The terrain of pop has been changed; transmogrified, even, over the past two years. As the oddity of spectacle coalesces with the saccharine electronic and processed beats of neo-pop (or for M.I.A. and Joanna Newsom ‘Ibiza music’) to propel a more popular sense of “subversity” to the World’s charts. No one probably knows this better than Robyn, she pre-dates the omnipresent Lady Gaga by a few years and brought to the fold something that was, at the time, refreshing. Stranger than most popstars in that she had reinvented herself – more retrospection – from her sprightly inklings as a (somewhat failed) Nineties popstar of the American mould.
Failure, it seems, is the best medicine for reinvention; a bigger catalyst for change than success, it allows you to purge yourself of the bad influences that sullied your past. Robyn is best seen as someone who used the major music system as a conduit to find herself in a better place: musically, economically, and creatively. Although this Robyn firmly has her two svenska feet planted on the pop firmament. To this end the eponymous Robyn was an embracement of a definitive Western ‘pop,’ it abridged the Americanisms (i.e. “urbanized”) with a more European sense of identity, D.I.Y., and exploration. And an album that the music critics both in Europe and across the pond were in thrill to. If we can call Robyn her “debut” album then there is a high anticipation of the “sophomore” for a number of reasons; firstly, this is an album that has to face-up to the immense critical wealth of Robyn; and, secondly, and most importantly, how does Robyn progress her sound now that it has been usurped by more commercialised versions of herself? How does she outweird and marginalise herself in the context of the Gagaist School of Pop? Because this seems to be the logical conclusion of the embryonic pop 2.0 she spearheaded in the mid-Noughties? Being incendiary is the status quo, so where next for Robyn 2.2? (I should caveat that this is also a problem for La Gaga post-Fame Monster, and the hoard of identikit lemmings…) Unlike M.I.A. who can genuflect to a genuine politicised version of pop, the Swedish popstrel is stuck in her own success.
Maybe this is the reasoning behind her attempts to question the way she disseminates her music/creativity – something that is stuck in the orthodoxy of one album in one year – by supposedly releasing three albums in 2010 all entitled Body Talk because “[i]t’s more about songs now.” So whilst I am going to try and review Body Talk Part 1 I guess it would be more useful to review the Body Talk project in toto? Who knows!? Maybe it will be more revelatory than the album I currently have in front of me (designed to look like a promotional copy of her album; y’know D-I-Y-esque?) Or maybe I could allude to the fact that Body Talk might be more dynamic as we get to parts 2 & 3; like a diary: it evolves with you?
But let me get right to the heart of it, Body Talk Part 1 is both refreshing and frustrating: it doesn’t really sound any different to the poppier elements of Robyn, but what it does is enhance those euphoric moments to the nth degree. It also does this weird mixture of pubescent musings of issues that arise for twentysomethings. The first single Dancing on My Own repeats the refrain ‘…I am all messed-up/I am out of line/I am in the corner watching you kiss HER/I am right over here why can’t you see ME?/I keep dancing on my own’ Against the robotic arpeggios the lyricism presents the humanist side of Robyn, she is frustrated with herself, why can’t she find that guy? Why isn’t he with her instead? Something I know a legion of girls (and probably guys) – particularly those careerist twentysomethings – would attest to feeling. Loneliness in a globalised world is still loneliness nonetheless. Musically, though, it still plays into Heartbeat whilst extending its emoting.
Don’t F*cking Tell Me What to Do is minimalist instrumentation set against maximal attitude, it’s the agit-pop moment: aural revolt against the hegemony – mass media, stereotypes, even herself. Fembot uses the cyclical progress of technology vis-à-vis the ageing process. Acute metaphors pervade this album and show that Robyn is quite the astute lyricist, especially in the minutiae. The Diplo-produced Dancehall Queen is an exercise in parody which all pop artists seem to have to do once in their career; it bubbles with fun, and is one of the few moments which doesn’t really say much, she’s inhibiting an alien culture (a bit like the white South African girl group Clout’s Sunshine Baby.) While some artists present the mid-album lull, Robyn presents reggae-lite, bubbly synth fun as a distraction from the emotionality of the first half. Hang With Me is quite beautiful and allows Robyn to test her own voice, with subtle melisma and her flitting between different ranges for greater effect, combined with the incessantly repetitive piano-arrangement, used in the same way Kate Bush uses it to present true oddity, emotions and uninhibited outpourings.
Some tracks come across a little cringe, like Cry When you Get Older’s chorus which tries to purport matriarchal advice to a young girl. Hmmm. The Röyksopp collab None of Dem lacks the emotional capacity of its predecessors, caught up in a weird sort of techno which meanders quite boringly. Also, given my lack of Swedish, I cannot quite comprehend the gist of Jag Vet En Dejlig Rosa, but musically it provides restraint and pensiveness at the end of the album against the more traditional piano composition of Björn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn & John.
Musically it may not be as adventurous as I would have wanted but Robyn gains ground from the current offenders of weirdness through starting to question her world in a different way – this is a far more philosophical Robyn, and she wants you to know that. Because spectacle is only a form of subversion when it plays into some sort of ideological apparatus, Robyn’s presentation of emotive pop strangulates the triangulation of Gaga’s meta-pop. Finally we’re going back to the more thoughtful pop of the Eighties, music like Yazoo’s Situation, Tones on Tail’s Rain, and one-hit wonder Q Lazzarus’s Goodbye Horses. She has moved from oddball pop to a more intro-outro-spective pop whilst losing none of the euphoria and expressiveness. And let’s be honest, the human mind is weirder (and darker) than any Gagaist proposition could ever be. Let’s hope that the Body Talk series really is like a musical diary.