Vulnicura and redefining the protest song

Something very curious happens during Björk’s new album Vulnicura. On several occasions the Icelandic singer over emphasises the ‘r’ by rolling it off her tongue for what seems infinitely longer than is needed. One could forgive her accent the anomaly but what is quite significant that is that it doesn’t happen all the time. On Stonemilker for instance the word respect foregoes the nuance for most part until the very end, when the strings are suddenly played in piano rather than forte and the cymbals disolve from the percussion to give Björk’s voice centre stage. It’s not the only occurrence of the word respect on the album, but from that moment on the ‘r’ in the word is always over-emphasised in that manner, while similar words, which should also in theory also make use of the same device, are absolved of the device – like the iteration of ‘reached’, sung on the second verse of Lionsong to name the most immediate example. During an interview with Pitchfork the Icelandic singer insisted that the lyrics came from a very base origin, suggesting the application of her inflection is not one of conscious decision, but what is interesting is on the occasions it does happen is on words like ‘respect’ and ‘spirit’. It is like these words were carefully and slowly extracted from a most personal part of her being to be applied so viscerally in the songs that make up the album. It is Björk in a state of duress as she expresses her protest at her current situation. It might a personal protest, but Vulnicura is a protest album nonetheless and one of the best we’ve come across in recent years.

Although the common conjecture is that protest music is usually based on simple lyricism within folk forms that call into question the status quo, but it is actually far more complex than the simple lyrics they contain. Although a line like “give peace a chance” is immediate in its effect in protesting the state of affairs, the music accompaniment that follows can have the adverse effect, which makes it appear as though the artist is merely capitalising on shared sentiment – in the fashion of most music that deals with broken relationships. A duality is required between the lyrics and the music to achieve the objective of the protest and this is something that Björk has captured magnificently on Vulnicura through, specifically her string arrangements. Half way through Family, what is already become a tense arrangement between dissonant strings and erratic beats dissipates into a single violin that stomps out a staccato rhythm through a violently aggressive melodic progression, calling on dissonant intervals as it runs through its chaotic motif. It has certain similarities to Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 10 in the way it expresses the severe angst and anger before it resolves into something far more tranquil towards the end of the song. And here I’d like to pause to consider Shostakovich and the hand he had in mastering the art of the protest song. The Russian composer, which was part of the avant garde of music during the first half of the twentieth century had come under severe criticism for his complex arrangements by the 1930’s. His compositions did not uphold the values of Stalin’s socialist regime to the point where he started fearing his very life. Many friends, colleagues and family had already gone missing and presumed dead as Stalin sought to punish anyone that wasn’t towing the line. (Even a patron of Shostakovich and a high-ranking officer in the red Army had been killed on trumped up charges.) Shostakovich had his back to the wall to and as a result his fourth symphony never even saw the light of day, but instead of returning to complex compositions of intense beautiful anguish, he decided instead to tow the line, but highlight at least the fact that it was done under severe duress. His fifth symphony complied with the very simplistic music Stalin’s regime demanded by way of internally mocking it, unbeknownst to the audience, including Stalin. It was such an ingenious protest to his situation that the very people who’d suppressed the composer commended him on his efforts to bring to light the narrow-minded devices of their own invention.

Björk’s protest might be more obvious than that in the face of her lyrics, but like Shostakovich she’d managed to elaborate on it firmly in her music. It’s here where Alejandro “Arca” Ghersi fits like a glove alongside the visceral string arrangements. The erratic percussion he employs during Black Lake, the crux of the album at which things start to come undone, compliments the slow movements of the strings in a fitting contrast. During Family, the delays Ghersi creates around the singular percussion creates the effect of a tensioned coil unravelling as a parallel evocation of Björks lyrics about the extrication of her family. The protest from the lyrics carry through the music, similarly in the way that Planningtorock’s All Love’s Legal from last year. Jam Rostron’s album protested misogyny on a universal level and her misgivings were pronounced through the discord in her processed vocal by way of electronic dance music. Björk’s protest would never have worked in the dance format. The personal nature of the protest would have come across as a fetishised opportunity to capitalise on human emotive responses. All Love’s Legal was not relying on visceral human responses to broadcast its message, but rather capturing as many ears as possible, something Björk didn’t need to accomplish because of the personal nature of the work. Through subdued arrangements and restrained percussive events, Vulnicura manages to arrive at the message in a contrasting manner to much of the artist’s earlier work. Even, livelier songs like Atomic Dance and Notget manage to evoke a serene discomfort instead of a joyous opportunity to dance.

Björk’s album ultimately comes at a time, when music has returned to expressing a vested interest in the world around it rather than the self-indulgent excesses of a consumerist society. Recording the personal successes of an artist through their music has for long been the status quo in popular music from the 21at century, and even though there’s been the odd form of protest to enliven debate, it hardly broke through to a larger public. Even hip-hop, the most ardent perpetrator of the self-indulgent product pushers, has found a new voice amongst a new guard of talent. Angel Haze last week penned a letter about cultural appropriation in her world, while artists like Cakes Da Killa’s music stick it to their homophobic counterparts with lyrics that highlight gay-culture in methods that would put those same homophobic rappers to shame. Yes, the protests are varied and they can range from personal protest of being wronged in a love affair to mass cultural inequalities, but they are protest songs nonetheless. It might not be the seventies and we don’t have a single war to rally against. There are hundreds of wars and millions of transgressions perpetrated each and every day, but we can know of them at the click of a button so it is only natural that music will respond in a similar way and inadvertently it can also bring attention to its plight. Electro Shaabi, the Egyptian electronic movement that’s been going for a few years now, gave us the human perspective of the Arab Spring from Egypt’s point of view. Most of us couldn’t understand the lyrics, but the music with its busy motifs and lo-fi noise had designed dissent and objection in its very essence and could not be ignored for anything other than that. In South Africa last year, Dookoom protested with vitriol and menace in their voices as they scolded the farmer who underpays his staff and it caused quite a stir everywhere.

Some might argue the last two instances warrant the title protest song more accurately than Björk, but if Shostakovich showed us anything it is that the art of the protest is not one that has a pre-destined model and could even hid in the subtleties of a commercially accepted composition. It could protest the very form it was forced to adopt, and it could protest any situation the artist might find her/himself in. Björk has highlighted the art of the protest song again through a diatribe of a very personal affliction, but isn’t that where an objection is most warranted, with an issue that afflicts you personally. Whether it’s an act of terrorism or just the failure of a banking system, I am sure if we all had a stage, the protest song would dominate our airwaves. It results in incredible art most of the time and even though we’ve arrived at Vulnicura through some-one else’s misfortune, I am certainly positive that the protest song is more alive than ever.

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