robyn / a dichotomy of dancing and heartache

Exciting times at sibylline sound this week!  Today we welcome to the family Thanan Lilaonitkul – resident electro-pop connoisseur.   Here, he examines Grammy Award-nominated Swedish artist Robyn’s foray into the field of electronic music.

Ever found something so good that you want to keep it a secret all to yourself but at the same time use it as a bragging right that you know about it? That’s how I feel about Robyn – a musician who was once primed to become a teen pop star in the 90’s (recall 1997’s “Show Me Love”), then slowly faded into oblivion, and finally finding her own signature sound by starting her own label Konichiwa Records. In doing the lattermost, Robyn liberated herself artistically and started rolling out electro-pop records in 2005 – a long time before EDM claimed its space in mainstream pop culture. Ever since then, Robyn has become quietly relevant once more and built up a small but sizeable, loyal global fan base purely on the strength of her singles.

So why is it that her singles keep getting critically acclaimed but very few seem to be familiar with her? Especially in the recent years when the electronic sound finally got embraced globally? My main suspicion is that this is due to Robyn’s songs existing in a niche space where dance music meets the emotional wallop of traditional ballads. In itself, that space doesn’t really make sense because listeners relate dance music to good feels and movement, and sadder emotional material to sitting down and concentrating for appreciation. Robyn’s strengths however (unfortunately for her but fortunate for me) play precisely to making powerful music in that space.

Take 2010’s “Dancing on My Own” – written by Robyn as a ode to clubs being places where her generation goes to feel like they belong, it combines the elements of complex story telling of a situational sad love with beats that make you want to move. Her peaking chorus line “I’m giving it my all / But I’m not the girl you’re taking home” makes any listener freeze to wail out that line but the pulsating synths moves on with or without you, relentlessly forcing you to keep dancing. While some people dance out their sadness, some may find it alien and only accept it as an acquired taste. The same story plays out for her other singles “Call Your Girlfriend” and “Hang with Me”.

However, 2014 may mark a shift in Robyn’s approach to her music. With the release of her collaborative album “Do It Again”, Robyn may be expanding her sound and including more listeners. Combining artistic strengths with Norway’s electronic duo Röyksopp to form a Scandinavian dream team, Robyn is trading a little of her emotion and learning some new sounds from the duo. The new lead single of the same name plays easier to the ears and hearts of dance floor go-ers. As alluded by its title, “Do It Again” is a hedonistic anthem with more vague and less situational lyrics that could bend to fit the listeners interpretation (feel free to imagine “it” as whatever you want). The production feels cleaner than Robyn’s previous singles and its drums hit you much harder. But is her signature sentimentality still there for avid fans like me? Absolutely – Robyn surprises the listener with a less layered bridge complete with relationship lines like “We should not be friends / We’ll just do it again.” Other new songs “Every Little Thing” and “Monument” (the latter featuring an alluring saxophone filled outro.) should provide just as good of an introduction to Robyn’s styling and new direction.

So please, do yourself a favor and give this artist a good listen. Or not, so I can hold onto her material as a secret. 

Thanan Lilaonitkul

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