To understand what’s so special about Swedish pop star Robyn, her headlining performance at Chicago’s Pitchfork Festival, and indeed the fandom around her in general, you only need to understand one moment of the whole concert.
During 2010’s Dancing On My Own, which came near the end of her hour-plus set, Robyn stops singing and throws her arms open to the crowd, who rapturously shout its plaintive, longing lyrics back to her (“I’m right over here/Why can’t you see me?”). The chorus finishes, and the crowd screams and yells in joy. Robyn holds still for a long moment, grinning unselfconsciously, then wraps up their cheers as she hugs herself, which only ramps up the cheering.
The crowd loves her, she loves them, and they love her loving them. Even seeing it happen exactly the same way in different cities months apart, it’s utterly genuine and totally moving.
It’s been a year of this kind of love-fest for Robyn and her fans. After being mostly absent for the eight years following the release of her 2010 album Body Talk, which had fan-favourite songs like Call Your Girlfriend and Indestructible in addition to Dancing On My Own, Robyn is suddenly back. She released a new record, 2018’s Honey, and began a world tour in early 2019 that’s included dozens of stops all over Europe and North America, including an emotionally explosive show at New York’s Madison Square Garden which inspired a viral subway dance party.
Dance pop lyrics aren’t often worth listening to in great detail, but Robyn’s songs have always been unusually complex emotionally. The narrators of her songs are outsiders, disappointed with the world and themselves, often hurt and trying to keep going. Call Your Girlfriend is about a situation not usually covered in pop bangers: patient, loving advice to a guy on how to tell his girlfriend that he’s secretly been hooking up with someone else.
Her work prefigures today’s more depression-aware pop songs; you could argue that Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber would not be singing “I don’t think I fit in at this party” on their mega-hit I Don’t Care if Robyn hadn’t led us all there.
It’s tempting to lay this narrative of a wounded outsider onto Robyn’s own life and career. She became an international pop star in the mid-1990s with a Mary J Blige-esque soul-pop song called Show Me Love, before trading puffy North Face jackets for sleek, multicoloured bodysuits and huge platform sneakers. Like all great stars, she was both reflecting her audience’s taste and leading it somewhere new. Her relative disappearance in the years after that first huge success had fans wondering to each other: “Is she okay?”
The answer is most definitely yes. Her performance at Pitchfork combined elements from Madonna, Prince, David Bowie, and a kind of dreamy version of 1990s rave culture, especially during its first half. She stood on a stage draped in billowing white fabric, which blew gently in the breeze – a rare positive contribution from the weather on a weekend where rain caused a short evacuation of the festival grounds on Saturday, and a very late start on Sunday. Robyn wore a kind of white bullfighter’s uniform, which she slowly disassembled over the course of the show.
She recreated some of her most famous music video dances, like the contortions and sexual acrobatics from Call Your Girlfriend. She crawled around the stage with a male dancer, whose graceful movements were given centre stage at various points in the show.
She used one of her rare moments of stage banter to say pay tribute to the city’s history of house music, saying “Chicago! The music from this city was very, very important to me.” Pretty heartfelt for a singer who usually says little more than “Hi [name of city]” for an entire show.
In Vogue, Madonna sings, “I know a place where you can get away/ It’s called a dance floor, and here’s what it’s for”. This idea of dance and dance music as a space where even a shy girl from Stockholm can relax and express herself is central to Robyn’s appeal.
The fans come to have that liberating experience too, but they’re also there to give it back to her. They want to show that she’s been right for all these years, that there is a huge audience for what she’s doing, and that they can all experience this feeling of happiness and belonging together. It’s a gift that performer and audience give to each other, and a mood they create together. It’s a gift that’s absolutely worth the price of admission.
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