..........." - Lady Gaga, 2010.
And indeed, McQueen's crown does get passed around. And so when Kate Middleton chose an Alexander McQueen wedding dress for The Royal Wedding it acted for me as an antedote to the robotic diseased side of McQueen's magnificent designs, bringing a sense of catharsis, it seemed to connect to the Bjork side of McQueen, the side that he very nearly left behind.
The official Who Is It page (Bjork's website has a beautifully crafted page for each of her songs)