Bjork Icon

It's true that Bjork isn't for everyone. With her fluttery, sing-songy vocals and odd, coquettish persona, the Icelandic wonder can sometimes seem strange for strangeness' sake, like a cute cultural misunderstanding between her homeland and the rest of the world, set to a skittering techno beat.

Until recently, I was a skeptic, too. But watching her new DVD, "Greatest Hits: Volumen 1993-2003," a collection of music videos representing singles from her solo career--the start of a summerlong Bjork blitz of DVDs and CDs by her label, One Little Indian--changed that. It's a fantastic introduction to her eccentric pleasures.

In 21 videos, created by a half dozen directors, photographers and animators, Bjork uses this marginalized art form to stunning effect, proving not only how powerful her music can be, but also the depth of her intent. Much like the controversial visual artist Matthew Barney--Bjork's live-in boyfriend and the father of her daughter, it so happens--she uses her own mercurial image to jar expectations and explore identity, sex, power and freedom in a way that is groovy, entertaining and unnerving at the same time.

Coming as the DVD does on the heels of Barney's divisive show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, it's clear that the two weirdest people on the planet have found each other. Barney, in his series of films, "The Cremaster Cycle," uses arresting, phallocentric images of himself transfigured into mythological characters from some undreamed-of fictional universe (for instance, a nude sartyr with a glass mustache and a half dozen pigeons attached to his crotch by colorful ribbons--really--in "Cremaster 5"). Bjork, too, morphs into high-concept female personas, from a love-lorn art-museum terrorist who drives a giant street-sweeper fueled by diamonds ("Army of Me," directed by Michel Gondry), to an eroticized white robot who makes love to a replica of herself while being spot-welded by tiny robotic arms ("All is Full of Love," directed by Chris Cunningham) to a bald, "Star Trek"-ish nymph who transforms into a menacing metallic (and singing!) bear ("Hunter," by Paul White).

As Bjork burbles in her Icelandic accent on the 1993 song, "Human Behavior," "If you ever get close to a human and human behavior, you better be ready to get confused." She intends to show you what she means.

For the uninitiated, these transformations might come off as so much fashion-plate frolicking, shock-value costume changes a la Madonna. But Bjork is much more than that. For one, her music is interesting: it's dance music, but sensuous and slowed down, syncopated to unusual samples of, say, a deck of cards being shuffled or a pair of shoes walking on gravel. Her voice, an acquired taste, flits like a crazed bird with a sort of barely controlled passion--something like Nina Simone on helium. But it is her complex spins on female image, from frenetic kewpie doll to keening Pandora to sexless automaton, that make her more potent than a mere pop personality. In the context of the current musical universe of prefab retro kids and schlocky R&B divas, Bjork is advanced--positively 22nd century.

Even in the most conventional videos, like the one for 1994's "Violently Happy"--directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino, who filmed Bjork singing and dancing on the flatbed of an 18-wheeler driving through downtown New York--her mercurial body movements and facial expressions are so acute, so fluid and articulate, she achieves an almost embarrassing level of erotic joy (embarrassing because it actually seems real as opposed to stylized) without ever seeming smutty or crass.

In 1993's "Venus as a Boy," directed by Sophie Muller, Bjork sings from what looks like an Icelandic country kitchen. She fixates on a bowl of eggs, one of which she burns in a frying pan. An image of two eggs boiling in a see-through bowl of water, archly suggestive of ovaries, cuts to Bjork smiling as if waking up from a naughty dream. Next, she's fondling her pet lizard.

On the one hand, this is just weird, wacky stuff--and it's fun to watch simply for its arresting oddity. But on the other, there's a teasing--and fairly subtle--subtext: it's a song about a boy who is like a female god because "he believes in beauty"--in other words, those eggs might suggest something other than ovaries. It's hard not to think of Barney and his obsession with ambiguous gender in "The Cremaster Cycle."

Other videos explore the fleshy eroticism of the body in the untempered throws of love, both requited and unrequited. "Pagan Poetry," from 2001, directed by Nick Knight, is an especially disturbing--and riveting--example. It shows a series of pulsating grid maps, which flush pink as they begin to morph into suggestive shapes, which sometimes cut to low-fidelity video of Bjork's body being pierced with beaded string, which we find later are woven into a revealing wedding dress. Finally, there is a blunt video image of a metal needle piercing directly into Bjork's nipple--ouch! Shocking, for sure, but also viscerally confessional, as she writhes with agony and gasps, "I love him, I love him, I love him."

Bjork also toys with the idea of her identity as an artist and a star--a subject that has been explored so many times, it's tiring to even think about. But 1997's "Bachelorette," directed by Michel Gondry, does something exceptional. In a black-and-white film, treated to look archival, Bjork finds a magical, self-writing book in the woods and takes it to a sort of 1950s metropolis to show to a publisher, who turns "My Story" into a sensation. Later, in Technicolor, the video takes a step back--it turns out all of this is taking place on a stage, with an audience of theatergoers looking on. Next, within that play, the publisher sits in the audience watching the story of how the Bjork character came to the big city, met with a publisher, reached fame--and had her story turned into a play. The Borgesian nightmare multiplies, over and over, with Bjork trying to find a door out of the whole mess, but each time ending up in another level of theater. Finally, the set gets overgrown with weeds and grass and people themselves start turning into shrubs. The city turns back into the woods, with Bjork alone in a forest.

It's tempting to chalk all this up to interesting directors rather than Bjork herself. But that's not quite right, given her intensely collaborative and organic relationship to some of them, especially Gondry, a Frenchman. Gondry, who produced six of the videos for Bjork, said in a recent interview that he was actually jealous when Bjork worked with other video directors. "I see our relationship like these very '70s marriages," he joked. "The husband and the wife would have sex with other partners to preserve their marriage."

It's easy to see why Gondry, who has directed videos for the White Stripes and also done extensive commercial work, has been credited with reviving the music-video format. His videos are extraordinary. He was a major influence on Spike Jonze, the director of the Nicolas Cage vehicle "Adaptation." Jonze himself directed two of Bjork's videos, including "It's Oh So Quiet," a 1950s-style Technicolor musical number, with Busby Berkeley-esque dance sequences taking place in a tire store. (The song, too, is a fantastic example of how Bjork can transform something as hackneyed as the Broadway show tune into something kinetic and emotional--again, a show tune for the 22nd century. For more of the same, see her work in Lars von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark.")

This collection, seen as a whole, reminds us how powerful music videos once were when they first came to popularity in the early 1980s--and how powerful they can still be, although no one ever sees them. It's almost unimaginable that the sort of freaky, art-house videos once made by the Talking Heads or Devo could be broadcast on MTV today. And it's unimaginable that these Bjork gems could appear in the market-driven cable trough, where videos, such as they are, have been crowded out by reality programming. It's too bad, because Bjork--and the talented directors, photographers, computer animators and cartoonists she employs--is many orders of magnitude more inventive, interesting and subversive than anything appearing on those channels now. Like good art, Bjork mystifies, again and again. And in a culture that regularly pumps out banality, that is a rare and wonderful thing.