This article is part 2 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-nineties, as well as foreshadowed the use of electronic music in Madonna’s work to come.
In 2015, there was much anticipation as both camps were due to release albums at the same time - Rebel Heart from Madonna and Vulnicura from Bjork. Both albums were prematurely leaked, with each artist responding to this creative exposure in completely different ways. This opposite reaction is indicative of the many similarities and contrasts between the two women. For everything they may agree on or experience in a unified way, there are also many differences in their sounds and approaches too. It is through comparing their albums in this way that we can begin to understand how the two dramatically different artists of the past have continued to shape the music of today.
For Bjork, the crafting of Vulnicura was centred around her divorce from American artist Matthew Barney. Each track plays on a sort of timeline, mapping the before, during and after of the breakdown of their marriage. Emotionally brutal and aurally abrasive, it would initially seem as though it cannot be compared to Rebel Heart, given that Madonna’s album seems to be crafted around a ‘revolution of love’ - a theme that she has been pushing on her audience for a while now.
However, in the leaked demos from Madonna, there was a grit and bite that has since been edited out beyond recognition in the overproduction of the released version of the album. Listen a little closer and the break-up wounds exhibited in Madonna’s twelfth studio album MDNA remain raw in Rebel Heart. It is a subtle similarity between the two artists that, on first listen, would be missed. While Madonna perhaps removed the initial references found in the demos in an attempt to distance herself from the leaks, both albums are underpinned on complex yet unifying emotions.
When it came to choosing how the albums would sound, however, there are - in many respects - vast differences between the two. Madonna has a knack for nailing what’s hot in music right now and the artists she works with are truly definitive of the moment. No stranger to collaboration (remember Nicki Minaj in 2011, Timbaland in 2008, and Ali G in 2003?), Rebel Heart sees Madonna bring Grammy-nominated DJ Diplo on board.
Bjork, on the other hand, acts as more of a pioneer for emerging talent. For Vulnicura, she employed the production skills of fresh-faced Alejandro Ghersi, better known as Arca. He offered sounds reminiscent of Bjork’s earlier works, in particular the track Hunter. This relationship suggests a more timeless approach to Bjork’s vision of her work, as opposed to the way Madonna picks up and drops producers as they become hot or not.
Although different in their approaches, both women were to suffer similar disappointments surrounding their album releases too. As Bjork’s hotly anticipated mid-career retrospective drew closer at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), so did Madonna’s promotional performances for Rebel Heart. Madonna was finally going to be able to show the world how she wanted her album to be presented - and Bjork would be able to bathe in the glory of her long-term success.
Unfortunately for Madonna, this performance didn’t go totally to plan. Her well-documented fall at the Brits was yet another gash in her war-battered armour, and further highlighted how difficult it is to protect brand Madonna in the age of memes and viral media. Meanwhile, for Bjork, who had described her show in the media as a “mid-career retrospective” to suppress any claims that it signalled a forthcoming farewell, the disappointing reviews she received from critics and early birds also added a sour note to her retrospective launch. It had become a victim of its own hype and failed to live up to the standards most critics have come to expect from the MoMA.
Though exploring the work of these two artists side-by-side makes for some insightful comparisons, both Bjork and Madonna forever remain unique. Musically, Bjork continues to tap into the darkest depths of her soul, and in doing so, the souls of her listeners. She is embarking on a Vulnicura tour, and the last few months have profoundly displayed the flexibility and maturity with which she handles brand Bjork. Madonna, in slight contrast, will forever be known as one of the most successful recording artists of all time.
Any recent glitches in Madonna’s third-of-a-century career fade into irrelevance when you think of the glass ceilings she has shattered and the legacy she continues to build. Acclaimed as one of the greatest living touring performers, she will soon find herself in her comfort zone again as the Rebel Heart world tour opens this August. In their many differences though, these two women are both strong female role models that have sprung from the music industry and whose music has, despite its unique sounds, influenced and touched generations of men and women alike throughout the decades.