True story. Sitting over cocktails a close personal acquaintance reveals she doesn't really like Robyn
. 'Dancing on My Own
' (some remix thereof) had been burbling out of the speakers and I had been quietly grooving, hence the conversation. Alas, conversation was not really what was had. The revelation had robbed me of speech. I had never thought about exactly WHAT separates Robyn from the multitude of pop stars that populate our pop culture galaxy, partly because I never thought I would have to justify her in any way. Robyn just IS. She's undeniable. The possibility that she could be denied never entered my tiny mind.
Over those cocktails I wasn't at my most... shall we say graceful. I didn't EXACTLY weep, but composure was definitely lost SOMEWHERE. Time and blogging may not relieve that embarrassment, but it can accomplish what I couldn't do then: put up a spirited, if not coherent, defence of Robyn.
Which must start with Robyn, the self-titled album, lauded the greatest pop album of the last ten years by Pitchfork and FACT and other right-thinking publications, give or take an M.I.A. Body Talk Pt. 1
was a bit disappointing for me, but we'll come back to that. First, 'Konichiwa Bitches
'. Go listen!
Starts squelchy, powers up and blasts you in the face like a mushroomed-up Mario. Tinny rimshots cut up the track as a husky vocodered voice starts moaning aggressively. Four big booms, and Robyn enters the ring.
What I love about this song is that Robyn is basically battle-rapping, but she sounds like an eight-year old, and her verses are as juvenile and silly as can be. I mean, COME ON:
"I'll handle your toe like a pediatrician,
Saw you in half like I'm a magician,
Tear you down like I'm in demolition,
Count you out like a mathematician."
This is shit-talk posturing taken to the absolute limit, where aggression becomes ridiculous, hilarious, harmless. I just wish Jay-Z or 50 Cent had to come on after that. What would they say? Robyn's already done all of it so well that the game is over, it has been overturned, rendered meaningless. Robyn destroys mockery with mockery. No more fronting. The rest of the album can move on to matters of the heart.
' is the dark cousin of 'Konichiwa Bitches' -- dancehall aggro modulated by Robyn's cute patois. If there is rage here, it's rage at rage (the Broken Social Scene motto: We Hate Your Hate). Also not being taken seriously as an artist, in part because she's of the female persuasion. But the dark side has an upside: it's a killer tune to shake the behind to, and you get to say "foo" every 30 seconds. THAT'S pop music.
' bumps and grinds like the first two, but a mournful cello sound drifts in towards the end of the verse, and an acoustic guitar strums through the chorus. We're moving from club banger to ballad.
Ahh, the ballads. In an interview earlier this year, Robyn talked about singing truthfully -- genuinely experiencing the emotion of the song as you sing it. And you know? I get that. Robyn's vowels ache. Her consonants hiccup. Her sentences choke. The notes sound strained, their passage into the air filtered through feeling. This shit HURTS.
' is probably the finest example of this. The despair is brutal. The chorus is basically Robyn repeatedly stabbing herself in the chest: "you NEVER were and you NEVER will be mine!" The spoken word bridge throbs with unrequited affection, before the pummeling begins again. Emotional masochism in three and a half excruciating minutes.
'With Every Heartbeat
' is calmer, oscillating between yearning hope and determined resignation. The entire song is a build to nowhere -- a house anthem that never explodes, only plods along hurting with every beat and heartbeat.
And then The Knife
cut in with those massive drums of theirs. 'Who's That Girl?
' has been rather finely written up already http://gillen.cream.org/wordpress_html/?p=1114
(scroll down). I'd just add that if anyone asked me what feminism was and I had an iPod to hand, I would play them this. And, brilliantly, the huge chorus heralds no dawn of realization. There is no answer to the question. The conversation continues one-sided. Robyn remains isolated, but she keeps dancing, because what else is there to do?
At the album's peak I feel like I should quit, although further treasures await in the second half. 'Robotboy
' is built on a clumsy metaphor for aging, but through it... gods does it reach a grace, a wisdom, a compassion when those multi-tracked vocals hit. The bitter beatbox of 'Should Have Known
' makes frustration very funky. And closer 'Any Time You Like
' gets all quiet and heartbreaking again. Robyn knows she is running out of time, but she doesn't want to let go.
Needless to say how much I appreciate cleverness, and Robyn is very clever, attacking relationships with a scalpel, showing us its viscera in microscopic detail. Through these songs, she emerges with something still rather rare in our pop universe. A personality. WITH THINGS TO SAY. Things, I think, that are worth listening to.
The very least you can say about the music is that it is efficient, in that it picks your body up and moves it around. Which is why Body Talk Pt. 1 lacks a certain something. The opener was just limp. 'Dancing On My Own' splits the difference between 'Be Mine!' and 'With Every Heartbeat' without going beyond either. 'None of Dem
' lopes but doesn't skip until the very end, somewhat undermining the sentiment of the song. 'Fembot
' is better. Robyn forms like Voltron and provides much excitement after a slow start. But really, the EP is all about 'Cry When You Get Older
', an epic that can stand alongside the best from her previous album.
Indeed, I wonder if this is the Robyn song to unlock all others. I cannot be sure, because the lyrics are really rather bewildering. Robyn stands as an elder veteran of many a romantic entanglement, imparting sage advice to those green enough to still seek transcendence in love. You're asking for trouble that way, she says. Reality will hit you hardcore to the brain. That "more than life" feeling is fleeting. It won't last and you will be left wanting again. Love hurts when you do it right. But does that mean you DON'T do it? No. Go on. You can cry when you get older.
Almost everything that makes Robyn Robyn is here: regret at lost loves, the trap of expectations, masochistic voyeurism. And most of all, wisdom, compassion, humanity. Here, she understands. She reaches out. The music does too. The chorus, unlike in 'With Every Heartbeat', invites you in. The swooshing synths pick up the whole dancefloor, although the song does know when to pull back, get you bootyshaking, and then catapult you once more into that pop stratosphere. It is a song about being alone that includes everyone. And we're back at that most recognizable of Robyn themes. I'm dancing on my own, but so is everyone else. Maybe I'm not as alone as I thought.
That's about the best defence I can manage, so I'll stop. The above isn't even an argument really, certainly not a rebuttal. The only way you can justify art is by talking about how it makes YOU think and feel. Everything else is meaningless, in the fullest sense of the word. But it's also why Robyn is amazing, because she MEANS SOMETHING. To me, that is. She might not mean anything to someone else, and that's something I'll have to live with. At least next time over cocktails I'll have something to say...