Albums of Our Lives: Björk’s Debut
Every artistic genius stupefies us in their own way. In the case of Björk, listening to her is like peering through a glass darkly. Björk evokes—screaming, gasping, and gliding her vocal instrument around—but she never quite empathizes. Like the singer in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” Björk’s voice gestures towards “ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.” She was the soundtrack to my prepubescent, face-pressed-on-window desire; the education of my sensual imagination.
For most of my upbringing, the window my face pressed onto overlooked a tableau of my sister’s life. Having an older sister was a built-in guarantee of my lifelong precocity. I got into everything a bit too early due to having a sister who was three years older than me: cigarettes, summer camp, romantic ideations. She was beautiful, popular, and got good grades. She was an aspirational future self.
The only place I couldn’t possibly manage to keep pace with Laura was with boys, my child’s body refusing to accelerate despite fitful effort. At the end of ninth grade, Laura finally reeled in the guy she, and most of the girls in her high school, were in love with. His name was Allan and he was worthy of every precipitated hormonal tremor. Allan was gallant, with honeyed skin and explosive musculature, sparkling brown eyes, long, strong limbs and dimples. He was a member of the Canadian World Cup junior soccer league and a singer in the high school music enrichment program with a dulcet voice.
Allan gave me a used CD copy of Björk’s Debut for my thirteenth birthday. It wasn’t my first CD, but it was poignantly my first lesson in the ages old relationship between music, desire, and sublimation (it’s no accident that the Greeks mythologized the danger of overwhelming sexual allure by imagining half-songbird, half-woman Sirens). At first, I adored Debut for its aesthetic aura more than its content: The album cover consists of a black-and-white picture of twentysomething Björk, unadorned, an exquisitely ethereal creature. And befitting of that creature, Debut was a souvenir from the magical world of Saturdays on Queen West, sex, and underage drinking that Laura and Allan got to revel in while I was being carted around in a minivan for Saturday morning gymnastics. Björk’s world, all glossolalia and ambient chirps, was as tantalizing and inaccessible to me as Laura and Allan’s.
They had their first date when Laura was fifteen and Allan was seventeen. My mom dropped them off at the commuter subway station and they went downtown, walking around the city’s financial district in the late spring rain, furiously tonguing each other. After that, they were inseparable. They got those Chinese “love” tattoos on their calves and posed for a nude photo shoot, dangling off each other’s beautiful bodies for a trendy photographer my sister did secretarial work for one summer (and whose motivations in taking the photos could be readily ascertained). My sister would steal my mom’s car in the middle of the night and drive out to Allan’s house, stay up all night, and sneak back into the house at 5 a.m., reeking of sex and cigarettes. The presence of a frenzied teenage sexual obsession in the house had a photosynthesis-like effect on me.
While for me Allan was some potent combination of older brother, sex god, rival to sisterly affection and angel incarnate, for my extended family and Toronto in the late 90s he was a source of considerable anxiety. Allan was black, the son of Trinidadian immigrants. He was only permitted to attend my bat mitzvah, a tinseled affair in a suburban hotel ballroom, on condition that he was identified only as my sister’s “friend.” One afternoon, our conservative Hungarian Jewish grandparents dropped by the house unannounced and were horrified to find the two of them snuggled up. And when they walked arm-in-arm downtown, fresh-faced teenage sweethearts, occasionally people would shout “Brother, what’s wrong with the sisters?” at them.
Music is the ultimate consolation for reality’s letdowns (like being thirteen and still firmly living in the realm of childhood). I would listen to “Venus as a Boy” on repeat in my bedroom, curtains drawn, and imagine Allan’s face, his arms, his chest, his body. When Björk sang, “He’s exploring/The taste of her/Arousal/He’s Venus as a boy,” I imagined with fevered envy the things I knew Allan was doing to my sister every afternoon when they locked themselves in her bedroom after school and blasted Sonic Youth to muffle their noises…
But I love Debut independently of that. Today, when I return to the album, I’m struck by its idiosyncratic transposition of feral yelping (“Violently Happy”) and lush, synthy production (“Aeroplane”). It sounds as though the Cocteau Twins slipped into a k-hole at Fabric. And still, when I hear “Venus as a Boy,” I imagine Björk singing to Allan, “He believes in a beauty/He’s Venus as a boy,” a specimen of majestic masculine beauty and kind-hearted too, truly deserving of Björk’s palatial Icelandic art.
Eventually, of course, Laura and Allan broke up; he got a soccer scholarship to go to university in Boston, and things petered out. My reverie remained unbroken. Allan was “Venus as a Boy,” teenage beauty and lust embodied, as surreal and perfect as Björk herself. Debut remains an artifact of how it sounds and feels to desire as an act of pure curiosity and projection.