Exploring the enduring appeal of Robyn’s Dancing On My Own

10 years on from its release, the track remains a powerfully relatable pop sensation.

by Jenna Mahale
09 June 2020, 6:35pm

Still from "Dancing On My Own."

There’s something unmistakably romantic about the iconic synth beat that thrums through Robyn’s career-defining pop-ballad, "Dancing On My Own". Perhaps it’s because it’s calibrated to around 118 beats per minute, closely in step with what scientists have identified as the preferred human walking tempo. It’s a rhythm that’s been described as an “anxious heartbeat”, one that is “visceral [and] propelling”. For 21-year-old fan Delaney, it carries the weight of a long-unrequited romantic love. It was 2am, and they had just finished an hours-long conversation on FaceTime. “After we hung up, he texted me asking for advice about how to flirt with a girl he knew from school. I gave it to him and my chest ached.”

“I sat in my living room with all the lights off and played 'Dancing On My Own'," Delaney writes. “I was alone -- it was extremely quiet as my family and the rest of the world was asleep -- and I just sat and listened.” When Delaney first came across the song, as a cover version on the TV show Smash, she felt like she’d finally been heard by someone.

“It has this sadness and resignation attached to it for me -- that was something I probably would have felt anyway, but listening to it really helped me understand and feel those feelings,” she continues. “I think it means a lot to people because I think most of us have been there.”

And, well, haven’t we? Mixing a joyful, energetic tempo with sparse, soul-crushing lyrics, the song manages to articulate a euphoric sadness. It explores human emotion at its most contradictory, so it’s no wonder it’s been named the best song of the 2010s by NME, Rolling Stone and Stereogum.

Inspired by Robyn’s admiration of “inherently sad gay disco anthems”, "DOMO" is a unique success in its ability to embody conflicting feelings of lack, relief, regret and uneasy confidence. It’s those contradictions that are bound up in finally being able to let go of someone you love; it’s a cliché of a feeling that is nevertheless profoundly personal in each instance. It is the quintessence of crying in the club.

But the chameleonic meaning of the song is just one of "DOMO"’s charms. For Liz, a 23-year-old law student, “it combines heartache and joy in a really succinct way that taps into something deep inside people,” she says, “especially queer people who often have to deal with heartbreak in a concealed way, not unlike the song’s protagonist.”

It’s not difficult to place yourself in the shoes of this heartbroken, reckless protagonist. Patrik Berger, who helped write and produce it, recalled in an NPR interview last year that his favourite lyric is one at the end of the first verse, that admits the self-destructive irrationality of their response: "Yeah, I know it's stupid/ I just gotta see it for myself."

By silently fuming and watching your ex get with someone else, "you're not being the smartest person on the planet," Patrik says. "You're not being the nicest, you're not being the best. You're just a loser -- and that's fine." And it is fine! In many ways, "DOMO" is as much a heartbreak anthem as it is a declaration of self-acceptance. “It's a song about loneliness,” journalist Sam Sanders wrote later on in the same piece, “but the moment you hear it, you instantly feel less alone.”

"DOMO" managed to reach number three in the US, but peaked at number eight in the UK charts (a crime! Who let this happen!). However, the song found new life as something of a TV soundtrack staple: as well as its feature on Smash, you can hear those same thrumming synths and silvery vocals in Orange Is The New Black, Gossip Girl and Drag Race. The song’s most notable TV moment arguably came in 2012, when it featured in the first season of Lena Dunham’s infamous comedy-drama series Girls.

Lena, playing the series’ twenty-something protagonist Hannah, is throwing pity party for herself, having just received some ego-shaking news -- her college ex-boyfriend has come out as gay! Oh, 2012. The characters on Girls were far from being the most likeable, though the worst aspects of their personalities could (often painfully) be acutely relatable. Manish Raval, the show’s music supervisor, told The Guardian that the scene represented a perspective shift for the cast and crew: “That was when we realised, we’re working on something big here,” he said, noting that it became Girls’ "unofficial theme song" for them. The show, he said in a separate interview, “lends itself to using music in a way that people interact with".

And really, as Hannah sits alone on her bed in the glow of her laptop screen, typing and re-typing self-involved tweets, how could you not feel a little bit for her? She begins shaking her shoulders to those shuddering synths, and the rest is history.

Lizzy, a longtime fan of both Girls and Robyn, found the scene particularly arresting when she first watched it: “I had never felt so seen,” she writes. “It came out at what was -- looking back -- an incredibly important time for me. My best friends and I were just splitting up, having been at school together and then living together at the start of our careers in London. Now, when I hear it, I’m back with my girls, back with Marnie and Hannah, dancing... and crying.”

At this particular moment in time, we need the transportive power of "DOMO" more than ever; loneliness is certainly something we could all do with a little bit less of. And the pre-quarantine club as we once knew it, which Robyn has noted as a primary inspiration for "DOMO", has never felt further away. "It's a really important place for my generation,” the dance-pop queen famously told Billboard in 2010. “It's the new church. It's where people go to experience something bigger than themselves." Little did she know that when she put "Dancing On My Own" into the world, she invented a new religion anyway.