Just because something’s intensely personal, doesn’t mean you can’t share it with everyone.
It’s December 2009 and, quietly but surely, music journalists worldwide are being sent a link to two videos and nothing more.
And through the next year they continue, with nary a word or explanation. Just the number code, the content of the videos, and the pictures at the end. Blogging about the videos leads to an MTV journalist receiving a package which contained hair 1, bark 2, and a pictogram of the animals asking “Says what?”. Thankfully, the cipher used was simple and the prelude videos 3 were found to be titled “educational”, “I am”, “its me”, “mandragora”, “officinarum”, and “welcome home”, setting the theme of what was to come.
Well sort of. The first video, simply labeled ‘b’ is a swerve, sonically, and just raises more questions. Nowadays, the video description actually gives up some information, but when these videos were first released, they would only link to other videos 4 that were linked to the song in an adroit or infuriatingly obtuse manner, depending on how charitable you are feeling. As the videos are steadily released through the year, speculation grows and grows as people try to identify our singer (often referred to as Iam since there was absolutely no way anyone was gonna get any clarification), and here is where their anonymity worked for them. Guesses ranged from the slightly plausible 5 to the frankly ludicrous 6 but the systemic denials just raised the projects profile further. Just who were iamamiwhoami?
The other mystery brewing at the same time as who, was what were they trying to say. Each video released was simply titled with a single letter. Following ‘b’ was ‘o’ then ‘u-1’ and its counterpart ‘u-2’(adding fuel to the fire by leading to people trying to dig up more information on Captain Underpants). Mandragora aka mandrake root, has been the source of many a myth, from killing with their screams 7, to being produced from the semen of a hanged man as the earth takes on their last seed (Let this serve as a content warning for a video later on that has some suicide imagery). The release of ‘n’ cemented indicated that the word of the
day project was to be bounty, codifying the audiovisual project as an interpretation of the hunt for the mythical plant. But the real standout 8, and the beginning of deeper allusions than previously hinted, was the release of ‘t’, the twelfth video and the first where our mysterious Iam has her face un-obscured and for all the world to see.
Everyone, meet Jonna Lee. Haven’t heard of her? That’s fair, outside of her native Sweden (and even in it) Jonna didn’t have too much of an impact, and was mostly known for her dreamy folksy pop 9.
You may wonder I waited so long to include the whole album here. It’s mostly because even knowing all of this going in, it cannot prepare you for what the whole album entails. The climax of our journey, ‘y’, can mean many things (the question, the completion of our bounty, or just the simple letter itself), but I do not use the word climax lightly. Much more worldly and smarter folks than I were able to complete the narrative after watching ‘y’, almost immediately linking it to not just the mandragora, but a specific story about the root itself. Alraune is almost unknown today due to the author’s involvement with the Nazi Party 10, but can be summed up as a feminine (and sexed up) answer to Frankenstein. Let’s let Wikipedia take over for a second-
The novel deviates from the myth by concentrating on the issues of artificial insemination and individuality: genetics versus environment. A scientist, Professor Jakob ten Brinken, interested in the laws of heredity, impregnates a prostitute in a laboratory with the semen of a hanged murderer. The prostitute conceives a female child who has no concept of love, whom the professor adopts. The girl, Alraune, suffers from obsessive sexuality and perverse relationships throughout her life. She learns of her unnatural origins and she avenges herself against the professor.
So there’s a lot going on here, if you couldn’t tell. Before we reach the coda for this story, the climax continues.
In October of 2010, iamamiwhoami finally reached out, asking for a volunteer. And that’s it, no other word given. The audience managed to come together and from the masses, a YouTuber called ShootUpTheStation (or SUTS), was interviewed and chosen as the representative, but for what? Some vlogs documented his journey and travels, eventually leading to a countdown and then simply a concert.
Ha-ha! I’m fucking kidding, much like the band, there was nothing fucking simple about this concert! Broadcast live, and presented as such by implying one long take for the whole hour 11, the concert was subsequently removed after several hours and, for the longest time, only survived online thanks to tech-savvy fans. The ultimate fate of SUTS, audience surrogate and possible passive participant in the band, is to be lead like livestock through the songs once more, trapped in a box, and burned. What this means exactly is open for interpretation, but it sure as hell doesn’t illuminate anything else. For those still keeping track, the meaning of the animal pictures becomes much clearer at the end of the movie, showing us that the sounds each one makes was to represent each letter of the album.
Surely there was more to come, something to explain whatever the hell it was people spent a year of their lives on that culminated in the ritualistic murder of a fan?12 But for six months after IN CONCERT, there was radio silence from iamamiwhoami until the release of ‘; john’, a phone number that answered with a song recording, and ‘clump’. People were unsure if these were indeed the coda to bounty, but combined with iamamiwhoami’s first (actual) live performance, the resolution seemed clear. Here we follow the exploits of the Alraune, incapable of love but craving carnality all the same, and the tragic conclusion of the Mandragora’s tale.
But is that the true ending to this? Just a horrifying fairytale brought to the screen once more? While still exceptionally secretive at this point in time (see: That BULLETT interview), as the mystical sheen has worn off, the people behind this project have reciprocated by being (more) open. To paraphrase Jonna, she built this project as a paean to “something that everyone needs to live, but that [she] went without for years”. Other tidbits dropped through the years have also hinted at dissatisfaction with control over her image. Was this all a way for her to express her frustrations and pave the way for reinvention? The wonder of such obtuse things like this, I feel, is that there is almost no wrong way to interpret this. When given no authorial intent, we are free to form our own views and imagine what it all could mean.
The follow-ups to bounty, kin (centered further on the relationship between artist and audience) and BLUE (focusing on water, as opposed to the woods), are well worth seeking on their own, as is Jonna Lee’s new solo project ionnalee 13, but I don’t think I would be able to do them justice. bounty was a singular experience, for me. Something I managed to stumble upon at the very beginning of the mystery as opposed to well after it had all been solved. Even now, 8 years past the initial flurry of activity, things keep popping up that baffle and delight 14. And despite what some critics may say, I feel that the songs themselves still stand strong divorced from the striking visuals. The two were designed to be inseparable, and just listening should be enough to invoke the complimentary video in your mind’s eye. But that, dear friends, is open to interpretation.
Love (Love, love)
The kind that kills and scars (Love, love)
That make you kneel and crawl to hell and back (Love, love)
The words that slit your throat (Love, love)
And make you think of blood as the new black
As what you lack