[14 June 2010]
Even with all of her art-school background, post-modern sense of self-awareness, and media-savvy command over her image, Lady Gaga has yet to produce a song that dismantles and tinkers with the complex position of the post-Madonna female pop star as brilliantly as Robyn does on “Fembot”, the first advance single off of her proposed trilogy of albums for 2010, beginning here with Body Talk Pt. 1. Credit this, possibly, to Gaga’s strain to stand above the throng of pre-fab pop princesses while at the same time usurping what was still until very recently their market, but dance floor veteran Robyn appears far more comfortable with her own contradictions. Maybe it has a lot to do with the strange—and quite distinctly post-millennial—arc her career has taken, moving from briefly famous teen pop star in the ‘90s to (after a few years of obscurity everywhere outside of her native Sweden) Pitchfork-approved hipster darling the following decade, but Body Talk Pt. 1, and “Fembot” especially, find Robyn lacing her music with the cheekiness and wit that Lady Gaga mostly keeps on reserve for her outfits and music videos.
Look no further than the wry chorus hook of “Fembot” for proof of Robyn’s deftly subversive sense of humor. “I’ve got some news for you / Fembots have feelings too” might hint, at first, in the direction of some Blade Runner-esque sci-fi pathos, but Robyn turns it towards a canny meta-commentary on the fluid sense of authenticity that pervades 21st century pop stardom. Where the chorus commands empathy, though, the verses are nothing more than an inventory of the titular ‘bot’s synthetic virtues (“I got a lot of automatic booty applications / C.P.U. maxed out sensation”), a salacious come-on (the song’s hilarious refrain boasts “once you’ve gone tech you ain’t never goin’ back”) that gives only the slightest, fleeting illusion that it might be coming from anywhere resembling human. If Lady Gaga, with her knowing ability to play around with the mechanics of pop artifice, is truly the latest inheritor to the Madonna mantle, what better kiss-off could there be to the plastic narcissism of the Britney era than this sly bit of pop satire from an artist who has already spent a decade-and-a-half weathering pop’s constantly shape-shifting landscape?
Of course, it helps that “Fembot” is also an absolutely terrific pop song. Robyn delivers it in a punchy sass-rap (sounding a little like Ke$ha sans the loutishness) over a spare, beepy two-note synth hook and a squelching electronic rhythm, all done in a refreshingly succinct two minutes and change. If “Fembot” is indicative of the craftiness with which Robyn manages to intermingle the arbitrarily designated high- and lowbrow ends of the modern pop spectrum, this sense of genre-warping playfulness is apparent throughout most of Body Talk Pt. 1’s oddly shaped, eight song not-quite-album-not-quite-EP length. For all of her range, though, Robyn remains quite surprisingly tethered to classic pop songwriting virtues, with only opener “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do” and Röyksopp collaboration “None of Dem” being the only other two songs whose sound feels tied to the here-and-now in any strict fashion. The former, a paranoid mantra fretting over various social and technological vices, is a minimal, repetitive electroclash rant in the Peaches vein, while the latter borrows some of dubstep’s eerie spaciousness, only gradually introducing some serene melodic texture into the song’s dingy crawl.
Just as often, though, Body Talk, Pt. 1 shows Robyn working with the same tools that have served pop divas quite well since at least as far back as Madonna, if not earlier. The aggressive stun-gun rhythm of “Dancing on My Own” can’t hide a classic drama-played-out-on-the-dancefloor scenario inherited from standard bearers like ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and Madonna’s “Into the Groove”, nor is it cold enough not to melt at the touch of Robyn’s warm, yearning vocals or the song’s shimmering keyboard chime. Similarly retro, and possibly even better, is the exuberant “Cry When You Get Older”, initially threatened by an imposing wall of synth noise sitting in as a poor attempt at an updated Phil Spector pastiche, but then pleasantly grounded, first by a charmingly simple drum machine tick-rhythm, and then again by Robyn’s surprisingly astute eye for the details of experience-starved adolescents (“Back in suburbia kids get high and make out on the train / And endless incomprehensible boredom takes a hold again”). It might be the very best song of its kind since Donna Summer’s own criminally underappreciated Spector homage “Love’s Unkind”.
Not all of Body Talk, Pt. 1 works, although the only real bomb is the chintzy synth reggae of “Dancehall Queen”, which attempts to channel “The Tide Is High”-era Blondie (or, failing that, No Doubt) on Robyn’s otherwise successful tour through essential pop referents. The final two songs here, however, seem to have sprung from completely different impulses than those that guide the rest of the set, particularly closing track “Jag Vet En Dejlig Rosa”, a hushed Swedish ballad sung largely without accompaniment aside from some glassy music box-like ringing. The stately piano ballad “Hang With Me”, though, is a minor revelation. Aside from some overly decorative classical flourishes that sound forced in their attempt to establish an air of tastefulness, Robyn handles the song’s overwrought drama with a disarmingly frail vocal reading that reminds, in the best possible way, of Cyndi Lauper. Billed here as an “acoustic” version, it leaves lingering the suggestion that a more electrified, more (if you will) Robyn-esque version is to follow on one of the later instalments of Body Talk, along with the even more hopeful implication that this first volume is just a surface-scratching hint of where Robyn’s travels through the twisted world of pop will be taking her in the near future.