PHILADELPHIA — Robyn is the kind of pop singer whose talents are so obvious to her devotees that her failure to command a huge following in America — as yet, anyway — can be a cause for moral outrage.
There are grave injustices in the world, and one of them, it seems, is that the 31-year-old Swedish singer born Robyn Carlsson is not as popular as, say, Katy Perry or Lady Gaga, both of whom she is so obviously better than.
The high dudgeon inspired by this pop-cultural inequity was summed up nicely in a headline from Entertainment Weekly last month that read:
“Robyn Is Totally Amazing: So Why Isn’t She a Superstar?”
It’s not an outrageous question because Robyn is, in fact, quite often amazing.
Songs that live up to that superlative include a number of smart, mildly subversive dance-pop confections, including “Fembot,” “Dancing on My Own,” “Dancehall Queen” and the Snoop Dogg collaboration “U Should Know Better,” all of which were on last year’s confusing “Body Talk” project. The tripartite release involved two EPs and one full-length album that contained some of the songs from the EPs, plus other material.
Entertainment Weekly overstated the case in describing Robyn as “virtually unknown in the U.S.” The Stockholm native not only had a pair of international hits in the late ‘90s — “Show Me Love,” and “Do You Know (What It Takes).” She also performed last year on the taste-making TV soap “Gossip Girl,” and “Dancing on My Own” was nominated for the Grammy for best dance recording.
But it’s true that “Body Talk” has failed to break out big time. And that is despite uniformly positive reviews and a surefire strategy that mixes contemporary R&B grooves with the infectious tunes that Sweden has been producing as steadily as Volvos and affordable build-your-own furniture since Abba’s 1970s heyday.
That’s a state of affairs that Robyn is not particularly happy about, though not too distraught over, either. “I wish my songs were being played on the radio,” she said last week from Quebec, on a stop on a snowy North American tour that she said “feels like home.”
“It’s pop music,” she adds, underscoring the obvious. But the petite blonde who’s so big in her native country that she’s played the Nobel Peace Prize awards ceremony twice is also patient when it comes to building an American audience around such clever, smack-talking ear-grabbers as her Wu-Tang Clan-referencing 2005 should-have-been-a-hit “Konichiwa Bitches.”
“And I know my label is trying really hard to get my songs played on the radio. But I’ve chosen to tour instead. I’m concentrating on that because I think that’s a better way to build a following for the long term.”
Robyn’s parents were both actors in a traveling alternative theater group. When she was 9, she made her acting debut in a production directed by Peter Stormare, the actor friend of her parents who played the murderer who fed partner in crime Steve Buscemi’s body into a wood-chipper in the movie “Fargo.”
As a girl, she loved the 1980s dance-pop acts whose influence can still be heard on her music, such as Michael Jackson, Madonna, David Bowie, Prince, and especially, Swedish rapper-songwriter Neneh Cherry, who she describes as “the coolest.”
By the time she was 12, she had recorded the theme song for a Swedish TV show. When she was 16 she was signed to RCA, and working with the hit-makers Max Martin and Denniz Pop. The follow-up albums to her successful 1995 debut “Robyn Is Here” were never issued in the States, however.
Robyn says that she never went through any great trauma as she tried to transition from teen to adult artist. “My parents were never pushing me so hard to be a singer. I always did it because I wanted to.”
But as she tried to take control of her music, she found herself butting heads with her record label over the direction of her music. She formed her own Konichiwa label in 2005, which put out her album “Robyn,” and moved more toward electro-pop.
She has continued to have success in her own country — she won four awards at the Swedish Grammy awards last month. And she was featured last year in a sketch on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” in which Wyatt Cenac was appalled to find that the biggest pop star in Sweden was dutifully amassing recycling at her modest, no-bling Stockholm apartment. “Swedish pop stars live like our reality stars!” he cried out in horror.
Robyn will play select dates opening for Katy Perry’s American tour.
In a crowded field of female artists with outsized personalities making skin-baring, fashion-forward statements — Perry, Gaga and Rihanna, among them — Robyn is the non-sex kitten, making smart, savvy music that is irresistibly catchy but never merely crowd-pleasing.
“I’m always dancing on my own,” she sings, off to the side rather than the life of the party, on the most overt bid for a pop hit on “Body Talk.” “I’m always going to feel like this person on the outside looking in,” she told the website Popjustice last year.
It’s that slightly off-center perspective that makes her music compelling. “It’s easy to find a cool indie rock band,” she says, pinpointing her uncommon niche in the pop music landscape. “And it’s easy to find an Ibiza-style European dance act. It’s not as easy to find something that’s in between.”