But Heklina has a leg up. Born in Reykjavik, Iceland -- she shares her name with a volcano in that country -- Heklina speaks Björk's native tongue and even owns her first vinyl LP, recorded when the singer was just 11 and released only in Iceland. Still, there are plenty of fans who'd never go as far as Heklina (I'm a big Barry White fan, for instance, but the prospect of getting dressed up like the dude seems a little out of reach for my tall, white, wimpy frame). How does she plan to pull this one off?
"It's hard to get her mannerisms down and not look silly, so I don't even try," Heklina says. "It's really hard for a drag queen to get her look -- you know, her facial features, 'cause they're so elfin. But if you're trying to re- create a video by Björk, you really get to go all out, 'cause her songs are so conceptual."
Tonight the queens do go all out as a packed house cheers them on. There's sex, violence, fierce gazes, French kisses -- even Barbarella shows up. And while they may not nail Björk's appearance, the queens seem to channel her essence and, most of all, connect with the crowd on hand, which is more than I can say for the real Björk, who performs a few nights later. As Iceland's biggest export sadly proves that evening, sometimes the best thing about our heroes and heroines is our memory of them, and not the real thing.
Under Pier 30-32's impersonal conditions, especially when tickets are $50 a pop, I expect some Jumbo Vision monitors to help shrink the distance between me and the stage. No such luck tonight. Still, it's not uncool to see one of the greatest vocalists ever to breathe air take the stage with the almost full moon shimmering on the nearby bay. Though most of us can't see Björk's face, it's fair to say we're taken by the cinematic scene.
While Björk's early material, from records such as Debut and Post, was mostly jubilant, infused with the energy of dance music, her tendency over the past few albums has been for more subtle production. Accordingly, she opens the show with the slight and simple "Unraveled," then follows it with the dour, slow-chugging "I've Seen It All," from the soundtrack to the movie in which she stars, Dancer in the Dark. Seemingly unaware of just how big a joint she's playing -- her last tour stopped off in more intimate venues -- the ice princess is nearly inanimate at first, almost to the point of sedating the audience. But when her third song, "Joga," explodes amid onstage pyrotechnics and bursts of sky-high fireworks as she croons, "State of emergency/ How beautiful to be!" some of us can't help but chuckle. In contrast to the quieter moments, these bursts of random bombastic intensity feel showy and contrived, as if they're the only way the singer can assert herself within such a large space.
The highs and lows (emphasis on lows) of these first three songs set the uneven tone for the evening. While there's no doubt that Björk is a vocalist without peer, a singer who can have her way with every syllable, her vocal prowess is best suited to opera houses and concert halls, places with warm acoustics that are designed for listening, not watching, as this outdoor mega-venue obviously is. Which is why, I suspect, toward the middle of her set, during delectable, heart-wrenching songs like "Cocoon" and "All Is Full of Love," people are heading for the restrooms, perhaps wondering what happened to the fireworks. Unlike Heklina and the queens, Björk forgoes the high-concept stagecraft found in her videos, relying instead on the power of her voice. But it's no match for the huge space, which also swallows her "elfin" features and tiny, epileptic dance moves.
Finally, after 12 rather introverted songs, the sparks fly once again. During the ecstatic, fist-pumping anthem "Hyperballad," which segues into a supercharged version of "In Our Hands," there's a hail of multicolored explosions and four-on-the-floor bangin' techno. The upbeat mega-mix could have made for a fine send-off, but instead Björk returns to the stage with her ensemble -- which includes sophisticated S.F. electronica duo Matmos, as well as a string section from Iceland and a harpist -- for a two-song encore. Sadly, "Generous Palmstroke" and "Human Behavior," despite (or because of) the rockets' red glare, fall flat, leaving the audience to speculate if that's really all it's going to get. It is.
Perhaps because they have more enthusiasm, and perhaps because the venue is smaller than a broom closet, the drag queens at "Trannyshack" score higher marks than their guru when it comes to pure entertainment value. Sure, they may not have the vocal chops (well, it's hard to tell; they're lip-syncing), but the spectacle they create with their costumes and makeup rivals many a Vegas sideshow, despite the fact that nary a queen actually resembles Björk.
Precious Moments dresses up like a kewpie doll and does a dance with a foreboding figure dressed in a black robe as strobe lights flicker and "Hyperballad" blasts through the speakers. Juanita More dons the infamous swan dress (from Björk's appearance at the 2001 Academy Awards) to perform a version of "Hunter," in which -- surprise, surprise -- she's hunted by some strapping Robin Hood types. Glamormore, who wears nothing but a very tight corset, cuts herself across the arms and wipes the blood on her face to the tune of "Pagan Poetry." (Disturbing? Yes. Dedicated? Fuck yeah.) As for Heklina, she shines in her version of "All Is Full of Love": Donning an aloof, eyelash-batting countenance as eerie-looking surgeons ogle her in the background, she proceeds to get jiggy with her cyborg counterpart, eventually climaxing with a bushel of wet, sloppy kisses.
As someone who thinks daring, original artists like Björk should be forgiven even their greatest mistakes (like trying to pawn off fireworks as a substitute for connecting with an audience), it makes me sad to say that the singer's concert simply didn't deliver. Still, it's hard to assert that her reputation is forever tarnished. Heklina agrees that Björk will always be "a diva, because she's never really sold out or kowtowed to anybody's ideas of how she should be. ... She's always been aggressively individual."
And that's fine, she's a diva. I would concur. Anyone who consistently makes groundbreaking music videos, wins a Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival (for Dancer in the Dark), and spends an entire career smuggling experimental electronica disguised as pop into nearly every country on the globe should be awarded that distinction. But wouldn't a diva have put more thought into her live show? Wouldn't a diva have cared more?
Maybe motherhood is getting the best of Björk. Or perhaps it's her relationship with world-famous artist Matthew Barney. Shit, maybe she's just getting old. Whatever it is, I know that the next time she comes to town, I'll save $50 and head to "Trannyshack." Not unlike Elvis impersonators and those who still vote Democratic, the queens there consistently reanimate our dying heroines, even as the real things slowly wither. It's a harsh reality to accept, but at least it's entertaining.