Electro Feminisms: Robyn, Torch Singer
I've written about a couple of Robyn songs for the robot posts, but not really touched on what I think she's doing as an artist generally. One of the most interesting ways to view Swedish singer is as a kind of electro torch singer. On some of her best songs, Robyn is, as the Alcazar song goes, crying at the discotheque.
“Be Mine” (video above, lyrics available here) is I think the first point where the key elements of Robyn's uptempo ballads emerge—the rising cello arpeggios, the string flourishes. “It's a good thing tears never show in the pouring rain” is as good an opening line as I have ever heard, a mix of wry knowingness and not-so-veiled sadness. Obliquely it reminds me of another wonderful in medias res opening in Prince's “Little Red Corvette” opening verse—“I guess I should have known by the way you parked your car sideways that it wouldn't last.” “Be Mine” is about the pain of a crush, of knowing that someone never was and never will be yours, and still having the unwilling attachment.
It's the collaboration with Kleerup on "With Every Heartbeat" (video above, lyrics here) though where we really see the full-blown electro ballad refined, this time with Robyn leaving a relationship that isn't working. The strings still swell, but the cello arpeggios have been replaced by 303s and the spritely breakbeat with a pounding four-to-the-floor kick drum. Strangely for a house song there isn't a snare or clap on the 2 and the 4, all of the emphasis is in the synths and strings, which build over the course of the song. “Things will never change” in this relationship but Robyn “doesn't look back.”
Then, we get to the curious breakdown at about 2:30 where the strings overwhelm everything for awhile, like Robyn has been overwhelmed by the emotion of it all. Finally, the song's concluding motif appears, “it hurts with every heartbeat” which is repeated for the next minute. The quaver in Robyn's voice turns “it” into a two syllable word, drawing it out. She's says she doesn't look back, but she's not through the pain yet.
“Dancing On My Own,” (video above, lyrics here) the first single from Body Talk Part 1 takes this even further. This time, the lyrics take the subtext of the previous attempts at the electro ballad to the surface—staging the action explicitly at the nightclub. Robyn's watching an ex kiss a new paramour from the corner of the club. She's dancing for her ex, dancing for his (presumably) attention, but he doesn't see her. “Stilettos and broken bottles, I'm spinning around in circles,” trapped in the looped of thwarted desire. So she “keeps dancing on my own,” dances through the pain—and it's only that where she finds a resolution of sorts.
“Hang With Me” (video above, lyrics here) originally appeared as a heartbreaking acoustic ballad on Body Talk Part 1, but was reswizzled into her by-now familiar formula of heavily arpeggiated sad house songs. This time, finally, after all those crushes, Robyn's warning someone not to fall for her. “Don't fall recklessly headlessly in love with me” because it'll be heartbreaking for all concerned. And yet, I think there's the awareness that it'll probably go down that way, a kind of acceptance that it's a risk.
Which leads me, of course, to “Indestructible,” (video above, lyrics here) the single from Body Talk Part 3 where Robyn is going to love like she's never been hurt before, reassuring herself that she's indestructible, knowing again that she's more brittle than she'd like.
So what is all this balladeering in aid of? I think Robyn's tweaking the generic boundaries of pop house music—introducing sadness and unfulfilled desire as primary motivating emotions, but mitigated by the dancefloor pulse of drums and synths. Instead of the ecstatic diva, we have the melancholic torch singer, yearning, unsatisfied, but at the same time resilient and determined. Robyn gives us a space to identify with our losses, with dispossession, and with the necessary flawed work of moving past it. Even when it hurts with every heartbeat.
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