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Issue 200

Claire-Louise Bennett on Björk’s ‘Debut’

‘It is Björk’s ambivalence to human relations that makes her liberality so poignant’

BY Claire-Louise Bennett in Fan Letter , Music | 08 JAN 19

Björk, Debut, 1993, album cover. Courtesy and photograph: Jean-Baptiste Mondino/One Little Indian

There were books, of course, but not esteemed ones – literature came later. I don’t recall what we read at school. It was an odd school and, by that, I suppose I mean it was dreadful. My brother recently told me he’d seen our old science teacher at an air show and he’d said that, for years, it was consistently listed amongst the top four worst schools in England, which to my ears sounded like quite an achievement. ‘Worst in what way?’ I asked, excitedly. My brother said nothing, which I took to mean: ‘Chump, let us count the number of ways.’ I remember it was a relentlessly boisterous place; no one would keep still long enough to take anything in. The English department gamely issued books every September but nobody read them or bothered even to bring them along to the appropriate lesson; yet, despite such pandemic indifference, the staff had real difficulty getting even a handful of these unloved volumes back in the building at the end of term. I remember we were shown The Woman in Black (1989) on a gigantic television set that was rolled into the classroom like an effigy, and I recall I wrote an essay on The Silence of the Lambs (1988) by Thomas Harris – at the time I was obsessed with murder and thought very seriously about studying criminology or forensic science. I also wrote something more or less about commodification in response to a plaintive song by the recently wronged George Michael. It seems they didn’t much mind what the departure point was, as long as we wrote. And I did write; I wrote a lot. I wrote about AIDS, about the greenhouse effect, about graffiti. I wrote about all sorts of grown-up concerns, because I was growing up, there was no doubt about it, and growing up also entailed developing a private life and a secret self, which was thrilling, and distressing. I wrote about that, too, in the back of my exercise book, out of sight.

Being on the cusp of the adult world made me restless, bonkers with excitement; at the same time, the wrenching sensation of being extricated from the snug familiarity of childhood was terrifically painful. Torn between comfort and adventure, between being in the fold and cultivating mystery; it’s easy to forget how much nerve, real nerve, it takes to thrust oneself forth, to make our debut upon the adult stage. Debut, the title of Björk’s 1993 album, no doubt attests to it being her first solo work, yet its aptness extends to the songs themselves, which chart a deeper state of emergence/y. Adolescence is a time of pushing boundaries, seeing how far you can go, how much you can get away with, and no one expresses what flirting with danger and licking your wounds feels like with as much infectious candour and vim as Björk. ‘I don’t know my future after this weekend / And I don’t want to’; every time I heard this line, a strange, stealthy, shadow of anticipation snuck over me, blocking out the day. I felt wilful, alone and intrepid. It somehow crystallizes the dynamic skirmish between immersion and detachment which plunges and pulses throughout an album that opens, cagily, with ‘Human Behaviour’, and the off-stage observation that ‘If you ever get close to a human / And human behaviour / Be ready, be ready to get confused / There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic’. Later, in the same song, Björk confesses that there is nothing as irresistible and satisfying as being involved in the exchange of human emotions, and Debut is a gloriously exuberant and tender appeal to get stuck in and embrace all feelings – ‘the hardcore and the gentle’.

But Björk also recognizes that human drama can soon become pretty tedious; ‘Let’s sneak out of this party’, she enjoins, ‘It’s getting boring / There’s more to life than this’. She imagines escaping on a stolen boat with her ghettoblaster to a small island: a dream that is swiftly checked by a homely impulse to fetch fresh bread as soon as the bakery opens. The pounding rapture of ‘Violently Happy’ is followed by a lone saxophonous dive into the ocean and dropping anchor; ‘This is where I’m staying / This is my home.’ Playing with fire and narrow escapes can certainly help us savour the calmer bliss of more wholesome pleasures. The sudden overwhelming need to withdraw and burrow down after bursts of exhilarating social intensity really chimed with me – and still does – and it is Björk’s ambivalence to human relations that makes her liberality so poignant. ‘There’s no one here / And people everywhere.’ Is there a more precise formulation of the existential curse that dogs and enlivens our own debut? To join in or head for the hills: this was the dilemma of my adolescence, and it’s a conundrum that continues to imbue my life, and my writing, to this day. 

Claire-Louise Bennett lives in Galway, Ireland. She is the author of Pond (2015). Her short fiction and essays have appeared in publications including The White Review, gorse, Harper’s Magazine and The New York Times.