This one I remember clear as day, though the moment was more than 30 years ago. I was watching MTV, which wasn’t a thing I did often, but I had just graduated from college and didn’t have much to do and MTV was a good way to kill hours and hours (and hours). It still showed almost entirely music videos then, not yet having discovered that it was more lucrative to put seven regular people in an apartment and turn cameras on them, which didn’t even require paying a veejay.
MTV at the time had a newish show called 120 Minutes, which showed videos of songs that were considered “alternative,” a designation only then beginning to take form as an delineated genre. I didn’t necessarily know if I liked “alternative” yet — even in college, I had yet to discover what was then being called “college rock,” though I’d nibbled around the edges with bands like Talking Heads and R.E.M. — but I knew I hated the non-alternative, which in 1988 included both Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” and Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” So even if all 120 Minutes promised was something different, different at least promised to be interesting, and possibly even good.
The video in question on this night was both, in the extreme. There was was an off-kilter rumbling drumbeat, a man with a shaved head playing an atonal trumpet, and what looked like a 14-year-old girl screaming unearthly sounds. In between howls, she was singing about a five-year-old girl and her bearded friend and her birthday and painting huge spools. And they were from Iceland? I had known hardly anything about Iceland until earlier that year, when I’d read an amazing article in the New Yorker about people there fighting off a lava flow with hoses; from this video I had learned slightly more about Iceland, and it was even more improbable than I’d thought.
If you know the song “Birthday,” or just read the heading on this post, you know where this is headed. The 14-year-old girl was actually 22 (she was born exactly two days after me) and was in fact Björk. The band was the Sugarcubes, which she’d founded when she was 20. The man with the trumpet was named Einar Örn. The album that the song was from, Life’s Too Good, featured songs about having sex with God in a bathtub and luring a naked man down from your roof with strawberry cake. There was nothing about this that was not alternative.
We’ve already covered how I ended up watching 120 Minutes, but how did the Sugarcubes end up there from their end of things? The band’s Wikipedia page credits John Peel, the tastemaker of all things alt, for bringing “Birthday” to the British public’s attention, and eventually to the world’s. Bjork’s Wiki page, on the other hand, claims that “Birthday” was named single of the week by Melody Maker one week after it was released; pick whichever story you prefer. Either way, it grabbed something about some people, or some alternative people, and soon was … a hit? Maybe not, from the blank stares I tended to get around my newly adoptive home in Brooklyn when I mentioned the Sugarcubes, but 1988 was a time where it was starting to feel like you could be a hit even if no one knew your name. Jesse Jackson briefly seemed like a contender for president. It was that kind of time, the closest I’ve come to thinking that the ’60s’ spirit of change might finally be about to return, like those kids in Dazed and Confused, depictions of the generation just a few years older than me, had grown up waiting for.
The Sugarcubes made two more good records, and I eventually got to see them live, at the Limelight, a Manhattan club carved out of an old church; I mostly remember the deafening dance music that was played while we waited for the band to go on. Björk was weird and endearing; Einar Örn was if anything even weirder than Björk, which is not easy to pull off. Not long afterwards the band broke up, and Björk became Björk, and she was a hit but not alternative, or alternative was now a hit, I never was sure. Her first solo album was called Debut, which it was, if you don’t count the earlier ones she’d made starting at age 11; I saw some of the videos on MTV in my very latter days of still watching music videos. I remember “Human Behavior” being endearingly loopy but sadly missing demented trumpet blasts.
A couple of years ago, when Björk came to Brooklyn to play the gloriously reopened Kings Theater within walking distance of my apartment, I thought about going, but didn’t. (I hear she was great, and dressed as a snowflake or maybe a sea urchin.) But I do still sing to the cats sometimes the Sugarcubes song “Cat,” which is in Icelandic except for the refrain “Cat cat cat!” sung by Björk as if her life depended on it. Everyone has to choose the alternative that holds meaning for them.