Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock & Roll &

Dancing on Her Own

The Swedish dance thrush Robyn filled the 6,000-capacity Radio City Music Hall February 5 even though her widely praised Body Talk album had never cracked the Billboard 200, although its shorter and cheaper Body Talk, Pt. 1 and Body Talk, Pt. 2 predecessors had. Robyn's Stateside audience ought to be bigger; in fact, this album-oriented rocker thinks the albums ought to be better too. But they're pretty fine anyway, and Robyn gave the crowd an even better show than they gave her. The house was about half gay, which leaves some 3,000 celebrants divided into many male-female couples, enough girls-night-out couples and groups, and me proudly surrounded by my 65-year-old wife Carola and my 25-year-old daughter Nina. Nina and I agreed we'd slightly preferred the sweaty August gig she'd put away at the 1,400-capacity Webster Hall. But Carola was happy with exactly what she got--not only a commodious venue but a commodious crowd.

"Somehow she creates such a feeling of acceptance," she told me at breakfast, wearing a hotpack although she'd announced the night before that dancing at her seat for 90 minutes had finally loosened up her back. "Did you notice the large couple just up to our right?" This wasn't the large black couple dancing directly across from us, but the large white couple further forward who turned and sang lyrics to each other at every opportunity (both couples, as it happens, were male-female). "I loved how everybody knew the words. Thousands of people singing 'Now I'll be dancing on my own.' Wow--what does that even mean?"

"Dancing on My Own" is the nearest thing Robyn has had to a "hit" in her current manifestation: No. 3 on Billboard's Hot Dance Club Play chart. This great honor situates her where she currently belongs, in Clubworld--not the still-thriving alt-rock circuit, but a less arty and somewhat pricier realm descended from disco. Since Nina came along, my knowledge of Clubworld has been based almost entirely on hearsay, reading, and of course listening. Carola and I dance more than most people our age, but at parties, and seldom to what I will designate techno--which equals dance music almost everywhere in the world but America, where it gets major competition from the popper and crunker strains of hip-hop. As I've said many times, dance music is very site-specific. Even disco proper, which produced loads of music I loved, was dependent on sound systems, DJs, and biochemical enhancements inconvenient to duplicate at home. For those partial to lyrics, voices, and melodies, techno is much worse, its hundreds of subgenres unparsable despite the occasional killer compilation and the more occasional self-sustaining longform like The Knife's Silent Shout.

Robyn has worked with the art-damaged Knife, who are also Swedish and whose subsequent work suggests that the eerie comedy of Silent Shout is as pop as they intend to get. But she's also a hip-hop fan, and her commitment to the more pop-friendly techno strain called electro comes from an unarty place--her history as a teenpop queen and, later, a club kid. The daughter of actors whose divorce inspired her first venture into songwriting at 11, Robyn became a star in Sweden in 1995, when she was 16, and had two American top 10s in 1997: "Do You Know (What It Takes)" and "Show Me Love." Though Robyn has always been a songwriter--in English, as ABBA taught all Swedes--her breakthroughs were doctored by Stockholm legend Max Martin, who's also had his hand in the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way," Britney Spears's "Oops! . . . I Did It Again," and Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl," among many others. There are good songs galore on her teenpop debut Robyn Is Here, including plenty she wrote with her usual team, but "Show Me Love" clinches the deal with its sturdy chorus hook: "Show me love, show me life/Baby show me what it's all about." Seriously yet discreetly sexual, not naughty or oopsy, it hints at the sobriety of another Martin contractor, Celine Dion. Be grateful Robyn had other ideas.

First, however, she had to go through the awkward stage that hits teenpop stars like clockwork. Her 1999 My Truth is as strained as you might fear despite the title track's convinced relativism and "Giving You Back"'s reflections on her own abortion, and the minor hits on 2002's likable enough Don't Stop the Music pleased no one enough in the end. This is where the burned-out skyrocket either turns into Justin Timberlake or enters rehab. Robyn turned into Justin Timberlake--in her own way, which is the only way, and on a smaller scale, but impressively nonetheless. Beyond JT, in fact, no one has done it better, including my old fave Pink, now proudly pregnant by her squeeze-turned-husband, motocross racer Carey Hart. Robyn has one of those too--Olof Inger, a fiancé she's dated since 2002 who is both a visual artist and a mixed martial artist. (Quality girlpop and extreme sports--separated at birth?)

Timberlake's march on the American entertainment industry brandished his burgeoning musicality, surprising slapstick, and adequate acting ability. Robyn's approach was less ambitious artistically, but also less conventional structurally: to record the music she wanted to record on a label she owned and ran called Konichiwa. Although this took guts for a 25-year-old has-been, how much autonomy Robyn has achieved remains murky because, sanely, she works with a business manager and in America secured distribution--a full 10 years after Robyn Is Here, her only previous Stateside release--via Cherrytree, a Universal-affiliated semi-independent best known for Lady Gaga, although Robyn got there first and the likes of La Roux and Far East Movement followed.

Although all these acts specialize in club music whose focus tracks are designed to pulse and warble from radios and shopping-mall in-stores, for Robyn pop runs deeper than that. "I'm raised in the Swedish tradition of songwriting," she told a DJ-interviewer. "If you don't have the songs, you're going to be fucked basically." Her singing, too, reaches for the kind of down-to-earth empathy that signifies for many young listeners well after their adolescence is over--which, as the club-inclined especially find, by no means brings an end to romantic drama. More than Britney Spears's trashy coo or Christina Aguilera's trained projection, the sincere affect of Robyn Is Here presaged straightforward Brits Adele and Duffy, only with quieter soul flourishes and a more boisterous sense of fun. In 2005, the Konichiwa-launching Robyn turned up the fun--pugnaciously so. But irresistible as the chirpy boasts and skanky beats of "Konichiwa Bitches," "Cobrastyle," and "Bum Like You" seem to wise guys like me, it was the addition of the breathy, emotional "With Every Heartbeat" that put Robyn's reincarnation across in Britain and the States. And it's the heartsong element that gives Body Talk's faux trilogy its heft and staying power.

In the trilogy, all of which materialized within a six-month span, 18 songs total repeat (or not) in remixed (or merely re-released) versions over two budget albums and a regular one comprising 31 tracks total. Robyn says she chose that route because she wanted the freedom to recharge on tour before finalizing all her new material in the studio; Cherrytree's Martin Kierszynbaum says he hoped to service Clubworld's hotbed of instaneity with the speed website comments demanded. Figure they're both telling the truth and that, as Robyn has said, she won't do it again. But it definitely didn't produce the best of all possible albums. Although I ranked the grand finale my No. 17 album of 2010, I enjoyed Pt. 1 at least as much. So at Christmas, to amuse my younger friends and educate their parents, I rejiggered the three Body Talks into a mixtape yclept Robyrt's Robyn that would have finished top three for sure.

My tracklist, which you can find below, highlights only her strongest heartsongs and pursues a narrative logic in which the hurting Robyn of "With Every Heartbeat" proceeds from the pugnacious Robyn of "Konichiwa Bitches"--in which the compassionate Robyn of "Cry When You Get Older," a Pt. 1 reach-out left off the finale, proceeds from the defiant Robyn of the asterisks-in-original "Don't F***ing Tell Me What to Do," which leads Pt. 1 but not the finale. It moves from three Clubworld-specific manifestos to the broken-up, chin-up solitude-as-solidarity anthem "Dancing on My Own" to the story of a love affair that you can glean from the titles: "Get Myself Together," "Hang With Me," "Call Your Girlfriend," "Stars 4-Ever," "Indestructible." Of these the prize is "Call Your Girlfriend," where the pain Robyn is feeling belongs to the ex she's replacing. If "Tell her that the only way her heart will mend/Is when she learns to love again" is kind advice, "Don't you tell her how I give you something that you never even knew you missed" is even kinder. But it's also vain. The woman can write.

After "Cry When You Get Older," in which Robyn counsels the bereft young of both sexes like the big sister she's grown up to be, come five songs in which the pugnacity of the three openers takes on a social dimension, which for a second-generation artist in a putative welfare state seems to come naturally. These climax with "We Dance to the Beat," where the title repeats some 60 times with ever-changing tags: the beat of "silent mutation," "raw talent wasted," "bad kissers clicking teeth," "consolidating assets," "suburbia burning," "an eviction next door," "a billion charges of endorphin," "a love lost and then won back," "source code and conjuring," "gravity giving us a break." As a coda there's a folk song sung sweetly in Swedish, just to remind us where Robin Carlsson comes from and who she's been.

Electro means not just electric but electronic--keyboard beats and tunelets, no guitars, horns, or violins. Konichiwa Robyn's grooves are choppier, her songs full of lists. And, except on the folk song, the voice is more babyish than when she was teenpop, often filtered or treated--more Betty Boop than Heidi. So among other things, she's a cartoon, which is fine with her. This is a proud habitué of the same Clubworld outsiders consider inauthentic, amoral, and even post-human--and that she knows to be "a grown-up playground where people just let everything hang out and get stupid drunk." She shares a gleeful duet with a doggish Snoop Dogg and esteems her gay audience because "feeling like an outsider is something that gay culture naturally always had to consider"; she goes out of her way to speak to, as Robyn's "Dream On" specifies, "Thugs and bad men/Punks and lifers/Locked up interns/Pigs and snitches." No one this pugnacious can be much of a pushover or sentimentalist. But for damn sure she's not inauthentic, amoral, or post-human.

Robyn is a muscular, thick-waisted pixie who couldn't have stood more than five-four in the platform workboots she sported at Radio City. On a scene that adores glamour, she was conspicuously pragmatic, with a band comprising two drummers and two keyboard players and costume changes limited to taking her jacket off; her only accessory was white denim cutoffs split into a skirt that from a distance resembled a T-shirt tied around her blue-and-gray camo bodysuit. Initially I regretted the slight sexualization of the calisthenic dance moves she'd pumped out at Webster Hall. But having giggled at how she first bent from the waist in the classic chorus-girl receiving position and later humped the floor like she had her own penis, I eventually decided I was being a prude about her playful grinds--not so much about sexual display as about what it takes to please an audience she called "the biggest crowd I've ever pulled by myself." We were all together and we were all dancing by ourselves. It was only New York City, the nearest America gets to Sweden unless Vermont counts. But she had the U.S. audience share she's earned, and every one of us was different.

Robert's Robyn:

  1. Don't F***ing Tell Me What to Do
  2. None of Dem
  3. Dancehall Queen
  4. Dancing on My Own (Radio Version)
  5. Get Myself Together
  6. Hang With Me
  7. Call Your Girlfriend
  8. Stars 4-Ever
  9. Indestructible
  10. Cry When You Get Older
  11. Include Me Out
  12. Fembot
  13. U Should Know Better
  14. Criminal Intent
  15. We Dance to the Beat
  16. Jag Vet En Dejlig Rosa

Barnes & Noble Review, February 16, 2011