In our culture you can’t be unaware that the classical Greeks thought the naked male body a tremendous sight. There in all his glory is Zeus, or Apollo, or a good-looking discus thrower. Females, on the other hand, remain properly covered up. The men aren’t really naked, since they are supposed to be on view, especially in sports and war; the women are capable of being naked but never are. So you don’t see nakedness.
But you’re not supposed to see it. Nothing deliberately presented as naked can count as naked any more. Nakedness has to be surprised while its secrecy is still intended. It must be improper. The logic of this point seems unassailable—except that it wouldn’t let nakedness be an element in art, which of course it must be. It’s too powerful a kind of meaning not to be. The artistic problem is how to present the naked without seeming to have a plan or justification for the uncovering.
Rock music, passionate and rude, seems a promising venue for an artistic use of nakedness, and yet classic rock recreates the classical Greek no-naked zone. The guys flaunt and strut, yelling about their lust and rage (that is, when they’re not crooning “I never meant to hurt you”), and everything is quite as expected. There’s plenty of vital power, to be sure, in the guys’ exposure of carnality. It’s thrilling. It can be bawdily funny (“Squeeze my lemon, baby”). But it doesn’t register as exposure of a secret, even if it has poignant inflections.
Meanwhile, women stay covered up, singing primly about romance. The first celebrated exception to that rule was Janis Joplin in the late ‘60s, who drove her voice to the ragged edge of singable and hearable tone. She was “raw”—yet her rawness was wholly within blues and soul idioms, quite intelligible musically even though frightening at times in its intensity.
Then an “emotional nakedness” arrived in the early 70s confessionalism of Joni Mitchell. The uncovering here was not of physical form as such—although startling vocal maneuvers could make you aware at times of her wild-animal aspect—but of the most sensitive interpersonal events and feelings as represented in words. I was shaken when I heard Mitchell sing of “so much sweetness in the dark” in “Court And Spark” in 1974. She’s not supposed to say she does sexual things was, apparently, one of my default settings while listening to women of interest. But this felt to me, despite the assured pop styling of Court and Spark, like an important kind of nakedness in play. (Good thing I still had a couple of decades to get ready for Liz Phair and P. J. Harvey!)
Back to the issue of nakedness in music: what would it be? Would it be the “stripped down” arrangement of a simple guitar or piano part accompanying a voice, mercilessly exposing physical peculiarities of sound and phrasing to the listener? That kind of nakedness had been heard in the blues, but the thunder of rock had drowned it out—Robert Plant wasn’t trying to sound like Robert Johnson. Would it be panting passion or desperation, as in Joplin’s singing? Would it be that little cracking in Aretha Franklin’s voice? But these were already conventional “blues-rock” and “soul” tropes.
What truly improper nakedness in music might we hear from a woman?
This question never occurred to me explicitly, I admit, but I realize now it was hanging there until 1988, when Life’s Too Good was released by a completely unexpected Icelandic band, The Sugarcubes. The ‘Cubes featured an intriguing female singer named Björk Guðmundsdóttir who would swerve unpredictably from tunefulness into childlike bleating and animallike snarling. Somehow she herded her improper outbursts into the music in a satisfying way, like an accomplished speaker-in-tongues. This is what’s still impressive about the single “Birthday,” the ‘Cubes’ first international release (1987).
The disturbing subject matter—a hinted-at romance between a fifty-year-old man and a five-year-old girl—creates a field of meaning in which improper musical gestures can give fleeting glimpses of unspeakable yet palpably present things. It’s not merely kooky or arty.
It’s not just accidental, either, that the naked-sounding singer is female. In our gender scheme the high-voiced female singer is licensed to be “girlish” and can channel the artlessness of a five-year-old as no male singer could. At the same time, she has something no five-year-old could properly have yet, something that shouldn’t be exposed, the possibility of nakedness.
Hearing “Birthday” as a palette of possibilities in 1987, one might have wondered how much of this vocal nakedness Björk would be able to retain in codifying her personal style and becoming a better-known quantity. She launched her solo career in the early ‘90s in close connection with the dance club scene. She became suave and romantic. There would never again be as naked a piece as “Birthday”; yet throughout her Debut album (1993) we hear traces of her former radicality even as she becomes an assured pop diva. The soulfully well-styled “Big Time Sensuality,” for example, in some ways a manifesto for her new persona, still presses more than once against the boundaries of vocal decency. My favorite thing, a glossolalic growl, comes at 2:19 (2:24 in the preferable Fluke remix). I’ll write it in italics:
I don’t know my future after this weekend
And I don’t want to
There is something really shocking about this hrrr. It’s not at all like Roy Orbison’s flirtatious rrrr in “Pretty Woman,” which is so much fun to replicate. It’s not an indication or declaration of sensuality, it is sensuality with the curtain momentarily lifted off its cage. It stands for all the slightly untoward moments that we will recognize now as Björkish but still won’t be able to process or take over for ourselves as elements of a style. These are almost gross interruptions of the music, but actually high points of the music. Thus she can still do the impossible: she communicates to us via musical form a nakedness that can’t ever be anyone else’s.
 That is, until a few centuries of rising women’s status made the Venus de Milo possible in Hellenistic (post-Classical) art. She, even so, was not originally meant to be seen frontally, as we usually see her, but from her right side, her torso largely screened by her right arm—Gregory Curtis, Disarmed. The Story of the Venus de Milo (New York: Vintage, 2003), pp. 191-192.
 Earlier Robert Johnson in “Traveling Riverside Blues” (1937), then later Robert Plant in Led Zeppelin’s “The Lemon Song” (1969).
 The male singer in whom I hear the most interesting naked moments is Jim Morrison, for example in the whimper after the second “Let’s run!” in “Not to Touch the Earth” (around 2:07).
 The Fluke remix is the version on Björk’s Greatest Hits and in the delightful video by Stéphane Sednaoui. The hrrr seems less naked while watching the choreographed performance in the video; purely listening, it’s more of an ambush.