Robyn Is The 21st Century's Pop Oracle
It's not enough to make list after list. The Turning the Tables project seeks to suggest alternatives to the traditional popular music canon, and to do more than that, too: to stimulate conversation about how hierarchies emerge and endure. This year, Turning the Tables considers how women and non-binary artists are shaping music in our moment, from the pop mainstream to the sinecures of jazz and contemporary classical music. Our list of the 200 Greatest Songs By Women+ offers a soundtrack to a new century. This series of essays takes on another task.
The 25 arguments writers make in these pieces challenge the usual definitions of influence. Some rethink the building legacies of popular artists; others celebrate those who create within subcultures, their innovations rippling outward over time. As always, women forge new pathways in sound; today, they also make waves under the surface of culture by confronting, in their music, the increased fluidity of "woman" itself. What is a woman? It's a timeless question on the surface, but one deeply engaged with whatever historical moment in which it is asked. Our 25 Most Influential Women Musicians of the 21st Century illuminate its complexities. —Ann Powers
There is this moment, about a minute and a half into the music video for Robyn's flawless 2010 single "Call Your Girlfriend," that gives us a quintessential glimpse, something just shy of a thesis, of the Swedish pop star. In it, she's doing a highly aerobic choreographed dance in an empty warehouse, performing to the camera, which is capturing it in a single, continuous shot; the song she's singing is premised largely on passing caring and hard-won advice about getting over a break-up to a woman through the man she is seemingly stealing from her. The song foregrounds the feelings of the two women; the romance with the new dude is somewhere in the backseat.
As Robyn is laying this drama, she's meeting our gaze by staring intently back at us through the camera; she's pacing through stuttering rhythmic moves, her severe silvery-white bowlcut motionless throughout. She's fully clothed in a long-sleeve sweater, leggings and candy pink platform oxfords. She prances backwards and with a rough somersault, unfurls herself, cheek to the floor. She humps the ground in a way that recalls both Prince and a cartoon caterpillar while intoning the line "Tell her that I give you something you never even knew you missed." The camera does not zoom in on her body; it does not grant the reassurance a close-up of Robyn's smiling or seductive face would provide. Robyn then rolls away on the floor in her Muppet-y sweater. She's not here to seduce us in all the hackneyed ways that are so familiar. She's here to give us something we never even knew we missed.
Since early on in her two-decade-plus career as a pop artist, the popular line has always been that even though Robyn has the perfect voice and songs that fit seamlessly amid the bland and the bold of the American pop Top 40, she's never quite broken through, because something is off. She's too Euro, too cool, too weird — but that insistent "too" reveals the unspoken rules: We demand pop star girls to be less; to be vessels for our desire, not confidently expressing the complexity of their own; malleable, not showing up with an auteur's vision. They are supposed to be writhing, glistening tits-up on the floor, not log-rolling away in a sweater. She sings on 2005's "Who's That Girl:"
Who's that girl that you dream of?
Who's that girl that you think you love?
Who's that girl, well I'm nothing like her
I know there's no such girl
In blunting the fantasy-girl with the real, it's not that Robyn isn't (fill in the blank) enough, but rather, she's everything.
The reductive reasoning about Robyn also misses the way her image and music has been so instructive for both her fans and the artists who came in her wake. She's an artist in control of her work, a soft-butch cool-girl who served us a dreamy possibility beyond the rigid binaries, who adapted pop's dance floor language into something that served her own dreams. Her complexity is a kind of permission; leaving the major label climate after a decade of nursing stardom to start her own label (Konichiwa Records) and make the music she wanted to make, taking long multi-year stretches between releasing her albums, being a constant collaborator ( Neneh Cherry, The Knife, Röyksopp), making EPs and mini-albums as is her wont. She has conducted her career with continual centering on independence, on what makes sense and suits her, rather than any sort of industry convention or pacing. She's a teen pop star who has only gotten more interesting and assertive with age, an artist who is not ducking out, now, at 39. She's served as an icon for weird girls, queer artists and non-binary folks who are the innovators behind some of the best pop music (and its boldest experiments) of the last few years: Lorde, Perfume Genius, Carly Rae Jepsen, Alma, SSION and Charli XCX chief among them.
While her image and her independence continue to matter, her songs are what have gained salience in recent years. While thematic echoes of "Dancing on My Own," show up in Lorde's "Green Light" (the young singer performed with a framed portrait of Robyn on Saturday Night Live last year) — the spiritual endowment of, particularly, Robyn's post-2005 work feels especially prescient. The songs of Robyn and the three-part Body Talk endure musically, and the emotional range in them still feels revelatory — a relief even. She created dance floor anthems that stack hooks with anger ("Don't F****** Tell Me What To Do," "Dancing On My Own"), alienation ("None of Dem") resistance ("Fembot") and sorrow ("Missing U") and cynicism ("Love Kills") as much as they broach romance. Historically, the dance floor has been a safe space, a night-long utopia of lust and freedom and carefree self-expression. In 2018, it's all the more necessary. But the reality is that we need music that brings — and allows for — so much more: for songs that assure us that yes, music is the place where we can come in our frightened loneliness. Even in the darkness of our mourning, our confusion and sadness, Robyn assures, again and again, that the disco ball will still shine on us.
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