Why Björk won’t be Saving the Music Industry
In “Cosmogony”, the first track off Björk’s new album Biophilia, the Icelandic chanteuse sings about the genesis of the universe. But as to which it is not clear: the vast one we live in or the one she created herself, so small it could fit in a phone.
You can chalk the few questionable moves in Björk’s decades-long career up to her elfin eccentricity, but Biophilia is different. It was a deliriously ambitious vision, too pretentious and conceptual to float, especially in an environment dominated by social networks, photography tools and catapulting birds.
The idea is simple enough: An app acts as the ‘mothership’ for 10 tracks, each of which can be bought via an in-app purchase. The ‘songs’ behave as interactive music videos, rudimentary games or karaoke machines, and two of them—“Cosmogony” and “Crystalline”—have already been released.
When you tap open the app, you’ll be greeted by the stately voice of British naturalist Sir David Attenborough, who explains the whole concept while taking you on a short tour of a 3D galaxy dotted with planets, one for each song. You can swipe and pinch to navigate the cosmos or tap a planet to listen to the corresponding track, after buying it, of course. Musically, the two songs released are fine examples of Björk's celebrated style: palatial compositions, arching vocals and offbeat instrumentation.
Early reviews of the album–app have been sparse, with most hailing the app’s potential to revolutionize the music industry. It’s a fair assessment, but only because the music industry is so stagnant that any ripple made is mistaken for waves. And because Björk is a musician so lionized for her edginess and creativity, Biophilia is, expectedly, touted as music’s much-needed panacea.
But despite its cosmic theme, one small app for Björk is no giant leap for the industry.
Similar to what Radiohead did with In Rainbows four years ago, Björk is attempting to change how music is experienced. The British band released that album for “any price you want” online, neutering its record label while doing so, in a move that roused almost unanimous applause. But as far as really changing how albums are distributed, In Rainbows was hardly effective. In all likelihood, Biophilia will turn out the same.
Most people don’t listen to music exclusively; they plug in their earphones while jogging, blast songs from their laptops at home, groove to tunes while preparing dinner. Music might be part of their daily lives, but often as nothing more than a soundtrack to carelessly hum along to.
Biophilia on the other hand requires the user/listener’s utmost attention. It forces them, be they casual listeners or hardcore fans who love poring over liner notes, to really focus on the music—no shuffling here. At a time when music apps serve up recommended tracks automatically and tech companies are spending millions trying to make listening to music as frictionless as possible, Biophilia is a curious bulwark. And what it tries to defend is something that is itself threatened by all the technological conveniences: the album.
Thought to have dwindled in artistic stature and importance ever since iTunes and Amazon started selling one-off tracks for under a dollar, the album hasn’t been rethought for the singles crowd. These are the listeners who would much rather play “I Gotta Feeling” a hundred times over than hear the other 14 songs on the album at least once. It might not work for the Black Eyed Peas, but Biophilia is a welcome spark of ingenuity for an art form in severe need of innovation; Björk certainly won’t be saving the industry, but she could end up rescuing music itself.
As far as apps go, Biophilia flies in the face of trends. It has a closed-wall approach, meaning there are no outbound links or even your basic social sharing functions, but that’s fine. Biophilia isn’t one of those dime a dozen “fun and simple” social networks or vintage-inspired camera apps. It is, above all, a music album just like how Dark Side of the Moon and Tommy are music albums, only instead of wax or plastic, Biophilia is pressed on an iOS app.
Experimental albums are nothing new. Musicians have over the decades tinkered with storytelling (concept albums), new media (Animal Collective’s Oddsac), full games (Nine Inch Nail’s Year Zero) and even physical experiences (Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka). But Biophilia isn’t like any of its left-of-field precedents because it presents all those in a single package that is greater than the sum of its parts, on the only prevalent platform that can support all the required technology: the smartphone application.
And like all good apps and albums should be, this one is remarkably immersive. As Björk’s acrobatic voice ascends and descends, you can play with shapes that spawn from the notes, watch Guitar Hero-esque scrolling screens and, once the remaining eight tracks are released, probably do a whole lot more.
If you were to listen to Biophilia as you would a regular album on your iPod, the effect wouldn’t nearly be as potent. But thanks to the combination of quirky graphics and the songstress’ own inimitable compositions, the album becomes a heady, full-on experience. And when it does, it raises the crucial question: If technology has burrowed into all aspects of culture, why is Biophilia the only album that artistically celebrates—exploits, even—its digital medium?
Sure, the app isn’t perfect. There are still kinks to straighten out and usability issues to redress, but as a blueprint for the album in the digital age, nothing has been as fulfilling as Biophilia's reboot of the genre. Now all it needs are the listeners willing to do only that: Listen.