Each week, Lizzy Goodman guides you through the dirty streets of rock and roll.
I knew it was going to be a good day when I showed up at my café around 11 in the morning earlier this week and found Malcolm Gladwell at my regular table. He lives in the neighborhood and I’ve seen him around before — slight of build and square in sensibility, perpetually clad in stiff jeans and dad sneakers. But it was another thing entirely to see the famed author’s distinctive mop top at the same corner table where I’ve written so many of these columns; he was drinking tea and mouthing words to himself as he typed.
“The show was transcendent, with the crowd assembled like dutiful students staring in wonder at their radiant teacher with the electrocuted Ronald McDonald hairdo.”
I’ve always believed that pop stars are like modern gods and goddesses — bigger, better, and more beautiful versions of ourselves, but still flawed enough in a distinctly human way so as to seem familiar. The Greeks and Romans wanted to worship at the feet of figures they could relate to but also admire, and we do the same with Brangelina or Bowie, Lady Gaga or George Clooney. Someone like Gladwell, whose signature Big Ideas — from the 10,000 hour rule to the Tipping Point — have profoundly shaped our cultural identity, is a kind of a kind of intellectual superhero, an outsized character worshiped as much for his genius as Aphrodite is for her beauty.
It seemed prescient to see him that morning because a few hours later, the audiobook for Outliers cued up in my ear buds, I got on the 7 train at Grand Central bound for Queens. I was on my way to see Björk, another of the world’s great eccentrics, and an indisputable “outlier.” The singer’s in town for several performances of Biophilia at the New York Hall of Science, a supercool interactive science museum in Queens. The high concept performance uses a 20-member all-girl choir and a so-called “gravity harp” comprised of giant metronomes among other toys and tricks to conjure a kind of multi-sensory amplification of the interplay between human beings and nature.
“Remember,” echoed the voice of famed naturalist and BBC’s Life host David Attenborough who narrates elements of the performance, plus the iPhone apps that match each song, “…that you are the gateway between the universal and the microscopic.” The 700 or so assembled fans listened dutifully, but judging by the size of some of their pupils many didn’t need to be reminded to feel the moment. The scene was a mix of posh rave and liberal private school field trip, as pre-show fans could wander through the museum’s halls and test how much water is in their bodies or explore the realm of the atom before filing into the cloistered but cavernous grand room where Björk’s stage was set up theater-in-the-round style.
The show was transcendent, with the crowd assembled like dutiful students staring in wonder at their radiant teacher with the electrocuted Ronald McDonald hairdo. “She’s kind of a fairy godmother of awesome,” cooed the Daria look-alike behind me as Björk powered up her Tesla coil, a combo lighting bolt/beat maker presented in a giant birdcage. She closed with her incendiary call to arms for creative expression, “Declare Independence” and as the choir girls danced like possessed sprites from the underworld, above ground just for this one night, the crowd followed suit. “That was a motherfucker of a song to close on,” gushed a friend in the crowd as she exhaled, a giant grin plastered across her face.
As I stumbled out of the cocoon like hall in a post-show daze, lost on the streets of Queens I gazed up with mounting disoriented panic into the sooty dark night sky in search of the tracks of the elevated 7 train. Not seeing them, I remembered a conversation I had a year or so ago with the singer Antony Hegarty, with whom he’d just collaborated on his nature-focused new album Swanlights. “Björk says she believes this is the century where everything is going to merge: science and ethics and feminism and ecology. She has a much more positive outlook than me,” he said, and went on to explain how he’d harnessed that positivity on the album. “There’s this incredible soulful patience to her voice and I can be incredibly impatient and despondent and shadowy. The song we did was a crucial sort of relief.” I took a deep breath, cued up the track he’d described, “Flétta,” on my iPod and as it began, rounded the corner to the welcome sight of the subway stairs.