10 Ways Pop Star Robyn Was Ahead of Her Time

on October 25, 2018, 1:07pm
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In 2010, Robyn released Body Talk, and mainstream pop around the world was forever changed. Or rather, American pop eventually changed. It seems Robyn had to take eight years away to allow for US pop and indie music to catch up to her in terms of empowering, expansive inclusiveness; stripped-down, electronic complexity; and general coolness. Which means, it’s the perfect time for Robyn to finally return with her sixth album, Honey.

In the decade since the 39-year-old Swedish artist released new solo work, Robyn has definitively shifted from pop star to pop icon. Even while living predominantly out of the spotlight, her music has continually found new audiences and grown in cultural consciousness — from the classic “Dancing on My Own” featured in a memorable scene on Lena Dunham’s Girls to her collaborations with indie and house acts like The Knife, Teddybears, and Röyksopp. Listeners have long connected with her unadorned delivery of complicated emotions, lyrical specificity of heartbreak, and subversion of pop forms to reflect reality. And, through it all, there’s the triumphant catharsis of dancing through the tears, whether in the communal anonymity of the club or alone in your room.

robyn honey album artwork 10 Ways Pop Star Robyn Was Ahead of Her Time

Since striking out from the mainstream pop machine, Robyn has created according to her own intuitive timetable. But this latest project was further delayed by the huge personal losses Robyn experienced: the breakup with long-term partner Max Vitali and the sudden death of close friend and collaborator Christian Falk. Between 2014 and 2016, Robyn says, there were times when she couldn’t even get out of bed. She stayed away from her home city of Stockholm to cope, clubbing in Europe and Los Angeles, where she was inspired to make music again upon hearing minimalist electro track “XTC” by DJ Koze. When she went back to work, however, she did it alone for a long time. She taught herself production. She abandoned traditional pop-song structure with beginnings, middles, and ends. She submerged in her club-kid roots, dancing on her own to disco, funk, house, and techno — before surfacing through the deep filter of her life, loves and losses.

As we wait for Honey to finally drop this Friday, we look back at 10 ways that Robyn was way ahead of her time.

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Robyn Laid the Groundwork for the best parts of Britney Spears-style pop

In the mid-’90s, Robyn broke onto US radio as a teenager with R&B-inflected, big-chorus pop (“Show Me Love” and “Do You Know (What It Takes)”) produced by Max Martin, the soon-to-be grandmaster of ubiquitous bubblegum pop. While Robyn’s smash debut was praised for its realistically youthful-yet-mature sass and savvy, the singer may have been too self-possessed to be a Lolita for the pop machine. At 16, she told a Swedish magazine, “I’m not gong to be a product” — and Martin went to work with 15-year-old Britney Spears, writing “…Baby One More Time” and sending the vessel of mass appeal (at great personal cost) on to pop world domination. Yet, you can still hear echoes of Robyn’s vocal quality in Spears: the baby-coo rap that breaks into soaringly sweet refrains.

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Robyn Opened up About Women’s Health 20 Years Ago

Sure, we had Ben Folds Five’s “Brick” in 1997, but it’s not exactly from the woman’s perspective. Robyn’s second album, My Truth, which went platinum in Sweden in 1999, contained two Robyn-penned songs that referred to a teenage abortion. However, American record execs wanted to exclude or change those songs for the album’s US release. Robyn refused, and so the album was never released.

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Robyn went indie — and made indie love pop

In 2005, Robyn re-emerged with new music on her own indie label with her own electronic sound. With Robyn and her collaborations with The Knife, she was recognized by the high council of hipster criticism, Pitchfork, and embraced by the first widespread wave of poptimism. Her new sound was out of left field — combining dark, experimental sounds with the shining light of her choruses. She was perhaps even more forthright than before, proving that pop was smart, individual, and underground. It was also where some of the most exciting voices and innovations were being heard. She was a bellwether for rock getting less rigid in introducing non-guitar sounds and for pop music becoming more dance-driven and experimental. (See: the future of chameleon queen Rihanna, whose given name is Robyn, and who in 2005 was still a Caribbean teenager being packaged for the sound of the moment.)

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Robyn has fought for—and gotten—creative control from the jump

Forget the myth of the female pop star molded and exploited by Svengali producers. Despite starting her professional music career at 13, Robyn has steadfastly fought to control her creative destiny — rejecting an offer from Jive (which later launched Spears), leaving BMG seeking more freedom, then striking out on her own. After an experimental collaboration with The Knife, she founded her own label — the aptly named Konichiwa Records — and found artistic partners who expanded her sound and respected her process. In the video for 2007’s “Handle Me”, she rebukes the offers of men who deem themselves powerful, while dressed as a human jukebox and dancing avant-gardely around literal boxes she’s been put inside. In 2010, she released Body Talk as three EPs, which included the line “My label is killing me” on the unambiguous track, “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do”.

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Robyn made platinum-plaited mullets and bushy eyebrows a thing

Well before Cara Delevingne’s naturally thick “power brows” became the standard of western beauty, US record execs were asking Robyn to re-shoot her “Handle Me” video because her brows were … too much. Today, it seems most pop stars have gone platinum blond to look edgier, and Katy Perry even copped Robyn’s classic cut: a white-blond asymmetrical pixie cut. Taylor Swift even borrowed some of Robyn’s “fembot” aesthetic for her recent album, Reputation.

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Robyn Can Make Political Pop That’s Not Awful

Speaking of Katy Perry, may she be a point of contrast, proof of American pop’s arrested development. Perry got “woke” in the last couple of years, but her newly “purposeful pop” remains vague, confused, and cartoonish. When Robyn makes a song with a message, you won’t be confused. Let’s compare Robyn and Perry’s 2010 songs, which both featured Snoop Dogg. For Perry, it was the Playboy-slick “California Gurls” (“Daisy dukes, bikinis on top, sun-kissed skin, so hot we’ll melt your popsicle”), which saw Snoop rapping, “Kiss her, touch her, squeeze her buns/ The girl’s a freak, she drives a Jeep.” But on Robyn’s trippy “U Should Know Better”, she sings, “I sat down with the Romans, said, ‘We need a black pope and she better be a woman,’” while Snoop backs her up: “She bangin’!” Guess which one of these was a No. 1 hit in the US?

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Robyn Is So Feminist She Doesn’t Have to Insist on It

Robyn makes sensual, sexy music that doesn’t commercialize female sexuality. Even her first singles, “Do You Know (What It Takes)” and “Show Me Love,” are anything but submissive, demanding respect and reciprocity. On the lead single on 2005’s Robyn, “Who’s That Girl”, she sings, “Good girls are happy and satisfied/ I won’t stop asking until I die/ I just can’t deal with the rules,” and “I’m only sexy when I say it’s okay.” This is feminism that’s complex and unabashed, projecting not only strength but introspection as to the experience and defamiliarization that often comes with a female or non-binary identity.

Robyn’s gender presentation has always been feminine, but tough and fluid, a kind of Bowie figure. But she has won a devoted following in queer communities by making sterling dance-pop from narratives of triumph-in-rejection and independent self-love (long before “self-care” was the buzzword of existence). In songs like “Dancing on My Own” and “Dancehall Queen”, and the video for “Call Your Girlfriend”, all you need for transcendence is an empty space and the body you came with.

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Robyn’s Influence Exists in the DNA of Today’s Most Interesting Pop

Lorde on Saturday Night Live with Robyn Photo

Lorde on Saturday Night Live with Robyn Photo

Specific heartache combined with ecstatic, transcendent dance music is a formula we hear in the work of the best pop artists today, including Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, Perfume GeniusMaggie Rogers, and Troye Sivan. Lorde, whose recent Melodrama was lauded for its catchy songwriting and themes of liminality, performed on Saturday Night Live with a framed portrait of Robyn. Even Ariana Grande, the reigning pop princess, seems to have drawn from Robyn on new album Sweetener in the steady, lo-fi beats, less showy but authentic vocal delivery, and sense of things being happy and sad at the same time. Whereas the dominant sound of pop radio has been songs that throw in every sound around the dial — like an Internet browser with ever-opening tabs — Robyn-influenced pop feels like a well-argued Longread.

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Robyn Has Made 40 the Perfect Age to Be a Pop Star

Robyn photo by Philip Cosores Missing U Lights

Robyn, photo by Philip Cosores

With her age, she’s also holding firm on new ground — is a sentence I loathe to write. At 60, Madonna (Madonna!) still grapples for creative control, subject to insidious cultural messages about aging. But Robyn has earned every ounce of her self-possession and has the authority to convey empowering and vulnerable music exactly as she wants to. This delay in releasing new music is in itself radical in our era. She made us wait for Honey and revealed not only that the wait was natural and worth it — but that we had our own lives to live in the meantime.

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Robyn Takes the Long View

Upon releasing Honey, Robyn returns to a pop landscape where her influence is everywhere. Yet, she is still pushing beyond the zeitgeist. While everyone else dons their armor, Robyn exposes her softness. While American pop culture is rocked by every moment-to-moment controversy (OMG, Taylor Swift finally told people to vote!), Robyn’s synthpop is exploring “losing control, death, and eternity.” While I’d imagine it might be impactful if Robyn lent her voice to the worldwide backslide towards fascism, including in her native Sweden, I admire that she’s looking beyond this era to something timeless.

“There’s no resolution,” Robyn sings on “Human Being”, and it’s a truth she has to accept. The irregular rhythms and twinkling arpeggio of first single “Missing U” seem like they’ll go on forever — until they simply end. Robyn’s still vulnerable and witty and life-affirming, and her minimal-beat, major-chord chorus dance-pop still sounds like Robyn. But on Honey, she’s holding multiple opposing sensations at the same time — embodying joy and sorrow without collapsing — and pushing us all into a future, whatever form it takes.

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