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Beyond Earshot: Gen Z needs Robyn

Beyond Earshot is a series by Jacob Seferian examining the cultural impact of music, past and present. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter

In August, Robyn broke eight years of relative musical silence and, like a Swedish Batman, returned when the world needed her most.

While the electropop goddess wasn’t totally MIAshe did a few features, released an inaccessible EP, had a ‘70s moment with Todd Ruddington—her last proper album came out in 2010. The new single “Missing U” is a stark rumination on loss that arrives at the end of a summer where the biggest dance track peddled a chorus of, “One kiss is all it takes / Falling in love with me / Possibilities / I look like all you need.” Vague sentiments of love have perhaps never felt further from the cultural moment, and Robyn’s knack for spinning sadness into dancefloor nirvana is exactly the kind of release listeners in 2018 are craving.

Since 2005 (she had a questionable 10 year stint in R&B-pop which it’s best if we ignore), Robyn has brought a unique perspective to the charts. Her first post-rebrand hit “Be Mine!” introduced an artist unafraid, and more importantly, willing to admit that a love interest would never requite her feelings. Such lyrical resignation set to a dance track remains as bizarre and thrilling today as it was a decade ago, and set the stage for a career that continues to re-imagine the emotional possibilities of the genre. While some artists’ strength lies in their poetics, Robyn’s expression thrives in its practicality. She takes mundane emotions and talks about them plainly—which in this pop landscape is downright radical. Then she marries these realities with otherworldly instrumentation. In her 2007 collaboration with Kleerup, “With Every Heartbeat,” the backtrack drones like the aforementioned organ for a full two minutes before bottoming out to strings and a lovelorn Robyn singing, “And it hurts with every heartbeat,” rhythmically, as to re-mimic the heartbeat the listener just lost. The result is shattering. She deploys her observational skills more humorously in “Bum Like You’ and “Get Myself Together,” where she chastises herself for falling for a deadbeat and being an emotional wreck, respectively. 

Refreshingly absent from Robyn’s discography is victimization or bitterness. At 39, Robin Carlsson is just shy of being a millennial herself, but most of her audience is. Which perhaps accounts for the difference in philosophy.

In 1993, a 14-year-old in Stockholm wasn’t ranting about an ex on her Finsta. That teen had fewer platforms to complain or wait for friends to assure her judgments with likes. She was forced to process her emotions without an audience until she earned one. It feels rarer that a young person today would take to art to work through their grievances when they could just send a tweet or post a selfie with a long caption. Cruel irony as art, since it has to be sort of good to be liked, provides the best filter of all.

So what happens when a generation of fans over-steeped in a self-love movement which tells them their every feeling is valid comes ear to pod with an artist who writes lyrics like, “Hey girl in the strobing light / what your mama never told you / is love hurts when it you do it right / you can cry when you get older”?

At the very least, we’re given a level of accountability to aspire to. “Call Your Girlfriend,” sees the other woman pleading with her lover that he let his girlfriend down easy. Adding that he spare her dirty details, Robyn sings, “Don’t you tell her how I give you something that you never even knew you missed / don’t you even try and explain how it’s so different when we kiss.” It’s an old-school dose of kindness and a poignant departure from the message of “Only Girl (In The World)” by a then 22-year old Rihanna, which topped the dance charts only months prior. But perhaps most importantly Robyn’s music encourages us to accept things as they are. In a rare ballad, she sings, “Some words are best unspoken,” to a failed love, and miraculously, for the rest of the song she resists the urge to over-analyze their demise, concluding, “So right / then it all just falls apart.” What a liberating thought—that despite our best efforts, sometimes, for whatever reason, things don’t work out. 

For Gen Z and millennials, it seems as though we’re encouraged to sit in the depths of our pain. Allow yourself to feel this, articles say, take time for yourself, as if emotions aren’t actively happening but rather politely waiting in the wings for you to sort them out. Maybe you’ll take a bath, play some sad shit, get on an app and overshare… but Robyn offers a different coping method: take your pain and drown it in a beat. She understands better than most that maybe the only experience more universal than love is sadness, and only instinct more natural than desire is our need to keep moving. “I think [the club is] an important place to my generation. It’s a place where people go to be a part of something bigger than themselves,” she once said in an interview.

“Missing U” features her trademark directness and “this residue is all I’ve got” is about as wrenching a turn of phrase about loss as I’ve ever heard. Lyrically brief, Robyn deals in the space where words can’t reach, and as we dance our sweat imbues the synth with our own experiences. We likely don’t share her emotional clarity, but for three and a half minutes we shut up, put our phones away and dance. Anyone or anything that gets us to disconnect and reconnect with our bodies in 2018 is something vital. 

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