Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
Robyn began her career as a teen pop artist at a time when Toni Braxton and En Vogue were household names and Britney Spears had yet to break through. But during the 15 years that followed her two Max Martin-produced top 10 hits, the mononymous Swede kept her short platinum hair and remade everything else. She pivoted from the R&B that made her famous to a more experimental electro-pop sound, and turned herself into the queen of crying-in-the-club music, first with Robyn singles “Be Mine!” and “With Every Heartbeat,” then with her crowning dancefloor elegy, “Dancing on My Own.”
In 2009, Robyn was in the midst of making the songs that would become the acclaimed 2010 Body Talk series. Producer Klas Åhlund was back in the mix after working on Robyn, but for one of the songs Robyn was toying with, she reached out to Patrik Berger, who contributed to 1999’s My Truth and the 2005 self-titled set, for a different perspective.
In preparation for their session at his Stockholm studio, Berger made a slew of electronic tracks and beats for Robyn to write over, but she had other ideas. “When she got to the studio, the first thing she said was, ‘Can we sit down and write a song on an acoustic guitar today? I’m so tired of writing over electronic beats and tracks,’” says Berger.
What they came up with was an acoustic “campfire” version of “Dancing on My Own.” “In the beginning it was more of a country song, almost,” Berger recalls. “It was very simple. It had like three chords.” They fattened things up during production, only to realize that they preferred the original and stripped it all back down, though they swapped the acoustic guitar for synthesizers with frayed edges and a beat that aimed for a TKO.
Robyn and Berger filled a handful of notebooks as they tried to come up with the right words to express the god-awful feeling of a woman who is watching her ex get with someone new at a club. It was important to them not to sugar-coat the experience. “We wanted to find that bittersweet emotion of actually making the feeling it feels like if you’re being left by somebody, not trying to act like you’re strong and ‘I’m gonna move on and I’m too good for you,’ that kind of crap,” says Berger. “It was more about, ‘It feels like s–t and I’m not gonna be the best person now. I’m just gonna be miserable…’ You can’t stop yourself.”
The resulting words convey all of the messy moments of rejection — loss, pettiness, hurt, self-destruction, voyeurism, pride, acceptance — with each phrase intended to read like “a little poem,” says Berger. The lines are so uncomfortably honest, they would make you want to crawl into a hole and shield your eyes if not for the resuscitating rhythm and triumphant melody that turn the pain into pleasure.
“It is sort of an empowerment feeling,” Berger says. “It’s not only darkness. It’s also a new start. So you gotta cheer up a little bit and move on. ‘I’m sad, but it’s all right somehow.’”
The song was officially released in June 2010, but it started making the rounds and breaking hearts that April. A video, choreographed by Maria “Decida” Wahlberg, followed in May. The year prior, while Decida was at her parents’ house for Easter, she found herself in her old childhood bedroom working on moves for “Dancing on My Own” while remembering her own experiences as a teenager. “There was a lot of angry energy,” she says, recalling how she channeled Rosie Perez’s dance sequence in the opening credits to Do the Right Thing. “[Perez] was like the spirit animal of the Body Talk album,” Decida says, “and you can spot that in the video.”
The video shows a serious-faced Robyn standing in a harshly lit rehearsal space and a darkened club. But there is a moment of levity that comes when Robyn turns her back to the camera and feigns intimacy with another person by wrapping her arms around herself. “That was actually my idea. Making out with yourself dance, I called it,” says Decida. Robyn still uses that move today when she does the song live, to the delight of audiences.
“Dancing on My Own” never appeared on the Hot 100 when it came out in 2010, but in the time since its release, it’s taken on a life of its own. Lena Dunham danced to it in Girls. Calum Scott’s cover snuck onto the Hot 100 in 2017. And nine years after the song’s release, it finally reached Platinum status.
Robyn’s resurgence with “Dancing on My Own” showed that the decade’s dance-pop stars could still find success after their initial high-charting days were over. Other artists, like Carly Rae Jepsen after “Call Me Maybe,” have followed this template and grown new legions of fans, proving that it’s never too late to pivot and find an audience, as long as you spark a connection and make them feel something, like a cathartic moment on the dancefloor.
“She’s the perfect artist for that kind of song,” says Berger. “She can make pop music feel very emotional.”