So this morning, Lindsay, my fabulous editor here at NewNewNext, mentioned that today is Robyn‘s birthday. She didn’t know if I was into Robyn or anything, but she said I could commemorate the occasion if I wanted to.
And I had one of those moments where it feels like the whole world is slapping you five.
Because you guys? Me and Robyn? We’re like beans and rice. Like chocolate and peanut butter. Like a terrible break-up and an entire jar of Nutella that gets salty with tears while you eat it with your fingers.
In other words: Robyn is one of my all-time favorite artists. You know how iTunes tracks your most-played songs? My entire top 5 is by Robyn. I love her music because it fuses dope beats with emotional vulnerability. Because it puts a human soul inside sick electronic pop. I love her music because it creates this “Robyn persona” of an effortless badass who can still get her heart broken. Of a woman who can defend the world’s outcasts, tell her new man that he’d better break up with his old girlfriend in a sensitive way, and still reflect on how hard it is to be female in the modern world.
From the very beginning, I’ve been draw to this mixture of sound and story.
Way back in 1997, I saw the video for her first American single, “Do You Know (What It Takes).” (Despite being better remembered, “Show Me Love” was her second hit.) In case you don’t remember it, here it is:
Compared to her later work, the video and song seem like straightforward pop, but back then? Robyn was the first person to have an American hit with Max Martin, the genius producer who crafted the sound of everyone from Britney Spears to Katy-Perry to Backstreet Boys to Usher. His bouncy synths got their start right here, and at the time, they jumped off the radio.
Plus, Robyn herself was just so awesome. In 1997, pop was dominated by Puffy’s greed rap and the fun-but-silly sounds of the Spice Girls. Robyn blazed in with a refreshing swagger. And in this video? She literally stops traffic so she can climb on her van and sing about how fabulous she is. I remember being impressed by that… and also by her hair. And that sweet double microphone.
And that was it for a while. In America, at least, Robyn faded from view for eight years, until one day in 2005, I read about her song “Be Mine!” And suddenly, I was back in love. Once again, the sound was fresh and surprising, built almost completely on violently played strings. It was minimalist dance music that used Robyn’s vocals and some well-placed percussion to feel enormous. It also created this persona of a woman who is remarkably articulate about her broken heart. That spoken-word monologue about the scarf? And how she gave it to him, but now his new girl is wearing it? Amazing.
And then there’s this video, which established Robyn’s willingness to make herself look bizarre for the sake of her work. There’s a performance art quality here, and as we see Robyn try on one strange costume after another, we’re reminded that underneath, she’s bald, broken, and vulnerable.
There’s another video for this song, but this one will always be my favorite.
Robyn followed “Be Mine!” with the indispensable album Robyn, which collected the best tracks from some European-only releases. I love the entire thing. There are just too many classics to count.
And then came Body Talk, which cemented Robyn’s place in my heart. I have tons of “favorite tracks” on that three-part series of releases, including “Dancing on My Own,” “Call Your Girlfriend,” “Include Me Out,” and “Cry When You Get Older.” But my enduring sweetheart is the electro version of “Hang With Me.” The melody is ludicrously beautiful, and the lyrics tell the story of someone who is warily accepting someone else’s love. She doesn’t quite trust him (or herself), but if he can just be nice to her for a while, if he can just support her, then she’ll let him stick around. Sure, she still assumes that he’s only after sex, but maybe, just maybe, she can get over that. There’s more hope in the soaring music than in the tentative words, but that contrast just makes the song more exciting.
So happy birthday to Robyn. Let’s all celebrate by listening to her songs again and again.
Mark Blankenship tweets as @IAmBlankenship. His top 5 iTunes songs, in order, are “Fembot,” “Dancing On My Own,” “Cry When You Get Older,” “Call Your Girlfriend,” and “Hang With Me”