This article is part 1 of a 2-part article. Read more here.
Two worlds collided in 1994 as Icelandic powerhouse Bjork co-wrote the title track for Madonna’s sixth studio album Bedtime Stories. An aural departure from Madonna’s work at the time, it offered a great deal of exposure for Bjork and unquestionably impacted the music of the mid-90s, as well as foreshadowed the use of electronic music in Madonna’s work to come.
Since then, the two artists have politely distanced themselves from each other, enjoying the wide variety of successes that the millennium had to offer for both their public and private lives (Bjork now has two children, and Madonna has four - two of whom are adopted). Yet their stars were forecast to realign in 2015 to a certain extent, with the much-anticipated album releases due from both camps at the same time - Rebel Heart from Madonna and Vulnicura from Bjork.
Brand Madonna was built by the self-styled Italian-American being in control of every aspect of her career. For over three decades, she has reigned as a man-eating tour de force of incomparable proportions. The press is her greatest enemy yet her sharpest tool, and she has outlived nearly every musical legend. The consistency of her hit-making is commendable, especially considering some of her most important work has been produced in the latter third of her career.
Brand Bjork relies upon the introverted Icelandic chanteuse’s appreciation for craftsmanship in music, fashion and performance. Offering tactile sounds and visuals through the often cold and abrupt medium of electronic dance music, her spoken lyrics appear alien when compared to those of her peers. Yet her technologically innovative and forward-thinking approach has seen her pioneer new ways of creating, performing and listening to music. Her introverted nature does nothing to deny the theatricality of her art.
Comparison between the two artists increased as both their albums were subjected to premature leaks several months before they were due to be released. This is where the similarities between them largely end. They both went on to react to the leaks in polar-opposite ways.
Madonna very publicly likened Rebel Heart’s leak to an act of terrorism, an artistic rape. While characteristically hot-headed of Madonna, her reaction provides a clear instance of her inability to grasp any sense of the social justice zeitgeist that is sweeping social media at the moment (remember when she put #RebelHeart tags on images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi?).
The leaking of Bjork’s Vulnicura was met with a decidedly more humble response, as the Icelandic singer succinctly detailed the mad night that saw her team rush release it to iTunes the very next day. When speaking to BBC radio 1's Zane Lowe, she said her reaction had been: "Oh, it's leaked. Let's just put it out." Bjork’s proactive response stands in stark contrast to the lengthy indictment of the Israeli hacker who leaked Madonna’s album.
Ironically, when Madonna’s 2003 American Life album leaked online, she had had her own proactive yet subversive way of tackling her music pirates head on. Her response was to upload audio files to sites such as LimeWire that users illegally downloaded thinking they were getting premature copies of American Life. Instead, they were greeted with mostly silent .mp3 files, save for excerpts of Madonna’s ball-breaking, gravelly voice asking: “What the fuck do you think you are doing?”
Madonna had seized control of her artistic content through the very medium that undermined her. Unfortunately, whatever strength and innovation previously motivated such self-preservation is now long gone, with Madonna insisting on playing the victim of these more recent leaks. Her sloppy response makes clear that there is a crack in her brand. Despite being a woman so heavily in control of her image, her reaction makes apparent what little power she actually has to stop such events from happening.
Bjork’s response, on the other hand, to the leaking of her album indicates how an artist can use the leaks to almost control the situation instead of fight it. True to her spirit, she never seems to move against the flow but always with it.
Ultimately, what their 2015 star alignment really highlighted is the struggle that heavily established artists face when confronted with new issues in online and social media. It is fast becoming the ‘norm’ that high-profile album releases are to become marred by illegal leaks. While Bjork and Madonna strive to stay relevant, the failure of their production teams to build alternative plans for such online attacks remains outdated to say the least.
Bjork by Alasdair McLellan
Madonna by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott