URI Ph.D. student rocks on with Iceland’s Sigur Rós

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Focuses study on band’s erasure of language

KINGSTON, R.I. — October 31, 2003 — Rebecca Romanow is a fan of college radio. Commuting from her home in Weston, Mass. to and from the University of Rhode Island where she is a Ph.D. student in English, Romanow scans her satellite radio’s 120-plus stations searching for cutting edge stuff, especially songs by Sigur Rós, an Icelandic band, which has developed an international following.
In a rare nod to commercialism, Sigur Rós created two songs for Tom Cruise’s movie, Vanilla Sky. “Their music was befitting Cruise’s swan dive off a building in the finale,” says Romanow, a 52-year-old mother of three.
To say the least, the group has an unusual approach to music. Two of the band’s four members play their instruments in unique ways. Jon Bor “Jonsi” Birgisson plays the guitar with a cello bow and Georg Holm plays the bass with drumsticks. Rather than sing in English or his native Icelandic, Jonsi, who is also the vocalist of the group, sings in an imaginary language called “Hopelandic.”
“I found Hopelandic to be an astounding and daring idea,” says Romanow. “Sigur Rós has removed the cultural burden of language which comes between music and its listeners.”
Rock and roll, Romanow notes, has been a conduit for the West since it has been dominated by American and English bands since its inception. The music also globally transmits the dominance of the English language, which reinforces the power structure of the West and its values and culture. What, then, happens to the native voices? How do they get heard? Romanow wonders.
“How do we experience art and separate cultural messages being sent to us at the same time?” Romanow asks.
She uses Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel as an example. “The art is transmitting other messages than creation,” she says. “What should a man look like? How should people dress? Relate? What are the cultural expectations?”
So, too, do words have huge cultural meanings. By refusing the English language, Sigur Rós frees music from its commercialized rock and roll corporate structure, according to Romanow. Their latest CD called ( ) contains no notes or titles. Devoid of all “known” language, the band leaves a space for the listener’s personal reaction, much like the empty space in the parenthesis.
“Sigur Rós has made a huge in-road here,” says Romanow. “Hopelandic promises a place where rock music separates itself from the local and the global…Sigur Rós asks if we can take on a world that doesn’t exist; a world which refuses the implications of the language of all power systems; a world which liberates rock music from the global commodity it has become.”
The URI graduate student attended the Cultural Studies Association’s founding conference in Pittsburgh in June where she presented her paper “The Erasure of Language in the Globalization of Rock Music: Sigur Rós and the Politics of Hopelandic.” Her paper appeared in the e-journal, Politics and Culture, vol. 3, 2003, at http://politicsandculture.neu.edu.