In honor of today’s birthday girl, I’m posting about my favorite birthday song: “Birthday” by The Sugarcubes, sung by the one and only Björk, who turns 49 today. I believe I first encountered this song on Saturday Night Live where it was very memorably performed in 1988. And that, I’m happy to say, is what you’ll see on the clip link (that is, unless it gets removed). And I like seeing the performance better than watching the official video, though it's nice to see some of Iceland (which I'll be visiting in person next summer) and to see Björk being all gleeful and childlike.
On screen we see a great new singer in that early, no-holds-barred phase of her career. Her every vocal inflection creates paroxysms of joy. Hear how she does that guttural glide in the wordless refrain of this song, after the oh oh oh. It gets me every time.
The song itself is one of my “birthday tape” essentials, for whoever's birthday happens to be the occasion for a tape. So it’s a rather promiscuous choice, in that sense. Still, even if I'm not sure who got this song on a birthday tape first—possibly Susan, back at UDE, who turned 21 the year after this song came out—it’s a song that speaks to me about birthdays and older/younger relations. Granted, the relationship between him and her, described in the song, seems to be pedophilia, but let’s not be too hasty there. That word itself, as a Greek derivative, refers to “friendly love” of a child—and isn’t that, as rendered in this song, a positive thing? Its use as the term for actual sexual relations with a child, we could say, is a perversion of the word itself.
What we have is a kind of adult/child relationship that is intimate, but not necessarily sexual, if only because the child isn’t sexual, and it’s told from her point of view. She’s five years old; he has a beard. He “knows how many freckles she’s got”—which might awaken your little prurient inclinations, and, if that doesn’t, then “they lie in the bathtub,” at song’s end is bound to do it. Only parents are allowed to take baths with their children, right? And only up to a certain age.
All that policing of affection is what gets sent-up by this song. I’m sure there are those who could listen to it and deem it a portrait of pathology and abuse, which is why I’m so moved by how Björk sings it because there is a volcano of passion in her singing, just as there is in children, but the point is that such feeling hasn’t yet found (and may never find) sexual expression. What the song references, for me, is the unconscious sensuality of innocence. Something which we all enjoyed at one time and never will again. (And which we don't need to be Freud to be aware of—they're sucking cigars, Sigmund!)
It’s a knowing song, in that the singer is not innocent any longer and knows that, whether describing her own experience at five or some other fantasized or actual little girl, that “period” is a bit dicey. Listen to how she sings “They saw a big raven / It glided down the sky / She touched it.” That final phrase, isolated by the gasp in her voice as she sings it, and which jumps her into one of those great glossolalic glides, could have much significance. Particularly when he “sews a bird / In her knickers,” which gets its own gleeful gasp and answering glide. And the sound of Einar Örn Benediktsson's trumpet is so bright but also a little warped—it really sets the tone right from the start.
It’s a song even trickier in its way than The Smith’s “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” because here there are so many details—the girl’s age, that the man is her “one friend, he lives next door.” The bathtub, etc. Yeah, maybe this guy should be brought up on charges, but anyone that literal-minded really shouldn’t listen to this kind of music.
Anyway, few songs have ever evoked, to me, that prized and perishable beauty of innocence and the fun of doing silly things with children. The kinds of things they probably won’t even remember unless it gets dredged up in a clinical light somewhere on a psychiatric couch. In any case, as sung, this isn't a song about the kind of bodily shame that comes from sexual abuse; it's about a randy joy in the body, even in one's own body as a child.
As a man once said, “And if my thought-dreams could be seen / They’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” I don’t advocate that fate for the writers of this song, not even when Björk has claimed the experiences as her own. But I give her credit for saying that what is important in the song, more than the details, is the “atmosphere.” It’s that atmosphere—the longings of a child? the unfixed quality of the libido at that time?—that the song gets so well, while flirting, in its lyrics, with a kind of eroticism that may all be in hindsight. And anyway, this is a Scandinavian country we're talking about.
Let’s just say that some of us remember childhood—actual childhood—better than others, and leave it at that. A chain of flowers.