It starts with a bass line. Wobbling and reverberating out into the night, the vibrations make space for the vocals to slowly creep into the song. As the voice declares, “If you’ve got something to say, I need to hear it/ I need to hear it,” the synths go into an organ-y disco mode, with the kick drum that soon enters pushing the beat harder and harder to the front of the mix. By the next time Robyn sings, “If you’ve got something to say,” the song has transitioned into a deep house vibe, setting off the dance party to come.
Before going to see and hear Robyn perform at Pitchfork Music Festival last week, I had liked but not loved her music. As someone who loves both synthpop and house music, it had always made sense for me to enjoy Robyn. She got four on the floor; her songs had some good synth lines; she could sing in a way that was influenced by black cultural practice but was still ultimately her own style. But experiencing all of this in person in a festival setting is something else entirely. In this space, singing along to every last word of each song inspires not only dance but also catharsis. And so by the end of “Send To Robyn Immediately,” when Robyn has yet to do anything beyond sing most of the song from offstage and then slowly inch closer and closer to center stage as the beat of the song builds and builds up, I am fully ready to follow her along any emotional and vibrational journey on which she is about to lead us.
Robyn’s songs are love songs, songs as much about heartbreak as they are about healing. Her songs both pull you into the viscerality of the breaking point and allow you to feel what you might be once that emotional energy becomes freed up. This is done in a more subtle yet still palpable ways on the newer songs such as “Honey,” where Robyn sings, “At the heart of some kind of flower/ Stuck in glitter, strands of saliva/ Won’t you get me right where the hurt is?” over a throbbing drum (machine) beat and a crescendoing layers of synths. As Robyn sings these lines, I can’t help cycling through my most recent romantic relationship’s series of breaks, break ups, and getting back together, all to ultimately crumble apart in anger and sadness at the moment when I thought things had turned back around. “Honey” resounds and reverberates to the malleability of this hurt, of how the hurt can be used to create more hurt or, conversely, to create a honey that heals, depending on what you do with it. Dancing and singing (and trying not to cry) along to “Honey” at Pitchfork compels me to move towards healing, even as all of my recent and past hurt still hovers near. It is a reminder that we all bring our own collections of hurt with us—but that we also have the power of how we will channel it and what we will make with it.
As Robyn transitions to “Indestructible,” one of the fan favorites from her 2010 release Body Talk, we take the hurt head on. With a chorus that include the lines, “But I’m gonna love you like I’ve never been hurt before/ I’m gonna love you like I’m indestructible,” the song is a call to arms to bravely seek out new connections in the wake of lingering hurt. With one of Robyn’s most upbeat synth lines and lots of kick drum, the song demands that we that we move forward—which is often easier said than done. After getting my heart broken at the end of 2012, I initially vowed the opposite to myself: that I would never let myself love someone in that way again. As an extra layer of protection, I would love my work most instead—and would, over time, come to love myself in a new way with it. But of course that did not last forever, as I experienced when I instantly fell in love (in a different way than with this previous girlfriend) with my ex-partner when I met her last summer. And as much as it hurts right now, it’s also not as devastating this time, since my love of self and love from friends is so much stronger than seven years ago. In the space of the Robyn show, this element of her songs resonates strongly with me, especially when she gets to “Ever Again” two songs down. As she sings “I’m never gonna be broken-hearted/ Ever again/ I’m only gonna sing about love/ Ever again” with whispery vocals over a jumping bass line, she chooses—and inspires—self-love along with the beat.
The multifacetedness of intimacy, vulnerability, and emotionality is a defining feature of Robyn’s music—and a huge part of what drives me towards it. In her songs, Robyn wrestles with not only the complexity of love but also the complexity of life, something that is very much on the front of my mind as I am experiencing her set in the wake of a break up and the completion of six years of grad school. While singing and dancing along to Robyn’s 80-minute-long set, it is the first time I feel truly free of the identity of grad student that had defined my life so strongly during my late 20s and early 30s. But of course, the felt resonances of grad school are also still very much with me, its hurts and honeys having forever transformed my relationship to intimacy.
I feel this most acutely when Robyn does “Dancing On My Own” near the end of her set. Another upbeat song about romantic disappointment, the song flips the scripts on who is supposed to feel which ways at the moment of letdown. My memory flashes back to four Fourth of July’s ago, when I had reconnected with someone who had been out of town for a year (and who I had missed dearly)—and then watched her look at me with a mixture of horror and sadness as I left the party with a woman who was not her to the sounds of “Dancing On My Own.” This night still haunts me sometimes, most immediately as a reminder of my capacity to hurt people. Given that this friend and I would feel out the possibility of dating during the following semester, I also carry this night with me as a metaphor for how intimacy and intellectual intensity often spill over into one another in my academic life, bolstered by infrequently seeing people about whom I’ve come to care deeply. The line between the hurt and the honey can be more tenuous when you’re always on the move, when you can just dance off to someone else in a different city and place. Conversely, the connection that you make with someone under these circumstances can be groundshakingly powerful, ebbing and flowing with the frequencies of your vibrations over time.
The dance on your own is therefore not just about breaking up with—or breaking the heart of—someone but also the ways in which you, quite literally, can feel alone when your people are not near. When so much of academia is existing in an institution that is often geographically far away from your intellectual peers, conferences and other rendezvouses become intellectually and erotically charged spaces to the highest degree. You come back together like that sudden drum machine clash after the bridge in “Dancing On My Own” and then have no idea things will look like between you and someone else by the time you get to the next song. I think of the occassions that I’ve stayed out late at queer bars in whatever city the conference is in talking and dancing and flirting with people I’ve been feeling in all of the ways, wishing I could take these people back with me to where I live. When you don’t know when you will see people again, everything becomes a high stakes encounter of making the most of what time you have. You stay out later than you normally do (and often in a different time zone), regret hotel rooms that you didn’t go back to, agonize over whether or not to give people kisses goodnight. You try to do whatever you can to try to hold onto the moment in front of you for as long as humanly possible.
As a result of these kinds of encounters, I’ve watched a handful of people I’ve met at conferences become some of my favorite people in life, friends who read my work and call or text me to make sure I’m doing okay or come visit me where I live (and vice versa). In some cases, sex or sexual desire has been a big part of the relationship; in other cases, neither has been. In all cases, there is an intellectual energy that runs through the relationships that is just as (or even more) exciting as its sexual energy. Although I’m no stranger to sleeping with friends, six years of grad school has made this expansive relationship to sex, desire, and vulnerability an integral part of who I am as a person. And while I still think my ideal mode of romantic existence is something built around a primary partner, I’ve learned how to move in and even enjoy this other kind of sexual and intimate space as well. I’ve come a long way in the past eight years of my romantic life, going from talking about marriage with my first girlfriend when we were in our early 20s to having more sexual partners than my baby queer self would have ever imagined I would. Yet although the life that I’m living now is not what my younger self would have expected to come in the future, it feels just right to the person I am now. It feels like how I’ve learned to connect and stay connected in a profession that capitalizes on pitting us against one another.
All of these thoughts simultaneously swirl around my head during the five minutes of “Dancing On My Own.”
Towards the end of the set, we get the only words from Robyn for the night, words that are unusually reflective for an artist who tends to say close to nothing at all while she is performing. In advance of moving into the last song of the night, Robyn says, “Chicago! When I was a little girl in Sweden, I grew up listening to the [house] music that comes from this city. The music from this city was very, very important to me.” I am glad that she more explicitly says what her performance has implicitly been suggesting throughout the night. After singing the first few songs of the set alone, Robyn is joined onstage by a young black male dancer, one whose invocations of vogue gesture towards the black queer history of Chicago as a city. Although she is still not as explicit as in a recent interview (where Robyn comments, “From the bottom of my musicality, I’m inspired by black music; I’m totally aware where I’m pulling from, but I think there’s been a new understanding for me about how sensitive you have to be”), this acknowledgement of the importance of house music to pop music—and to Robyn’s particular take on pop music—is an important one. It additionally helps make the dancer, whose blackness is a stark contrast to the Scandanavian whiteness with which he shares the stage, seem slightly less tokenistic and slightly more intentional (although I am curious from where exactly this young black person is from).
As Robyn makes this monologue, I come face to face with my own intellectual journey over the course of the past six years. Originally applying to M.A. programs at NYU with a research statement about 2010s (white queer female) synthpop, my Master’s advisor, thankfully, encouraged me to go back to disco, house, and 70s pop before I dove any deeper into the 2010s. It was a moment that pushed me into the 1980s for my dissertation research—and allowed me to bring a more nuanced racial analysis to my music writing in general. Through spending so much with music that black artists had made for their survival, I became politicized in ways that would not have previously been possible. In this way, black music has changed not just my research but also my life. At the same time, I am well aware that no number of black friends or black women I’ve desired (and more) can change the fact that I have never experienced life as a black person. I thought about this in a new way after breaking up my girlfriend in Austin, when some friends and I drove to Houston to see and hear Kelela a few weeks after that relationship’s demise. Take Me Apart would become the album for my healing from that breakup, an album that is interlaced with Kelela’s pain of healing as a black queer woman in a country and world hostile to her. What does it mean to heal with pain that is racialized, gendered, and sexualized? Conversely, what does it mean to embrace joy that is not your own through music? These are the questions that I am always asking myself with my work and my life, the stakes of which Robyn helped remind me during her set at Pitchfork.