But the rules of chivalry decree that it's ladies first so Friday there's not one, but two headline acts, both of whom have fundamentally altered the musical landscape. Forty-six-year-old hip-hop “queen” Elliott (it says so on her baseball cap -- in bling, naturally) and 51-year-old artpop innovator Bjork are top of the bill, remaining rare emblems for their gender. Together they prove that without them, sound as we know it would be quite different.
In recognition of the magnitude of this moment, fellow female peers have come to pay their dues. As Missy takes a minute to introduce the audience to her dancers, she pauses. “Who else in here?” she asks. “Katy Perry out here too?” Check. “Solaaaaaaange?!” Check. Someone suggests Solange's sister might be in the house. “Beyonce? B is in the house y'all.” Check. “Somebody said Janet. Is Janet in here?” Janet Jackson is indeed in here. “I made it!” gleams Missy. She shouts out to Bjork too who has stayed to watch her.
“I wanna say thank y'all for supporting me over two decades,” she says. “I was sick, but I said I'm not gon' miss this show for nothing. We still gon' come out here and rock this shit. Can I party wit y'all?!”
On stage before Missy and dressed like a human loofah, Bjork had something in common with the exaggerated visuals of peak '90s Missy, particularly the inflatable suit in the video for “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).” There's a desire among these two artists to be bigger than a genre, bigger than a species, bigger than existence even. While belonging to wildly different ends of the sonic and artistic spectrum, Missy and Bjork come at their performances with similar desires and achieve vastly opposite results.
A producer and songwriter, Missy's anthems have existed for 20 years in a genre renowned for misogyny and homophobia. The likes of “Work It,” “Get Ur Freak On” and “Gossip Folks” have swaggeringly pushed her femininity and body positive message in listener's faces whether they were ready for it or not. Hearing them makes for a nostalgic trip down memory lane to a time when MTV could impact public conversation.
Bjork, on the other hand, has spoken about the continued disbelief in her level of involvement when it comes to envisioning and exacting a whole universe of electronic noise in a career that spans four decades. The songs from 2015's Vulnicura performed here with an orchestra and producer Arca is about the breakdown of her marriage to film director Matthew Barney. Her delivery is more honest than a couch session with a psychiatrist.
"Show me emotional respect," she begins on “Stonemilker,” while bending her body back and forth, flapping her arms and conducting her muscles to the string section. “Maybe he will come out this, Maybe he won't/ Somehow I'm not too bothered either way,” she continues on “Lionsong.” On "Unravel" (from 1997's Homogenic) she sings, “My heart comes undone slowly unravels in a ball of yarn... You never never never never return," while physically dragging her heart around the stage. In front of thousands, these songs feel more currently prescient, and unfinished. Where Missy harks back to that initial emancipation of female self, Bjork questions a return to independence after a failed embrace.
Where the empowerment of Missy comes from honest humor and volume (in beats and in dress code), Bjork's comes from a fearless approach to flawless execution. It's Bjork's voice, orchestra and complex visual aids (including a round of fireworks) that could encounter a hitch at any occasion. But everything unfolds perfectly, even the parts she cannot control. A beautiful moth dances over my head during “Joga” as Bjork wraps her tongue around those beloved lyrics: “State of emergency is where I want to be.”
For Missy, on the other hand, her set is riddled with technical difficulties, and it becomes all the more entertaining for it. “Let me tell y'all some real shit,” she says to the crowd halfway through her hour-long set, confessing that she's had to get rid of her in-ear monitors. “Y'all don't know what happens to artists when they onstage. I lost my mic patch so I can't hear shit but I'm still doing this shit. Real stars keep it moving."
Both artists share their end goal of onstage catharsis. For Missy, Friday’s emotional release is almost tear-jerking. It's her first show on American soil in 10 years. Aside from appearing at the Super Bowl Halftime show alongside Katy Perry in 2015, she had to take a backseat from music after she was diagnosed with Graves' disease. She gets right among the crowds only 10 minutes into the set and continues to run up and down next to hysterical fans throughout her show, smiling, dancing and continually thanking her “day ones.”
Bjork literally says nothing but “thank you” after every single song on her set. Her body, however, moves ecstatically. She wiggles her way around “Bachelorette” and “Isobel” to rapturous applause. For “Wanderlust” she raves to Arca's machine drilled beats, while the entire crowd stands still in awe, unsure how to move to these rhythms yet. It must be isolating being at a party light years before everyone else.
Missy, however, isn't dancing on her own. Her crowds go wilder than she can for “Gossip Folks,” “Pass That Dutch” and “The Rain.” The main release for Bjork's crowd comes with closing track “Hyperballad,” which she successfully leads a singalong for by gesturing gleefully. Missy, on the other hand, has to aggressively halt “Get Ur Freak On” twice, dissatisfied with the level of hype among fans.
"This ain't how we playing it,” she says. “When we do this joint we make sure everybody in the building jump. Put your phones down for one record."
Where Bjork's visual accompaniments lie closer to a David Attenborough documentary, Missy's are straight out of MTV's heyday. Over the course of an hour she makes three costume changes, each one drowning in bling. Her dance troupe elaborately re-enact some of the iconic dance routines, rollerskating through “Let it Go” and adopting full-on safari garb for “Pass That Dutch,” while documentary footage shows Pharrell reminiscing on the craziness of Missy's visual ambition. To camera, Missy admits that it once took her two hours to put rhinestones on her eyes for one particular shoot.
With so many hits and eras to get through, most tracks (“One Minute Man,” “I’m Really Hot,” “Lose Control”) only steal half a minute of Missy's slot. She needs time to showcase how much career-propping for others she's been essential to -- the likes of Ciara's “One, Two Step” and Aaliyah's “Rock The Boat” also get airings. The latter finishes the set on a particularly bittersweet note as Missy asks everyone to pay respect to the people they've lost while lighting their iPhones up.
“I know I lost someone close,” she says. “We pay respect to everyone that has lost someone dear to them. [They] don't have to be a celebrity. Grandmother. Grandfather. Sister. Brother. Pets, too. They family.” As the Aaliyah track fills the field, dancers carry placards with faces of the gone but never forgotten, including Tupac.
On Friday, Missy Elliott and Bjork allowed fans to regale in their pasts but reminded them of the necessity of their legacies. Presenting two starkly different and nevertheless enriched celebrations of art and life, their sets were rendered even more powerful by the sheer fact they were told from the perspective of the female gaze. If there's a sound that connects them both, it's the almighty shattering of a glass ceiling.
Bjork’s set list:
“Come To Me”
“You've Been Flirting Again”
Missy Elliott’s set list:
“She's A Bitch”
“One Minute Man”
“I’m Really Hot”
“We Run This”
“The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”
“All N My Grill”
“Sock It 2 Me”
“Get Ur Freak On”
“Pass That Dutch”
“Shut It Down”
“Shake Your Pom Pom”
“The Things You Do”
“Let It Go”
“One In A Million”
“1, 2 Step”
“Rock The Boat”