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Dancing on Her Own: The Exhilarating Singularity of Robyn

For more than 20 years, the Swedish pop iconoclast has been charting new ground and standing alone. On her new album, ‘Honey,’ she’s as independent—and brilliant—as ever.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Robyn is alone. In the back of the bus, in the desolate corner of the dance floor, and—in “Call Your Girlfriend,” one of the best and most iconic music videos of the century so far—in a cavernous abandoned gymnasium, illuminated by pulsating light that changes colors according to her feelings like a giant mood ring worn on the heart. She is dressed, in the video, like the world’s most stylish bird: fluffy cropped sweater, twiggy printed leggings, and platform sneakers that make her seem to hover a few inches above the ground. As she sings, her accompanying movements are at turns aggressive, humorous, and unabashedly sensual—at one point, aided by her moon shoes, she does a fluid backward somersault that ends with her humping the ground and then, in the next moment, rolling across the ground like a playful child. It’s ecstatic. The comedian Taran Killam has performed a lovingly observed parody, and YouTube is cluttered with step-by-step homages and tutorials (“Robyn’s ‘Call Your Girlfriend’—Learn the dance!”) which is at once apt and entirely beside the point: The power of the choreography and the one-take video itself comes from how personal, singular, and idiosyncratic these moves feel, like a spontaneous overflowing of Robyn’s strange heart. The album it appeared on was titled, fittingly, Body Talk.

“I came to dance, not to socialize,” she sings on another song from that record, “Dancehall Queen.” It’s a sentiment that might seem prickly and isolationist compared to the communal spirit of mainstream American pop. Robyn was, constitutionally, not doing it for the likes, which could have felt paradoxical on an album so concerned with the aesthetics of technology. “Sure, the internet is the future,” she said in a 2010 interview, “but what we do on the internet is still very primal. It’s all about connecting to other people, sharing emotion.”

“Connection” is still a buzzword in our tech-crazed culture, though we talk less often about the motivation to connect often coming from a sense of loneliness. Robyn’s music sought to strip away the stigma of feeling solitary, to turn loneliness into something triumphant. And so a single background dancer in the “Call Your Girlfriend” video would have killed the mood. (Although there is some added resonance from knowing that the person behind the camera, the director Max Vitali, was in fact her partner at the time of shooting.) Something about the video—and the song, and to some extent Robyn’s entire freewheeling career—speaks to both the exhilaration and the loneliness inherent in charting new territory. There she is in that stark landscape, moving with her own gravity: The first pop star on the moon.

She was born in Stockholm in 1979, three years before ABBA broke up. Like her career, Robin Carlsson’s childhood was singular and a little bit strange: For the first seven years of her life, she toured with her parents’ experimental theater troupe, and while it primed her to become a natural performer, the rhythms of that lifestyle made it difficult for her to make friends or fit in at school. “It wasn’t easy for me to socialize with other kids when I got back from touring,” she said in a recent New York Times interview. “I felt different. Like we all do, but I didn’t feel like I got all the codes.” She wrote her first song—and just as crucially, her first sad song—when she was 11 years old. It was about her parents’ recent divorce.

Why does so much great, open-hearted-yet-melancholic pop music come from Sweden? Are there still traces of ABBA in the water? In an interview in John Seabrook’s 2015 book The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, Robyn’s eventual creative partner Klas Ahlund put forth a theory: “Swedes are very musical, and they love to write songs,” he said. “But it’s a big country, and it has very few people in it. So you had these farmers out there who were good at writing songs, but had no one to sing them. Songwriting was just a thing you did on your own when you were watching the cows, a kind of meditation. You didn’t focus as much on your ability as a performer as you did in the structure and craft of the songs. Which is really not the case in the U.S., where your charm and your voice and your powers as a performer come immediately into play.”

And so it was probably less remarkable to a Swedish audience than an American one that Robyn has a co-writing credit on each of the songs on her debut album, even though it was released in 1995, when she was only 16. The record was called Robyn Is Here, but the title in retrospect feels like something of a lie: It was an attempt to brand Robyn as a sultry, post-TLC pop-R&B singer, in the vein of fellow 16-year-old Aaliyah, who’d found success with her debut Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number the year before. The recent mega-success of Swedish pop group Ace of Base—whose 1993 album The Sign sold more than 9 million copies in the U.S.—had also proved Scandinavian pop to be a lucrative export to the States. And so, in 1997, after it was a hit at home, Robyn Is Here was given an American makeover and released in the U.S., where it spawned two hits: the sassy, proto-Xtina “Do You Know (What It Takes)” and, more enduringly, the soulful mid-tempo ballad “Show Me Love.” (Ironically, Robyn had changed the professional spelling of her name because of Robin S., who had a 1993 hit with a house classic also called “Show Me Love.”)

She worked on those two singles with the Swedish producer Denniz Pop (who had produced some of Ace of Base’s biggest international hits) and his protégé Max Martin, the latter of whom would go on to become the most powerful and influential pop architect of the new millennium. In the fresh-faced, plaintive-voiced teenager Robyn, Pop and Martin were looking for a blank slate that they could pass off as the archetypal girl next door. But the increasingly dissatisfied Robyn was out to prove, in the words of a song she’d eventually write when she gained more control over her career, “I’m nothing like her. I know there’s no such girl.”

Robyn’s follow-up to Robyn Is Here, 1999’s My Truth, was never released in the States for a reason that has, in retrospect, only bolstered her feminist credentials: She refused to remove two songs which were about having an abortion. Still, on the international stage, there was some confusion about how to market a pop star as independent and strong-willed as Robyn. She was eventually shuffled to Jive Records—home to ’NSync and Britney Spears—and recorded another album that never saw the light of day in the U.S., 2002’s Don’t Stop the Music. (Some of the videos are on YouTube, and they’re fascinating artifacts of the TRL era.) Robyn, in retrospect, called the album “a big compromise.” She later recalled, “I felt like it wasn’t fun anymore. Once you make the record and you give it to the record company, it’s not your record anymore! And I hated that situation. I was going backwards. I wasn’t doing what I wanted to.”

And so she once again turned away from the American pop market and back to Sweden, where a shadowy electro duo called the Knife had just released their landmark second album, Deep Cuts. This was what she wanted to do. She called up the Dreijer siblings who comprised the group and said she wanted to work with them. The result was the glistening, diamond-tough “Who’s That Girl?” It was a direct rebuttal to the dream that so many producers and label heads wanted her to be selling in the first place. “Good girls are happy and satisfied,” she sang. “I won’t stop asking, until I die.”

Her label was unimpressed, but all the better: It gave Robyn a chance to buy herself out of her contract and—with the independent-minded Knife as her inspiration—start her own label, Konichiwa Records. She linked up with Ahlund, a member of the popular Swedish rock band Teddybears, and together they forged a confident, minimalist electronic sound. (He has described their process as one of removing all excessive elements of a song until it “nearly collapses, like Jenga.”) Her 2005 release Robyn, which she has said she considers her true debut album, set the template for Body Talk: The harder and more mechanical the beats, the more vulnerable Robyn was in her vocals and lyrics. In collaborating with Ahlund on her self-titled record and the three consecutively released EPs that would eventually become Body Talk, Robyn finally achieved singularity: It was like they were reverse-engineering robots connected to human hearts.

In the time since Body Talk, she hadn’t stopped making and releasing music, but she seemed more interested in working with collaborators. First came an EP with the Norwegian electronic duo Röyksopp; a year later she released a house-inspired mini-album with La Bagatelle Magique, a group she had formed with the keyboardist Markus Jägerstedt and her longtime friend, the producer Christian Falk. These releases featured several excellent songs (like “Monument” and “Love Is Free”) but their collaborative nature did not square with the idea many people had developed of Robyn during the Body Talk years: the solitary artist, dancing on her own. When I saw the New York date on her 2014 tour with Röyksopp, she played a short set of solo hits before her “headlining” set with Röyksopp—much to the consternation of many in the crowd, who would have preferred to hear songs like “Call Your Girlfriend” and “Dancing on My Own” as encores, rather than tucked in the middle of the evening.

Then on March 19, 2017, over the credits of the sixth episode of the final season of Girls, a new solo Robyn song played for the first time in years. It had the insistent percussion and Moroder-like synth line of a Body Talk track, but the lyric was something of a tease: “No, you’re not gonna get what you need, but baby I have what you want, come get your honey.” New solo music from Robyn seemed imminent. But then, for another year and a half—a lifetime in this era of instant gratification—none came.

It turns out that Robyn was going through some shit. Falk died of cancer in 2014, she and her longtime partner Vitali separated for two years, and, as a result, Robyn started finding it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. It was a trying time, dealing with so much grief, but she recognizes now it was a period when she was intensely “in tune” with her emotions. “I can also sometimes miss being really sad,” she said in a recent interview. “There’s a closeness to your feelings—it’s special, and maybe a spiritual experience in some way.”

Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival 2011 - Day 1
Robyn
Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images

She was not feeling particularly inspired to make music until, one night at a club in Los Angeles, she heard “XTC,” a dreamy, slow-burning eight-minute track by the German producer DJ Koze. It’s largely wordless, except for a spoken-word passage in which a woman delivers some cryptic recollections. “I heard you say once that a lie is sweet in the beginning and bitter in the end,” she says. “And truth is bitter in the beginning, and sweet in the end.” Like the Knife’s Deep Cuts all those years ago, this song ignited something in Robyn. It suggested a new direction. She was ready to make music again.

Honey, her new nine-track album, is a hallucinatory swirl of the bitter and the sweet. It is bookended by reflections on loss: The opening track, the pulsating and unabashedly sad “Missing U,” is the most traditional Robyn song, but unlike “Call Your Girlfriend” or “Dancing on My Own” it does not transform its pain into something more palpably triumphant. “This part of you, this clock that stopped, this residue, it’s all I’ve got,” she sings, her voice warbling a little more than it ever did on Body Talk. Another highlight is the lithe, disco-inflected closing track “Ever Again”: “Never gonna be broken-hearted ever again,” Robyn sings to herself, but chords of unease linger after the song is over. She sounds weary, unsure—a far cry from the sassy cyborg of, say, 2005’s “Handle Me.”

But there is a sense of wisdom and acceptance to this rebooted Robyn that makes Honey feel like the most mature album of her career—a commendable feat when you consider how many people in the industry believe the term “mature pop album” to be an oxymoron. “Her situation highlights one of the paradoxes of pop: so much of the business is built on selling the kind of self-belief that only truly comes with age, yet few artists are allowed to mature on their own terms,” wrote the critic Laura Snapes in a perceptive recent profile of Robyn. “Longevity—especially for women—often depends on a willingness to protect an enduring brand.”

Robyn, though, is a shapeshifter, and she’s never been comfortable with the idea of staying in one place long enough to become an “enduring brand.” One irony of her career is that, two decades since Robyn Is Here, her sound has more in common with Robin S.’s “Show Me Love” than her own. As Love Is Free foreshadowed, Robyn has become enamored of house music (most explicitly on Honey’s “Between the Lines”), and she’s even found in it a philosophy of life. “Club music taught me so much about myself,” she told the Times. “Having patience, or appreciating a different type of way of taking in life.”

For all its sumptuous charms, I suspect that Honey will disappoint some of the people who were simply waiting eight years for Robyn to make Body Talk Pt. 4—although anyone who was counting on that to happen doesn’t understand Robyn’s restless spirit. The same itchy longing for freedom that created Body Talk also ensures that it will never be replicated, at least not by Robyn herself.

Accordingly, some people were taken aback by the version of “Honey” that Robyn finally released as a single last month. It’s different from the Girls version—more airy, as though several more Jenga blocks had been removed since its original conception. But it’s certainly closer to the sparse bliss of what Robyn was trying to achieve: “It’s not produced or written as a normal pop song,” she said of the song. “It is totally based on this idea of club music … When you’re listening to club music, there’s no reward. The reward isn’t, ‘Oh, here’s the chorus, here’s the lyric that makes sense.’ You have to enjoy what it is. You have to enjoy that there’s no conclusion.”

With any luck, that too will be true of Robyn’s career. She is playing a long game—which means she’s still charting new ground in pop, standing alone, and excavating her deepest truths with her bare hands. A lie might be sweet in the beginning but, as Robyn has reminded us, it’s bitter in the end. Honey tastes like something else entirely.