When Björk told Vanessa Grigoriadis in the Spring 2015 issue of The Gentlewoman that "sound is the nigger of the world," it wasn't the first time she had used either the word or the piss-poor analogy. About 14 years ago, she used a similar turn of phrase in a Spin profile: "audio is the nigger of the world," she said then, too, in an idiotic attempt at explaining that visuals are more readily valued than sound. The phrase is a reference to John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Woman Is The Nigger Of The World," but it was wrong when they said it in 1972, and it's even more wrong now. For all of its faults, the internet has made it so that geography is hardly an excuse for not knowing what is and is not deeply wounding language. Forty years later, Björk should be well aware of the insidious, sustained effects of casual racism.
I first saw the most recent offense on a friend's Instagram, and was both surprised and disappointed—in Björk for her remark and in the publication for not challenging, or at least interrogating, her on it. But mostly I wanted to know where the reaction was; in an age in which a random communications executive could be fired for a tone-deaf joke, why was no one upset at Björk, our heretofore liberal Icelandic angel?
A couple of weeks ago, Trevor Noah was named new host of The Daily Show, and old tweets of his were dug up, some of them with punchlines interpreted as sexist, transphobic, and anti-semitic. Language leads to a bit more of a protracted debate in comedy, but the backlash was swift and deep. Comedy Central stood by him in the face of calls that he be dropped, but the objections were loud. Similarly, in December, DIIV's bassist, Devin Reuben Perez, was discovered to have posted misogynistic, racist, homophobic, and otherwise offensive comments on 4chan. In response, de facto band leader Zachary Cole Smith blasted Perez pretty unequivocally on Twitter, and the band released an official apology describing Perez's language as unacceptable regardless of context.
There are dozens of similar instances, all with different contexts and resolutions. But as the social web continues to be the dominant form through which culture is filtered, it feels inevitable that everyone you admire will eventually disappoint you with a hurtful tweet or an offensive comment in an interview. Things that you might have missed in previous eras, like Björk's 2001 interview, are now impossible to ignore, thanks to the speed and intensity with which the public and the press seize upon them. Strangely, though, the kinds of publications that otherwise report on the Björk's every move didn't cover this latest incident; instead, it was gossip blogs like Perez Hilton and ONTD that acknowledged it at all.
After a couple of days of being generally confused by her choice of words and the attendant silence, I posted a picture of the quote in question on Twitter. Since then, I've received a few dozen replies. I've also, perhaps foolishly, read through a 4chan thread about it. Reactions have been mixed: some fans tried to either justify or deny Björk's use of the phrase, while others were upset, some of them vowing not to attend her ongoing MoMA retrospective or support Vulnicura, the album she's currently promoting. In general, though, it's been quiet. No one really cares, it feels like. Perhaps it's because these kinds of things happen every day or maybe because we don't want to confront the reality that yet another of our faves is problematic.
We tend to hold the people of whom we are fans to the same moral standards we hold friends, often expecting them to echo our politics or sensibilities in the same way that their art, whatever it may be, speaks to us. By definition, fame requires those on the outside looking in to rely on imagination to prop up celebrity narratives; the public's glimpses into the lives and personalities of the famous are so mediated that though we think we know, we have no idea. Fame encourages us to fill in the blank spaces around these people with what we want to see, with what reaffirms our pre-existing assumptions. It's no surprise, then, that when it comes to art we like, and to the artists who make it, we expect to see reflections of ourselves in them, even on the simplest of levels.
Ultimately, I'm fairly confident Björk is not a hateful person. But, as a longtime fan, it's the privilege that empowers her to prioritize her commentary about sound over the lives of black people, past and present, that stings most. By resorting to racist language for the sake of making a point, she, intentionally or not, reinforces the kind of structures that centuries of racism have been predicated on. Similarly, when Pharrell described himself as a "new black" and effectively blamed black people for state racism, it felt like a betrayal of the implicit transactional relationship that exists between artist and fandom.
So what's a fan to do when you discover that someone you're into has disappointed you? The mods of Your Fave Is Problematic, a Tumblr that has been consistently cataloguing "problematic shit your favorite celebrities have done," reach a reasonable conclusion: "You can like and consume their work without liking them as a person. You can even like them as a person, so long as you recognize that they do have problematic issues," they write. Because it's instinct to not want to support people whose words or actions are objectionable, there's space for genuine apologies and admissions of wrongdoing to wind up being more impactful than the original offense. I'm not ready to give up entirely on Björk or Pharrell or Trevor Noah or any number of people whose cultural value I appreciate, but I am ready for my problematic faves to finally begin owning up to their offenses. If to err is human and to forgive, divine, then to apologize is essential.
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