By L. Ronstadt
You can dance around your room to Robyn. You can throw Robyn on at a party and people will be down. You can go for a run with Robyn on your iPod and probably beat your personal record. Robyn is really, really fun. Her music is upbeat, catchy, and can make you feel like your life is good, like the state of music is good, and like the role of females in music is great.
And she’s got the image: unquestionably cool and arty-looking, bright and colorful, an asymmetrical haircut, and (Hoopla!) she’s foreign! It’s not even a question that Robyn’s look is awesome. She’s unconventional, not-exactly-sexy, and rather androgynous, which I postulate may be the reason for her inclusion in both the mainstream and alternative circles. And her wardrobe kicks ass. Not to mention that her crowds are full of club-scene kids who will dig whatever makes them feel bass in their chests or that they can arm-squiggle and pump to.
Robyn is fun and pleasure-inducing. She’s also got a knack for creating seriously addictive songs. Hearing any given track off Body Talk whistled by strangers in public is not uncommon, and it’s probable that you’ll find yourself passing that melody shortly thereafter. Robyn has mastered what pop stars yearn for incessantly, decade after decade: the earworm. Flawlessly knitting together quirky one-liners and memorable hooks, Robyn leaves listeners with Body Talk tracks looping in their ears and her lyrics on their tongues hours later. It is this persistency of Robyn’s music that I applaud, for not only has she created a fun pop soundtrack to your girls’night-out, she has also expertly crafted it to last. Robyn is an undeniably attractive commodity for all these reasons. It’s no surprise that she has risen to the top of the Billboard and can fill Radio City with ease; she deserves it. You listen to Robyn and you have a good time, you feel connected to the people around you, and you support female icons in the music industry. She’s cute, addictive, and seriously smart. All of which is awesome.
Another thing that interests me is that I hate her. Robyn is a self-proclaimed “Dancehall Queen,” and that’s where her legacy should end. Her status as year-end list topper seems like a blogger’s attempt at diversity, and an album that should be relegated to the realm of guilty pleasure is instead hailed on many influential critics’ short lists; Robyn is Ke$ha with an indie fan base. When it comes down to the essence of Robyn, you have a fun, drunk night. She’s no better at getting people moving than her club contemporaries, and I am baffled trying to understand when inducing dance became the thoughtful critic’s sole barometer of “goodness” in the first place. Regardless, her status as critical darling is entirely unmerited, particularly considering her failures in important categories outside of catchiness and danceability. She’s simple, fun, and run of the mill, but, for whatever reason, she’s riding an enormous wave of appreciation.
While not specifically referencing originality, I do believe that the “goodness” of much music is indicative of some sort of thoughtful creativity. Okay, so Robyn isn’t reinventing the wheel here. That’s simple enough–after all an artist does not need to revolutionize his or her genre in order to be considered “good”. However, Robyn falls short in her attempt to do anything more than regurgitate the tropes of her dance music colleagues. She doesn’t bother with poetry, nor does she seem at all interested in developing lyrics that say much of anything. In fact, Robyn hardly talks about anything other than Robyn. The subject of Body Talk is Robyn herself: the songs are about how she’s this or that, about she doesn’t give a fuck, about how she likes to dance, and so on. None of it brings anything new or interesting to the table. So we have another dance hit with a female singer who thinks she’s the shit. Sounds familiar.
And the music beneath this hour-long character narrative is far from original. The beats on the majority of Body Talk are so derivatively Eurotrash it hurts, and when they’re not conjuring up images of discothèques teeming with silk-shirted men stashing roofies in their front pockets, they’re putting you to sleep. Take “Dancehall Queen”: Robyn wants melody, but she is thwarted by the weakness of the track under her vocals. Her voice, while pleasant at times, wilts under the pressure of maintaining a cohesive sound. This basic failure results in the album, track after track, falling flat. Despite its angsty gestures, “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do” is so deafeningly boring that it’s hard to sit through, much less dance through. Some of Body Talk’s songs are so slow and repetitive that their only oomph comes from the (albeit artificial and obnoxious) existence of a bass line, which is enough to groove to only if you are so, so high that you can hardly process the music as much more than bassdrumsvocals anyway.
Not to mention that it’s hard not to shudder at her lyrics. Even if I accept the fact that this is dance music, that words shouldn’t matter, I can hardly refrain from looking around confusedly after every other line, searching for validation from my friends: “Did she really just say that?” If the critical response is any indicator, Robyn successfully makes whining incessantly (“Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do”), cheating on your significant other (“Call Your Girlfriend”), and the objectification of the female body (“Fembot”) hip. The sexism of the latter seems to go entirely unnoticed in popular criticism, and when mentioned at all, it is framed as if Robyn is in on the joke, choosing her language ironically as some sort of critical response to mass culture.
Which is where I call bullshit.
Robyn opens Body Talk with a staccato chant “I’ve got some news for you / Fembots have feelings too.” Later in the chorus she sings, “My system’s in mint condition/ Powers up on my transistors/ Working fine, no glitches/ Plug me in and flip some switches/ Pull up in docking position/ Pop the hatch and hit ignition”. Robyn unashamedly defines her “Fembot” persona as mechanical and operated by an exterior (most likely male) touch. While this description could at first seem to be a stab at parody, she fails to present a legitimate critique by also attempting to humanize the fembot (calling attention to feelings, heartbreak, etc). In effect, she successfully fetishizes her character into some flawlessly figured and romantically damaged little girl ready to go whenever her on-switch is flipped, making herself into not much more than another sexualized body on stage. She may be a female superstar, proving to some that girls can do anything!, but since when have women needed more affirmation of the ability to sing and dance provocatively?
In fact, the vast majority of the loyal Robyn fans I know are males. I don’t think it’s out of the question to argue that Robyn presents an opportunity for many to cling on to a female alternative musician, demand her significance, and ignore the fact that their critical repertoire of “good” musicians features as many women as they can count on one hand. Robyn presents a golden opportunity for bloggers and columnists to do a couple of things they love: first, to feel progressive, praising a woman in the music industry for her ingenuity, and second, to jump on the poptimist bandwagon, plucking the popstar from the club and placing her delicately within the realm of the Indie Respectable. (For God’s sake, Body Talk is distributed by Interscope!)
But, Robyn is not good. Much as the hip male-driven blogosphere wishes she were more, she’s just another singer & dancer. Robyn is fun, maybe, but not much more than that. And she certainly doesn’t do anything for the advancement of women in the music industry. Her beats, lyrics, and flow more often resemble a one-sided, monotonous conversation over a kooky assortment of keyboard presets than a thoughtfully constructed electronic song. She’s just your pint-sized robot lover girl. And she’s pretty annoying.