Björk: The Rousseau of Rock
By Stefan Valdemar Snævarr
Franco-Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1713-1778) was one of the first Western thinkers to extol the virtues of pristine nature. In his book The Reveries of a Solitary Walker he talked about the feeling of oneness with nature while taking solitary walks in the forest. Man is good by nature, but civilization corrupts him. Rousseau famously said “Let us return to nature!” This does not mean that Rousseau wanted to destroy civilization, but only that he wanted to create a culture that was more natural than the contemporary one. He advocated the wholesome, authentic, simple life, and he condemned the excesses, pomposity, and artificiality of the reigning aristocracy. Critical of cold, calculating reason, Rousseau celebrated the emotions.
Rousseau opposed aristocratic rule and the power of moneyed interests. His book The Social Contract commences with a thunderous claim: “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.” Rousseau advocates a society where the natural rights of men (males only?) are respected and where the laws and institutions are in accordance with “the general will,” the combined will of every (male?) citizen, purified of individual and factional interest.
In his Confessions, Rousseau offers a completely candid story of his own life, including his innermost thoughts and feelings, as well as his most shameful deeds. As a creative, brilliant, but emotionally unstable, childish, and paranoid person, Rousseau led a dramatic and paradoxical life. His Emile celebrated childhood, yet he put his own children in a foundling’s hospital. He was born in a lower middle-class family in Geneva, but he made quite a career as a composer, thinker, and novelist in Paris, where his operas were popular and his books were bestsellers. In fact, Rousseau was offered a position connected to the king’s court, but refused it on the grounds that he would lose his independence. His radical books, The Social Contract and Emile, were banned and even burned. Rousseau himself had to flee France for England to escape arrest. After his death, though, Rousseau was admired by revolutionaries, who moved his remains to the Panthéon in Paris.
Björk is not a philosopher, and I do not know if she has ever read Rousseau. But she is one of the most original artists in the world of pop and rock, not only making music but producing multimedia spectacles where visual effects (including her lavish costumes), strange lyrics, and music blend in a disharmonic harmony. It is not by chance that Time chose her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) is having an exhibition of her work.
Björk has an aura of authenticity, spontaneity, and intimacy, much like Rousseau. She has not bothered to change her name to suit a global audience; furthermore, she uses only her first name and thereby signals intimacy and authenticity, Rousseau’s trademarks. Her singing often sounds like a sonorous picture of the stream of consciousness, honestly depicting her inner life. Björk’s last album, Vulnicura, is confessional. She expresses her feelings concerning the break with her long-time boyfriend, the artist Matthew Barney, in the same candid fashion as Rousseau’s descriptions of his complex relations with women in his Confessions.
Björk could have sold more albums if she had continued to make the kind of techno-dance music she made for her first album. Instead, she has chosen to make difficult, experimental music. On albums like Medulla she sings some songs in Icelandic – definitely not a good commercial move in a global market where almost nobody understands that language. Björk just is not in it for the money. In a similar manner, Rousseau refused the offer from the king’s court, an offer that could have made him rich and powerful.
Elves are the guardians of unspoilt nature in Icelandic folklore, and Björk’s elfin appearance suits her as a leading spokeswoman for environmental causes. The title of her album, Biophilia, means “love of living beings,” and her Icelandic song “Náttúra” (Nature) and her public statements of environmental concern are Rousseauian in tone.
In this blog, I have been trying to direct your gaze towards a picture that shows the parallels between Björk and Rousseau. I do not have any clear-cut conclusion to offer. Just listen to the music of Björk, watch her performances, read some Rousseau, and contemplate his life. If you still do not see Björk as the Rousseau of rock, direct your gaze elsewhere. Perhaps you will see something in the clouds.
Stefán Snævarr was born in Reykjavik in 1953. He is professor of philosophy at Lillehammer University College, Norway. He is the author of numerous books in various langugaes.
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