By Chris Azzopardi
Photo: Heji Shin, Chantal Anderson
If you’re not a Robyn fan, you’re not gay. Or so they say. I told Robyn about this POV from the gay Twitter collective when I called her direct on Skype recently – it was remarkably human of the pop goddess to answer, with no publicist listening in – and with a titter she said: “Well, that particular, uh, viewpoint is maybe a little extreme, in my mind.”
In non-Robyn minds, of course, that hyperbolic reach illustrates the electro dance queen’s embedded place in queer culture, explicable underneath strobe lights inside a queer club where her shimmering dance-pop anthems register as euphoric elation and communal catharsis. Same goes for a Robyn concert, perhaps the closest thing to a gay nightclub that’s not an actual gay nightclub.
Or on a New York City subway platform after a Robyn concert, which happened in March when a passel of devotees convened while waiting for the E train, exuberantly belting out “Dancing On My Own,” a diverse chorus of voices joined together by shared human emotions. We, the misfits, move with her and are moved by her in the quiet solitude of our private sanctuaries (the bedroom) too, the lights down low, hearts broken but not beyond healing – Robyn’s music at its emotional, queer-relatable core.
“Ever Again” is the latest video release from Honey, her first solo full-length in eight years, and the album’s low-key house and lounge vibes wittingly challenge those who thought they knew what a Robyn song should sound like (she gets off on turning her image and sound on their heads, she tells me). In the raw, evocative clip, the 40-year-old pop icon is dressed in a sheer, nipple-baring silk blouse and latex jumpsuit, both fashioned by Nicolas Ghesquière for Louis Vuitton; she sexes a mic stand, cutting loose in a sandy desert where Greek statues tower over the Swedish fembot. When she raises the stand with profound ease after humping it on the ground, whipping it around and around through the air with propellant force, we are reminded of Robyn’s status as a singular supernova still staking out her own slice of solitary sky in a galaxy of flashy pop stars.
You look at her, writhing, gyrating, moving in tandem with only herself as her guide, like a leader among us, and think: of course, she is among the Gods. A true pop music heroine. In the decade since Body Talk, when the late-’90s artist reemerged a cult force in the aughts, the gay icon has culled a coalition of underground outsiders and outcasts by cutting through pop-culture excess with the rarest of pop-star features: her desire to be human first, pop artist second.
She tells me she doesn’t see herself like we see her – this, after I tell her how lucky I feel to be Skyping her (it’s Robyn! On her own!), and how her music has served as a heartening salve for many, including myself. Our Robyn is not Robyn’s Robyn, however, and so her demure response – “OK, great. I’m happy I can do that for you,” she said, in a voice that intoned a steady softness that made me wonder what Robyn sounds like when she’s shouting – can be read as reluctantly appreciative (later, she tells me why).
The rest of my Skype conversation with Robyn was spent talking about why she thinks it’s important artists understand the queer references they use in their work, the precise reason she’s proud “Dancing On My Own” became a gay anthem, and how her current post-tomboy femininity is, for her, “almost like dragging.”
Has your relationship with the LGBTQ community always been such a natural fit?
Yeah, I’m sure. Whatever people connect to in my music, if it’s there for them, then that is a natural connection. You know what I think? I wouldn’t say that all LGBT and queer people are the same, so for me it’s maybe a little awkward to assume that all people that are LGBTQ have the same views of what I do, but I can recognize myself in the LGBTQ community in the sense that I think they are people who question what being a human being is about because it has been naturally incorporated in being different or feeling different, or maybe not being conventional or living in a conventional way. I think questioning yourself or questioning the context you’re in comes natural to this community, and for me that’s something that I feel connected to or that I feel that I can understand. Maybe that’s why there seems to be this strong, kind of pure bond between me and that part of my fan group.
How do you explain the relationship between the LGBTQ community and, more specifically, your music?
There’s a tradition with the gay community gravitating to music that is melodic and melancholy, maybe in the same (song). You can hear it in ABBA, you can hear it in the tradition of British gay bands and gay artists that have always championed this way of singing about emotions, whether it’s like Erasure, or even Queen. There’s a tradition there within gay music culture that I always felt was something that I connected to.
You grew up with parents who owned a theater company. Was that your first exposure to the LGBTQ community?
Some of my parents’ friends were gay and some of them were people I liked, but I don’t know if I can say that I had an understanding of the gay community through my parents.
You’ve said that making your own space as a pop artist versus trend-grabbing has been at least somewhat a byproduct of being inspired by the queer community also having to create its own space. When did you first experience the queer community in that way?
My first experience of club culture was in New York in a club called Body & Soul, which was at this place called the Shelter in New York. I don’t know if you could say it was a pure gay club because it was very mixed, but it was definitely a club that was authentic in the sense that it was really connected to the foundations of house music in New York, which was a pure gay culture. But I wouldn’t say it was a part of gay culture that represents all gay people either.
Also, I think it’s maybe important to just define “gay” or “LGBTQ” because there’s so many different parts of it now, which is an amazing thing. You know, it’s really beautiful how diverse it’s been and become and also how broad it is now; it’s part of the commercial pop culture in the world. But the part that I was brought into as a teenager was maybe something that I don’t think you can say was a commercial part of the gay community but something that grew out of a gay community that was very underground and not so accepted.
When it comes to the commercialization of queerness in pop music, what are you seeing? Are more artists diving into queer culture in a way that wasn’t happening when you launched your music career in the ’90s?
For me I don’t think I am a protector of queer – well, maybe queer, but not gay values. I’m not the one who sets the agenda for how people should relate to gay culture; I think that’s something that gay people have to do and kind of guard themselves. I don’t feel like I have that right. But I was always inspired by club music, and the club culture is something that gay people crave. It wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t the gay community that started that whole movement in America in the ’70s. And I think because of that, I have a responsibility to be aware of what the references are that I’m drawn to. But it’s also queer culture in the sense that there’s lots of artists who don’t define themselves as gay artists but who are still making queer music, whether it’s Kate Bush or Prince.
Is queerness in pop music political?
I think there’s a political aspect to talking about gay communities – and there’s also another aspect, which is just about the queer expression and what that means. But sometimes they overlap and sometimes it’s really important to be political. I think it’s always important to be aware of, whether it’s gay culture or black culture or any minority, what it is that you are representing and where you draw your inspiration from. But then there’s also another kind of space, which is held by a queer expression and which, I think, (goes) beyond your sexual orientation. It might be a way of just expressing yourself that is not part of the norm, so there’s lots of different nuances in that.
You’ve said you get shy when fans express their love for you because you don’t know if things are gonna get weird. What’s the weirdest encounter you’ve had with a fan?
I don’t remember. I don’t keep track of those things, but I guess for me it’s just maybe sometimes I don’t feel that I – maybe I’m not just always comfortable with the attention, but that doesn’t mean I’m not, like, happy that people enjoy my music. I’m just always really flattered when people come up to me and tell me what they feel. That’s always a nice day, especially when people are nice. But I don’t know. It’s hard to give an example of weird fans.
What about the attention makes you uncomfortable?
I guess maybe I’m just a little bit uncomfortable with the idea of fame. I don’t think it has to do, maybe, with fans; I just think sometimes I’m like a sensitive person (laughs), so I don’t always feel like I recognize myself in the image that people have of me. I might have a different day, or I might be in a different kind of mood, or whatever; I just get a little awkward. But it’s nothing too traumatic.
Aside from “Dancing On My Own,” are there other songs of yours that have been interpreted, or even kind of claimed, by LGBTQ culture in ways you hadn’t expected they would be?
I think with songs like that you never know what’s gonna happen to them. It’s almost like when you release a song, it’s not yours anymore – it’s up to the people who listen to it to decide what it means for them. And that’s what I love about making music, or even performing live: that it’s a conversation between me and the people who are listening. So I don’t, maybe other people do, know what’s gonna happen with a song.
With “Dancing On My Own,” it was definitely like that – I had no idea it was going to take on these several different lives, being a part of Girls, the TV series, and then becoming what you’re saying: a song that meant a lot to the gay community, and in lots of different countries. That’s one of the biggest compliments you can get as an artist, because the gay community chooses their champions in a very special way, and I think all subcultures do. For me, growing up with that kind of music, it’s something I’m really proud about.
You’ve said that the sonic inspiration for “Baby Forgive Me,” from Honey, was Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia,” a song that means a great deal to the LGBTQ community because of its use in Philadelphia. Can you take me through the process of how Bruce’s song led to “Baby Forgive Me”?
I think there were lots of different songs that inspired “Baby Forgive Me,” but I know that I mentioned “Streets of Philadelphia” in an interview. That was definitely part of it, but there were other songs as well, like a George McCrae song called “Rock Your Baby,” that I listened to. But also other disco and more modern songs like slower Balearic, like house music, that I also listened to so much. So that was a mix of very, very different things, and me and Mr. Tophat, who I made it with, were playing around with these chords in the studio. It was one of those songs that just came very intuitively and kind of in one go. We worked on it for a long time and refined it, and it went through lots of different stages. There was a point where it was almost like a slow acid track. To me, it’s very inspired by disco and quite acoustic and more analog soul music, like the way it’s written, but Mr. Tophat and Joseph Mount gave it this other more monotonous production that maybe sounds a little bit more like “Streets of Philadelphia” in a way.
Gay men still have a real thing for late ’90s female pop: Are they the ones who still request that your ’90s hit “Show Me Love” be part of your current tour repertoire?
I think it depends on where you look. In Sweden here, where I live, a lot of people that grew up with that song still see it as one of the more important songs of my repertoire (laughs). But yeah…
Do you still see it that way?
I do, yeah. I still play it live sometimes. It was a part of the setlist the last time I toured, so I’m not against it in any way.
You took an eight-year break before Honey was released last year. Will we have to wait as long for the next album?
Oh, I don’t know if it will be another eight years – that would feel strange. There will be an album sooner or later, but I don’t know when. I’m still touring, so I haven’t been spending any time in the studio since the end of last year. I hope to at the end of this year, but I have no clue when I’ll have music finished.
You once said you identify with the queer community when it comes to subverting gender expectations, and I noticed your gender presentation is currently softer and more feminine. Did you get sick of having to introduce yourself as, “Hi, I’m Robyn and I’m a girl”?
I haven’t introduced myself that way in a very long time, but I think when I grew up, being androgynous was also a way of protecting myself and not being as vulnerable as a woman or as a girl. I was maybe at a stage when I made this album where I felt like it was time to let that go, even a bit. Not saying at all that androgyny is something you can’t be vulnerable in, because I really think it’s a lot of different things for a lot of different people. And I don’t think that being androgynous is, as much as it was maybe when I was growing up, a protection, because everything with gender is kind of being re-examined at the moment. So maybe, for me, it was more drag going into a feminine role than it was being androgynous.
You felt more comfortable as a tomboy.
Exactly. So being more feminine is almost like dragging for me (laughs) – or exploring something in myself that maybe I wasn’t as easy with.
Do you find power in how you choose to present gender?
For me, I think the power of it is being able to play with it and not having to decide what it is. And that it is just like everything else: Whether you have short hair or long hair or if you’re shy or extroverted, these things change over time, and I think what’s interesting is how you approach it from what your norm is, or how you’re feeling, what is challenging to you – and maybe what’s challenging to the people who think they know who you are.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in GQ, Vanity Fair and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.