Isn’t it weird to imagine Robyn as a ‘90s pop star, dressed in ill-fitting jump suits, backed by a squad of military-styled dancers, making awkward appearances on MTV shows and trying to appear less rambunctious than she wanted to be? If Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera had reinvented themselves as sweethearts of the indie-pop scene while still retaining huge mainstream success, cynical music writers would start speaking in tongues. But Robyn’s transition to the boldest — and maybe loneliest — girl in the room allowed her to showcase her versatile range of emotions and musical influences, plenty of which are on display in Body Talk Pt. 1, one of three planned Robyn releases for 2010.
Let’s consider the audacity of starting an album with a song titled “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do.” She’s not mincing any feelings, is she? As tight drums and angry little synth pulses start slowly and layer into this big electro snappy mess, Robyn lists all the things that are killing her: her drinking, her boyfriend, her emo (???), her PMS, her hours, et cetera. The humor of listening to her complain about all these things (are we supposed to empathize when she sneers “My belt is killing me”) is offset by how pissed she is about all of it. There’s a real angry cut to her voice when she finally snarls the title lyric, following all that bratty complaining. Robyn spends so much time seeming cheery in her photo shoots and interviews — that haircut, that voguing, that silly face she’s always making — that the sentiment bubbling beneath the surface of a song like this can be a little hard to make sense of at first. Is she being funny? Angry? Sassy? Empowered?
One of Robyn’s strengths as a singer is vacillating between a bunch of different personalities, moving between the completely bizarre and genuinely touching without any of it seeming contradictory. On “Fembot,” the first leaked song, she packs in all these weird images about “automatic booty applications” and “digitally chic titanium” around a cutesy Kraftwerk-inspired beat, but then immediately flips the wackness with “Dancing On My Own,” the massive emotional core of this album. It finds Robyn pining for a boy in such a specific way: She’s at a party (probably drunk), and watching someone kiss another girl from the corner while dancing her sorrows away, less a proud moment than a sad self-reminder of “I have to do this to keep from breaking down.”
There’s a video of her performing “Dancing on My Own” at some bored European awards show where no one is paying attention. Right as the song hits its huge drum break, she channels her air Bonham a little too hard and ends up knocking her microphone over, dropping her serious face to recover with a smile, almost lost in the moment before coming back to Earth. That jaunty, casual side to Robyn is what characterizes the album. No matter how heady her concepts get, you can still find playfulness in the songs.
She’s at ease tossing on multiple pop hats, from the Diplo-produced riddim of “Dance Hall Queen,” which finds her affecting a slight Jamaican accent, to the stripped-down piano and strings lament of “Hang With Me,” where Robyn is at her most pleading, begging her lover not to fall “recklessly, headlessly in love with me.” (It’s a song Lykke Li could have sung, which makes perfect sense, given that the two are friends and countrywomen.) The most endearing part of this album, unfortunately short as it is (eight songs and less than a half hour) is how all the styles seem perfectly believable and cohesive here, even the ones she should have no right dabbling in. (Seriously, a Jamaican accent?)
It’s interesting that she’s much more popular overseas than she is here, where she occupies this niche as pop for the people who don’t usually listen to pop. But the wonderful thing is that she isn’t pretentious about her status as the “cool” pop star for indie-music fans, and while it would be naïve to pretend image doesn’t play into her success at all, she doesn’t demand to be unpacked like her counterparts on the Billboard charts. In a bizarro America, you’d find her songs popping up on the soundtrack for Sex and the City 2 and used to score the newest CW show. But for now, she sounds happy to be in the corner.