Robyn Is the Low-Key Fairy Godmother of Pop In 2017
Lorde’s appearance on Saturday Night Live back in March was a big moment for a young pop star proving that she’s much more than a one-hit wonder. Dressed in a gauzy, Miss Havisham-esque bridal number, she sat at a piano decorated with trinkets from the studio next to partner in crime Jack Antonoff. One such item was a framed photograph of Robyn, gazing on like a particularly supportive aunt or a fairy godmother.
In a relatively quiet year for the Swedish musician, her influence still permeates the airwaves. Her last solo full-length, Body Talk, was released in 2010, but somehow it’s still the future of pop music.
Robyn did debut one new track in 2017, “Honey,” during the final season of Girls. It served as a bookend to one of the show’s most memorable musical moments from the first season, when Hannah Horvath danced on her own. In an Instagram post, Robyn detailed how Lena Dunham (who happens to be dating Antonoff) selected the frantic, ebullient “Honey” from a few unfinished tracks from a forthcoming LP: ”It wasn't ready to be released but I finished this version for her and Girls.”
A couple months later, Lorde and Antonoff were sitting at the piano paying tribute to Robyn again at Governors Ball Music Festival for a one-two punch of “Liability” and a stripped-down “Hang With Me” cover. “I wanted to play you a song, and I feel like the DNA of the song is not so far from Melodrama,” she told the crowd. ”Because love is hard, you know? Love is real hard! And you gotta do your best. This song is about doing right in love.”
Last year at the same festival, the duo were spectators during Robyn’s set, a series of remixes that proved somewhat impenetrable to the casual listener. Audience members who just wanted to see “Call Your Girlfriend” and have it sound like the album version dropped off to check out The Strokes, who were far more accommodating to the nostalgic crowds. Those who stuck around were treated to one hell of a dance party, though.
Melodrama, the pop album to beat this year, is about embracing your messiest self while remaining vigilant in your quest for light and love. It documents heartbreak in a way that’s skeptical of the rise and revels in the fall. It also defies rules religiously followed by some of Robyn’s fellow Swedish pop royals like Max Martin (who had a hand in Robyn’s star-making 1997 song “Show Me Love”) to create something a little stranger. “I have a strong awareness of the rules -- 60 percent of the time I follow them; 40 percent, I don’t," Lorde said.
To Lorde, perfection is not an equation the way it is to some. But if she had to place her finger on it, she’d point to “Dancing on My Own,” the song she hypothetically selected to “send into space to live forever” in a Tumblr post from May 2015, just as she was getting to work on Melodrama. “It’s happy and sad, fiery and independent but vulnerable and small, joyous even when a heart is breaking,” she wrote. That’s high praise, but the impact the song had on her personal relationship with music is even more profound, “And I think it was [listening to the song] when I realized I’m going to be in love with music for the rest of my life. It’s going to be the most important friendship I’ll ever have.”
Robyn’s approach is different from Sia’s hidden-in-plain-sight brand of stardom, though they’ve both swerved away from the constant scrutiny awaiting female pop stars. Robyn doesn’t interact much with mainstream music. Instead of writing songs for artists like Katy Perry and Rihanna, she prefers to collaborate with Scandinavian techno artists like Röyksopp and Mr. Tophat, releasing an EP, Trust Me, with the latter earlier this year.
Perry could use a little bit of what Robyn’s got. Her Witness rollout superficially took a few pages from Robyn’s book. First step: going platinum and shearing her locks. Katy Perry 2.0 (or the latest Katheryn Hudson reboot) looks like plenty of famous people itching for a reinvention (Miley Cyrus in 2013, Justin Bieber, and Kristen Stewart, to name a few).
But Robyn -- who opened for Perry's Teenage Dream Tour -- seems like the most likely inspiration, right down to the silver sequined body suit she wore to conclude her Witness World Wide album drop livestream (Robyn never met a metallic pantsuit she didn’t like). Over the course of an entire weekend, Perry broadcast everything from therapy sessions and lessons on cultural appropriation to pancake flipping. It was Perry’s version of Robyn’s rallying cry -- “Fembots have feelings, too” -- asking fans and detractors alike to see the woman behind the glitter.
In recent years, Janelle Monae picked up the fembot torch with concept albums from the perspective of a sentient android. Although she hasn’t released music this year, she has a higher profile than ever after scene-stealing turns in two Oscar-nominated movies, Moonlight and Hidden Figures.
But if there’s a clear heir to Robyn’s particular cult pop star status, it's Carly Rae Jepsen, another Antonoff collaborator who happens to be sporting a cropped platinum hairdo these days. Jepsen, like her Swedish elder (and Lorde, for that matter), had one major commercial hit that was hard to follow up on top 40, but nevertheless opened the gates for a fervent fan base. What they all have in common is a devotion to pop music as less of a formula and more of a sacred space. It’s about dancing like music is oxygen -- recklessly, headlessly -- in your bedroom or on the dance floor. It’s about vulnerability as an artist’s greatest strength.
That's a lesson central to the work of Perfume Genius, an artist responsible for one of the most visionary albums of the year. Coincidentally, he recently tweeted, “We need Robyn.” And that’s true. Fortunately, her stamp is everywhere.