Since living in Shanghai I have seen Chick Corea, Beyoncé, Björk, and Harry Connick, Jr. None of those artists are exactly the sort of people I normally see in concert. In fact, likely as not were I still living in the States I would not have shelled out good money to see any of them. For some reason though, China makes me rush to see everybody whose name I at least know.
Except Celine Dion. Screw that.
I paid more money than I've ever paid to see anybody to see Björk, and I barely know any of her music. I'm actually more familiar with her work in the Sugarcubes than as a solo artist. I know her songs from those crazy videos she released in the early 90s, and I have a copy of her recent release Medúlla, but while I find that disk strangely beautiful, I've not listened enough to really know the songs.
Björk played Shanghai at the International Gymnastic Gymnasium which remains an active gym complete with bad lights, hardwood floors, and a section of tables for the judges. In the off season they have erected a stage in one corner, and thrown down some folding chairs on the floor. As such neither the view or the sound quality is particularly great for a concert.
Björk hit the stage a few minutes behind schedule but with such gusto that I forgave her immediately. Her band consists of a ten piece horn section, a keyboardist, a percussionists and some guy on a lap top. It was the horns that came out first blasting a lively, booty shaking romp before the gut obliterating percussion came rolling out. What the room lacked in refined acoustics, the band made up for in sheer volume and reverberations. The beats vibrated my insides and shook the seats. It made me itch. Literally. The vibrations made my skin crawl and between dance moves I had to lay down some scratching of my own.
Björk gyrated about the stage with frantic energy and wailed with a voice that is a cross between sweet soul music and an angry grizzly bear. It was fantastic! I know some of her songs are in English and I believe she said a few words in my native tongue, but honestly the only word I understood all night was the Chinese word for “thank you.” It didn't matter a lick though, as the music and the sounds emanating from her voice was beautiful, even if I didn't actually understand it.
Björk seems to be just as well known for her peculiar wardrobe as her music, but she was somewhat subdued this night. Dressed in a brightly colored smock with what appeared to be tight leather leggings, she didn't look any weirder than some of the girls I see walking about the city (well except for the face paint.) The Icelandic horn section were also decked out in bright outfits complete with poles and flags attached to their backs. The keyboardist was strangest of all as he was fitly dressed in a nice suit and tie which did nothing but stick out amongst all the color.
Though I didn't recognize but one or two songs they had me shaking in my seat from song one. In fact the seat was no longer needed after about song three as nearly the entire audience got to their feet and shook it for the rest of the show. The kinetic power of the audience mixed with the strobe like effects of the lights made me feel more like I was out clubbing at some techno joint rather than at a concert. Or what I imagine going clubbing at a techno joint would be like, as the closest I've ever gotten to one is the cineplex.
There has been a great deal of controversy over the encore, “Declare Independence.” It is a song of personal independence and during the chorus Bjork found herself chanting “Tibet, Tibet” several times. She has been banned from the country for that performance and there has been much talk over what effect this will have on future pop acts in China.
It has only been the last few years that the government has been allowing in popular musical groups and it is such outbursts that I suspect have kept them so timid for so long.
I'd like to stand proud having been there at such a big moment. I'd like to describe in detail what happened when when she chanted for liberation. How the crowd got to their feet in support and the powers that be tried to squash the Icelander immediately, but I simply can't.
Honestly, I thought the lyrics were “erase your flag” and neither myself nor anybody I know had any idea she mentioned Tibet until days later when the controversy started. From memory the reaction of the crowd was nothing more than enjoying the encore. By that point in the show pretty much everybody was on their feet, shouting, and dancing. There weren't any boos, or noticeable reactions to the song or her chant. Things went on as normal, and I hadn't the slightest idea I had just seen something controversial.
Though she won't be back to China anytime soon, and despite the bad acoustics and controversy, Björk put on a wild, rollicking show. I highly recommend her to everyone.
Here's a clip of the controversial moment: