Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Album Review: "Don't Stop The Music" by Robyn



Taste doesn't make sense. I didn't care about Body Talk Pt. 2 even a little bit the first time I heard it in September. I was on a big Kylie Minogue kick at the time and Robyn was such a critics' darling that I barely gave her the time of day. My cynicism got the better of me, you see. "Oh, a Snoop Dogg cameo," I sniffed. "How droll."

I did get over this attitude, eventually. Thankfully. My buddy Rick Joyce pushed me to give Body Talk another shot, and of course I realized that "In My Eyes" and "Hang With Me" were great and that my first listen-through was some kind of strange fluke (I've still never liked "Criminal Intent" but it didn't even make the full Body Talk album so maybe I shouldn't care). Then I made the discovery that Robyn had sang a song I was in love with when I was 12 years old and I almost wept. Suddenly I was all on Robyn's side, which is a silly and embarrassing thing to admit - that I could only appreciate Robyn's merits after realizing her tenuous connection with an era of pop music I grew up with. In one second I went from viewing her as "some singing lady I do not know anything about" to some kind of 90s teen pop survivor in the same vein as Justin Timberlake. It's enough to make me warm up to anybody. I have a weak brain.

I have been putting off this review for months now. I'm beyond sick of it and I've barely even started writing it yet. It started off as a straight-up Body Talk review until I realized that writing another Body Talk review would be a waste of everyone's time, but that was only the half of it - the truth is that I like Body Talk so much that the idea of explaining its appeal is intimidating to me. But it's worth a shot.

Robyn is unique to me because she deals in vulnerability and genuine human emotion, something that is rare in modern dance pop. Most dance pop stars either take a stab at profundity and fail miserably, or just don't give a shit. Lady GaGa (who Robyn has been wrongly compared to by critics over and over again) is all about spectacle and razor-toothed confidence; Kylie Minogue's Aphrodite is designed to be the Ultimate Never-Ending Dance Party Full Of All The Beautiful People (UNEDPFOATBP). This is all well and good, but Robyn deals in the same sounds and still manages to come across as relatable, which is strange. I am not usually "the guy" to pour over lyrics but my favorite songs on Body Talk - "Dancing On My Own," "Indestructible," "Hang With Me," "Time Machine," "Call Your Girlfriend," etc. etc. - marry impeccable club-ready dance beats with complex, vulnerable, self-defeating lyrical themes so effectively that it is almost perverse.

What I mean is, "Dancing On My Own" is maybe the most effective anti-dance dance song released in a long time. It is a song about sitting alone in the club feeling like garbage and not enjoying yourself while the object of your affection is with somebody else, just barely out of your view. That's it. "Call Your Girlfriend" starts with "call your girlfriend / it's time you had the talk," an opening couplet so striking and upfront that I can't imagine it coming from anybody but Robyn. Can you imagine Katy Perry opening a song like that? With two lines that push you into the most painful emotional territory imaginable right from the get-go? Even the Max Martin-penned "Time Machine," with its bombastic hey-chant superchorus, is all about regret. Doing shitty, shitty things and never being able to take them back. If you can't relate to songs like these then we are just very different people.

This is why Robyn's more attitude-driven songs never clicked with me as much - they feel like a front. A defense mechanism. Or maybe I am just too weak of a human being to connect with them. I imagine there are people who can relate to a line like "you should know better than to fuck with me" but I'm not one of them. Maybe I'm not supposed to relate to it?

So that is what I have to say about Body Talk. Maybe it is time to talk about Don't Stop The Music, a Robyn album that I like but don't have nearly as much to say about. I wanted to do the responsible thing and talk about a Robyn album that isn't Body Talk, which I accomplished soundly by talking about only Body Talk for seven straight paragraphs. EXCELLENT WORK.

Don't Stop The Music sounds like more of a standard 2002-era pop album. Clearly the aggressive-yet-vulnerable Robyn persona has not fully taken hold yet, and wouldn't until her 2005 self-titled album. But there are hints, the most obvious one being "Should Have Known," which popped up in re-recorded form on Robyn but made its first appearance here. Its dejected, defeated tone sounds like an obvious antecedent to most of Body Talk, but it eschews drama for a more introspective morning-after approach. But some of Music's charm comes from songs that would never appear on a modern Robyn album, like the gosh-darn adorable ballad "O Baby" or the hushed fidelity ode "Blow My Mind." I remember not caring about the last four or five songs on it, though. The last time I listened to it.

Oh well. The bottom line is that the instantly relatable themes that made Body Talk so appealing to so many people is not present in Don't Stop The Music, but if you have any interest in Robyn as a persona it is worth seeking out. It's as transitional as transitional records get, nestled between her producer-controlled teen pop phase in the late 90s and her independent resurgence in the mid-2000s. It's probably the last album she put out explicitly tailored for a then-dwindling teen pop audience.

Do you get the feeling that this review was headed in a potentially interesting direction? Fancy that. I don't know what happened. It's late.

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