Emily Jarvie and Miriam Deprez
Icelandic musicians have become branded by their quirky image and so called ‘Icelandic sound’ which many artists have played into to launch their careers internationally. The question is, how much of this is merely a performance and, with so many global influences, is there really an ‘Icelandic sound’?
In the oldest cafe in Reykjavík Prikið, the clock reaches 9pm and a temporary stage is constructed across two of the booths as the crowd of old Viking swilling locals slowly transforms into fur coat-toting, alco-pop happy hipsters. The bartenders’ playlist of hip hop and rock tunes is drowned out by a young female DJ as, with the help of a few hot pink balloons and fluffy pom-poms, the scene is transformed ready for the night’s performer.
Throwing out Hubba Bubba, dressed in cargo pants and wearing high heels, Alvia Rán stands on stage miming the words to her own music as she is silhouetted by a makeshift smoke machine consisting of an iPhone light and watermelon vape smoke. Self-titled ‘Bubblegum Bitch’ Alvia Islandia is the living embodiment of the prevailing Icelandic music stereotype of being just a bit … weird.
This image of ‘weirdness’ began with artists such as The Sugarcubes and Björk in the 1980’s who presented to the world personas built on their environmental influences.
Professor Þorbjörg Daphne Hall, Assistant Professor at the Iceland Academy of the Arts and PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool for her research into popular Icelandic music, explained how Icelandic musicians have become branded by their nationality.
“The perception of [Björk] being weird and different also became a way of branding the nation as being ‘weird’. These ideas tie in with stereotypes of people of the north who are considered uncultured and uncivilised.”
Icelandic musicians are also associated with a so called ‘Icelandic sound’, started by Sigur Rós, a post-rock band that formed in Reykjavík in 1994 who built on this image and have achieved global success for their ethereal sound. Singing in ‘Hopelandic’, a gobbledigook mash of high pitched, folk style bubbly la la language, the listener doesn’t need to know what the singer is saying because overall sound is saying it all.
Sigur Rós performing their ‘Hopelandic’ song ‘Gobbledigook’ live with Björk in Reykjavík.
This ‘Icelandic sound’ is seen to resonate with nature, playing on the ethereal mysticism surrounding elves and trolls, the intense weather and contrasts of periods of complete dark and light. The idea that Icelanders are somehow all deeply connected to the environment has dominated musical discourse surrounding Icelandic musicians for decades.
This aesthetic was worked into the music scene in Reykjavik. Other artists tapped into these certain qualities and similar ideologies that Sigur Rós used, and internationally this ‘sound’ has become synonymous with all Icelandic musicians.
“It wasn’t a very Icelandic thing. People associated [Sigur Rós’s] re-wording, drawn out melodies and ethic with Iceland, and that became labelled the ‘Icelandic sound’,” Professor Hall explained.
Who do you think you are?
Because of this pressure to sell themselves in this category, even artists who do not identify with themes of nature or ‘Icelandic sound’ are playing up their connection to their Icelandic heritage.
As one of Iceland’s initial international success stories, Björk’s notoriety of being Icelandic has been a springboard for many other Icelandic artists to build upon to reach a global audience. “Musicians are gaining a lot from just being Icelandic,” Professor Hall said.
Professor Hall cited the band Of Monsters and Men who, although they do not tap into a typical ‘Icelandic sound’, use the Icelandic link in other ways such as in their music videos and lyrics. The video clip for their song ‘King and Lionheart’ plays out the story of a boy and girl tragically separated by Viking warriors in a mountainous landscape.
The film clip ‘King and Lionheart’ also portrays mountainous landscapes and elvish characters enforcing the bands link to Iceland’s mystical image.
However, there is a paradox between benefitting from being Icelandic because of this image, and the limitations it places on young musicians when trying to find their own sound.
“Musicians really have a difficult relationship to this Icelandic image, but they also said it was really helpful being from Iceland to get them further than other musicians, say, from the Netherlands,” Professor Hall elaborated.
“This nature landscape thing really sells. Some musicians don’t care, but the others are quite preoccupied with this as they don’t want to be labelled Icelandic musicians – they just want to be musicians.”
The elves made me do it
Outside of the venue, Alvia sashays up the sidewalk, with a cigarette in one hand while twirling a pink windmill in the other.
“I feel like an elf on earth. I was really grateful that I was born in Iceland, it’s got really clean energy.”
“We live in total darkness for nine months of the year, and then we have three months where it’s total sun, day and night, so you go kinda crazy. You really look into the void when you’re in the darkness and you really look into yourself and you don’t realise how fucking melancholic you are until the sun comes up and then you start to bloom. You begin to feel all these feelings and I think many people create from that experience, whether it’s music or drawing,” Alvia describes of her music muses.
“It is definitely the elves, we are definitely influenced by the elves,” Alvia says with certainty.
And it’s not just Alvia. A 2011 study by the Folklore Department at the University of Iceland found that the majority of Icelanders believe in elves, with only 13% stating they definitely do not exist.
Waves of inspiration
Aside from the simplistic explanation of Icelandic musicians drawing purely upon nature and mythical beings for their inspiration, artists are influenced by a variety of other factors.
Iceland is geographically positioned halfway between both North America and Europe. Icelandic musicians have embraced cultural waves from both sides including rock’n’roll introduced by the United States and the punk wave from the United Kingdom.
Professor Guðmundsson stated that young musicians draw inspiration from a variety of arenas, not only international forces but aspects of community that are unique to Iceland.
“During the punk wave in Iceland, the punks were helping each other. They were not producing it as a individuals but as a youth culture, or a youth movement,” Professor Guðmundsson explained.
“It’s still like this today. The spirit of these young experimental groups is to really help each other, and other groups that get success like Sigur Rós will always help other smaller bands. They see them as comrades in arms rather than complications.”
The current youth generation are more connected than their punk parents to the wider world through the internet and musical platforms such as Spotify and YouTube, allowing them to gain influence from other parts of the world.
“Young musicians are trying different things. African rhythms, Latin rhythms and everything. Rappers and folk singers are working together, trying it out, they see it as fun,” Professor Guðmundsson said.
Singing in tongues
“Did you like the milkshakes?” Alvia asks, referring to the pink alcoholic shakes she had prepared and handed out to the crowd before the show started.
Alvia compares her music to a milkshake: a mixture of all things sweet, describing her sound as “Alvia, rapper, ‘Gum Gum Clan’, elegant hoe. I go all kinds of music, rap, mantra tantra. I sing a little over beats, I love the base and the melodies.”
“For me when I create my music I’m creating my own world. I just wanna live in my imaginary, Hubba Bubba, pink, glittery sky, galaxy world and when I sing about it and rap about it, it becomes a reality. I create my own reality.”
Alvia is passionate that everything around you influences what you create. Her persona screams of the weird Icelandic stereotype, however her global influences are also obvious in her music. Her experimental music style is the result of the explosion of everything that meets on this volcanic island, as she sings of American brands such as Hubba Bubba and Coca-Cola while rapping in a combination of languages.
“I mix a lot up and make my own words. I was always doing Icelandic first, but sometimes you don’t have the right Icelandic words to say what you wanna say, so for me I started mixing it up with English, Icelandic, Danish and my own words.”
The use of English by Icelandic musicians continues to raise questions regarding authenticity and their intentions.
Helga Hilmisdóttir, Language Specialist at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, said that there have been a few waves of language shifts in popular music since the 1950’s.
“People who are in pop music and who want to conquer the world tend to sing in English. Which language they chose is a very important part of how these bands identify and it says something about what they want to do,” Hilmisdóttir explained.
“Icelanders have this idea that you can’t really succeed or become famous when you don’t sing in English. What often happens is that because they are not native English speakers the lyrics are quite horrible because they are not very creative.”
Svarti Álfur (Black Elf), Curator of the Icelandic Punk Museum, has witnessed the changes in language music trends over the past 35 years in Reykjavík.
“Before, when I was younger and everything was in English, we were never globalising our music. Afterwards I was thinking ‘why the hell didn’t I write it in Icelandic’ so more people here would understand what I was saying, because I was trying to put a message out. If it’s really something important then every band should say it in their own language, the language of their country,” Álfur expressed.
Recently the rap scene in Iceland has seen a new surge in popularity with many artists rapping in Icelandic, due the language’s metronomic rhythms. “The modern rap culture is comparable to the style of old Icelandic poetry,” Hilmisdóttir said.
“It’s always inspirational if someone is successful singing in Icelandic, then a lot of other bands usually follow.”
When talking about this new surge of Icelandic rappers, Alvia gets excited, “the rap scene is a really strong part of youth culture right now and we have a lot of fresh people coming up.”
Alvia then throws down her cigarette butt, stamping it out with her heel. She runs back inside, grabs the microphone and leaps onstage to finish her performance. As she throws out another handful of gum, she switches from Icelandic to rap the only English line in the song, “no way I can fake that.”