how robyn became the master of pop
After nearly a decade, Robyn is back to save us with her new solo single Missing U. It’s just further proof as to why she’s one of the world’s most important players in pop.
Photography Mark Peckmezian
It’s been eight years and Robyn is releasing solo music again. The Swedish pop auteur shared on social media that her first solo single in eight years, Missing U would be out on 1 August. Reader: that was yesterday.
Last night's release comes after nearly a year’s worth of speculation about new music from Robyn. In 2017, she allowed Lena Dunham to use a rough demo of the song Honey during an episode of HBO’s Girls. Then, earlier in 2018 during a conversation with fellow musician Kindness for Red Bull Music Academy, she confirmed that a new album would be released later this year. “It’s is not finished yet,” she admitted, “but it's almost there.”
As a lead single, Missing U is something of a reintroduction. Opening with a cascade of synths that are reminiscent of both church wedding bells and a prism of light when it hits the water, it dives into the distinctive yearning electropop that has become Robyn’s musical fingerprint, with waves of production growing until the chorus. Created with Joseph Mount from Metronomy and long-time collaborator Klas Åhlund, Robyn says that the single is "about this trippy thing that happens when people disappear --0 it’s like they become even more clear and you see them everywhere." The sound is recognisable yet leans into the softer side of an artist whose music has, for the last 13 years, come with a bite.
Given that it’s been eight years since 2010 and her last solo record, Body Talk Pt. 3, Robyn’s place in pop hasn’t slipped and become precarious. In fact, she’s probably in the strongest position she’s ever been in. Unlike other popstars who -- once their grip on success begins to waiver or they take a long leave of absence -- start to slip in to obscurity, Robyn’s trajectory is altogether more unique. Of course, there are acts like Madonna and Cher, for instance, who have inhabited enough incarnations to rival the Dalai Lama, and Beyoncé, whose grasp has never really faltered, has grown in stature from a member of a girlband to the best performer of our time. But there are also those acts who reconstitute the DNA of pop, printing new shapes to fit their artistry. Herein lies Robyn.
Beginning her career in the early 90s, Robyn was initially touted as Sweden’s answer to the bubblegum pop explosion in America. Working with a pre-Britney Spears Max Martin on 1997 single Show Me Love, she scored a hit in the US and the UK. Her debut album, Robyn Is Here, didn’t chart in the UK, however, despite hitting number 52 on the Billboard 200 album chart. Her subsequent two records, My Truth and Don’t Stop the Music, didn’t receive international releases, although both records went Platinum in her home country of Sweden.
During this time Robyn, who was signed to BMG, expressed her disillusionment with her record label, citing “lack of artistic control”. She signed a new worldwide deal with Jive Records. Ironically, BMG then bought Jive Records six months later. “I was back where I started,” she told Blues and Soul. “Plus the deal itself made Jive very insecure as a label. A lot of people I worked with were fired, and my third album never got released -- which pissed me off.”
Things truly disintegrated in 2004 when Jive Records and Robyn’s A&R at the time, Martin Dodd, were unsupportive of the creative direction of the singer’s fourth album. Specifically, it was Who’s That Girl , an acerbic electropop song produced by The Knife, that her label felt didn’t work (they were wrong). With the help of Dodd, Robyn bought herself out of her contract and, using the money she’d saved from her debut album, started her label Konichiwa Records.
The shift to independent artist isn’t necessarily a cause for concern -- although usually artists never manage to cling on to the success (nor quality) of their previous material. For Robyn, it was the opposite. Being an independent artist saw her flourish, both commercially and critically. Her 2005 self-titled album went to Number 1 in Sweden and, following a re-release in 2007, spawned a Number 1 single in the UK, With Every Heartbeat .
Moreover, Robyn’s self-titled album was a signifier of the sort of popstar she’d always been; whether it was working with Max Martin before his ascension to pop ubiquity or broaching topics of abortion on 1998 album My Truth , her creative vision was laser sharp.
The step up to her next project, the three Body Talk albums all released across one year, gave an unflinching and unfiltered look into an artist exploring their process and experimenting with music delivery. Whether it was documenting a song’s progression from piano ballad to suped-up, arpeggiated final product like with Hang With Me , or playing with the format of the album during the pinnacle of the digital download era, Robyn’s ambitious balancing act between popstar and pop scientist was unwavering.
Even with the cult-success of the hammering Dancing On My Own , the greatest melancholic banger of all time, she swerved labouring to ensure it would become a global hit (something that today, with the emphasis on streaming, can give singles a shelf life of well up to eight months). Instead, she allowed the song to permeate into public conscious across the span of eight years as it took on various forms, from cry-along-in-the-club staple at dedicated Robyn club nights to a snorefest acoustic version by a talent show winner.
Since the final Body Talk album’s release, Robyn hasn’t been MIA. She worked on the wavy Do It Again mini-album with Röyksopp, the lead single and title track of which furthered the dance pop of Body Talk by adding industrial-sized bass, beats and synth stabs. Then there was the Love Is Free EP, a collaboration with the late Christian Falk, a Swedish producer and friend of Robyn’s, and Markus Jägersted. There were also collaborations with Mr. Tophat, Kindness and Neneh Cherry (the latter is said to feature on the singer’s upcoming album). Robyn the solo artist, however, became an enigma. A holy name among pop fans desperate to connect with her talent for marrying loneliness and euphoria, she became almost mythic.
Over the last eight years, the music industry has changed massively. The digital download era in which Robyn flourished, and which also gave her space to experiment, is over. Instead, streaming, surprise drops and a number of dark arts are utilised to help artists release music.
Still, Robyn’s influence, both sonically and practically, is pretty evident. Firstly, the explosion of sad-synth pop has flourished into its own genre, with artists like Charli XCX, Tove Styrke, Tove Lo and Carly Rae Jepsen expunging their demons over four-to-the-floor beats and shimmering production. Charli, in fact, has adopted Robyn’s independent approach to releasing music and collaborating, inserting it into a major label infrastructure. Since her last album, 2014’s SUCKER , she’s eschewed traditional album rollouts, single releases and EPs, instead opting to share mixtapes, collaborations and a string of songs that allow for creative experimentation. Like Robyn’s Body Talk trilogy, Charli’s reluctance to bow to the pressure of single campaigns and streaming services is a hint of where music releases are headed. Even the way that artists like Drake and Kanye have tweaked their records retrospectively echo Robyn’s curation of Body Talk.
Where does that leave Robyn now, though? Missing U is just the first song we’re hearing, but an album will follow. What we do know is that, perhaps for the first time, she’s turned her lens inwards, working on the production of songs in isolation before venturing out to collaborators. She’s also embracing her sensuality and softness. “With this album I've gone back to realise that the softer I get, the more colourful and the more dynamic a song gets,” she explained to Kindness during their Red Bull Music Academy chat. “For me it meant just shutting down for a while and being really sparse with my impressions or being very sensitive to what I needed.”
On YouTube there’s a video of the moment Robyn premiered the final version of Honey for a bunch of fans at a Robyn-themed club night in Brooklyn. It’s a rarity among popstars to just drop by and share new music, but that’s who Robyn is as an artist; pop isn’t a commercial vehicle, she’s been there, done that and wears the scars of that experience. Rather, pop is a way for her to explore and share the malleable aspects of humanity -- from prickly anger, to the sometimes satisfying pain of isolation and the carnivorousness of sexuality.
It’s this, Robyn’s ability to amalgamate the facets of the human condition -- both light and dark -- that’s allowed her breathing room to step outside the confines of traditional pop constructs. Her understanding of how human beings process their lives -- whether it’s the digestion of our own emotions, our need for euphoria through dancing or the way we consume art -- is her superpower, her need to communicate and share it. From songs like Be Mine all the way to Missing U, it’s the only thing that’s remained consistent, even if her delivery of the music has diversified. It’s not necessarily a unique skill, but it’s one that Robyn has refined through her different guises, sonic experimentation and musical journey. It’s one that makes her a master of her craft.