Robyn is a strange subject. Her success in America begins and ends with Robyn Is Here, her international 1995 debut that didn’t see an American release until two years later. While it was a decent hit thanks to a couple of big top-ten singles, her next two records were inexplicably limited to European releases, diminishing her stateside success almost overnight. Despite maintaining a huge fanbase in Europe over subsequent years, Robyn would never have a hit record in America again.
But oh. Obviously that is not the whole story, is it. Does anybody even think of Robyn a two-hit wonder anymore? How many top-ten “Best Albums Of The Year” lists did Body Talk end up on in 2010? How many didn’t it??
For most of her American fans, Robyn came into existence fully-formed in 2008 with Robyn, a record that is more than one jump beyond Robyn Is Here. And who can blame them? 1999’s My Truth and 2002’s Don’t Stop The Music were entirely off the radar unless you were in Europe. Besides, Robyn and Body Talk were both so foot-up-the-butt out-of-nowhere great that every record she released before them almost felt moot – at least in the eyes of most critics.
You can’t blame people for forgetting about Robyn’s teen-star past. Or at least I can’t, because I didn’t know a fucking thing about it! What did I do when I found out that this hot shot critic’s favorite nobody could shut up about was the voice behind “Show Me Love,” my favorite song when I was 12 years old. I fucking bled internally until my toenails turned red. You know? I threw up on my desk and ate a dog, whole, snout to tail. It was a moment, for me. I changed.
I mean, it must have been neat for anybody who bothered to keep an eye on Robyn during that decade-long gap, right? Rewarding, at the very least. Some two-hit wondergirl everyone else forgot about – except you – shows up seemingly out of nowhere after a decade and hits America back up with the one-two punch of Robyn and Body Talk, two of the most enjoyable and self-assured pop records of their respective years of release. The girl behind those frilly teen pop ditties you felt so guilty about playing over and over back in ’97 goes on to become one of the most respected pop artists of the new millennium. Pat yourself on the back, anonymous Robyn fan I just made up!! You’ve set an example for all of us.
And so Robyn became one of the few late-90s teen pop stars to move beyond her roots and attain that ever-elusive critical attribute that most of her ilk would never dream of obtaining – artistic legitimacy. I don’t think her past was ever a detriment; if anything, I imagine to a lot of critics viewed Robyn as a sort of conquering hero, fighting her way through years of record label fuckups and powers-that-be meddling until she finally got to record the music she wanted to. The fact that she stuck to it so doggedly over the course of a fucking decade – after so many of her contemporaries had fallen by the wayside, one after another – didn’t hurt her reputation. Here is Robyn, Queen of Pop, Master of Melodramatic Dance, finally able to put her frivolous pop past behind her and make some real music.
Maybe I’m jumping too far ahead here. Or I’m shoving hyperbolic words into critics’ mouths. Probably both! What I’m getting at is, even when her records weren’t front-to-back knockouts and dictated primarily by shady management types, Robyn still had a lot to offer. Robyn Is Here maybe be a far cry from Body Talk (a fifteen-year cry, if we’re being exact), but even at age 16 the Robyn voice is firmly in place.
But forget that for just a moment. Let’s get down to brass tacks, gentlemen: Body Talk may have all the critical accolades in the world, but it doesn’t have a single fucking hit record on it. Robyn Is Here does. Robyn Is Here has at LEAST two. We can prattle and piffle all we want, but this right here is the only Robyn record that made a noticeable dent on the American Billboard charts. Which, by default, makes it the only Robyn record worth talking about! Deal with it, nerds!!
Sure, you could get upset about this. You could sit there, tugging at your cheeks, baffled as to how “Time Machine” didn’t rip the radio in fucking half while “Do You Know What It Takes” hit #7 or something. And I would agree with you!! But I can’t imagine how you could stay angry after actually hearing “Do You Know What It Takes,” or the rest of Robyn Is Here for that matter. This is a solid pop record, especially by the singles-n-filler standards of the late 90s.
THE FIRST TWO SINGLES
So Robyn Is Here‘s first two singles – in Sweden, at least – are surprisingly not the two Mammoth Singles that most would associate with this record. “You’ve Got That Somethin’,” being Robyn’s very first single, is full of breezy sweetness and a perfectly likable introduction, while “Do You Really Want Me (Show Respect)” is a pretty mature piece of work for a 16-year-old. Both tracks were co-written by Robyn with the assistance of frequent early collaborators Ulf Lindstrom and Johan Ehke, who also co-write pretty much the entirety of this record save a couple of tracks. While it’s hard to call them knockout singles, they’re a couple of sweet little songs that clearly stand out from the rest of Robyn Is Here‘s more run-of-the-mill offerings.
Could we call them “Robyn-lite”? No. That’s not fair. I wouldn’t feel comfortable calling “Do You Really Want Me” a “lite” track by any measure. But when compared to the next couple of singles, it’s not easy.
THE NEXT TWO SINGLES (FOR THE LOVE OF GOD)
I need to talk.
Here is the thing I am starting to realize about running a blog like this: when I love teen pop, it does not love me back. How could it? This is music that exists to be consumed, to be palatable enough for a large enough group of people so that someone somewhere can make lots of money. I know I’m risking sounding cliched or overdramatic, but this is purely corporate music we’re talking about here and that is the end of it. Any real feeling I get from this music is merely a side-effect, and thinking otherwise is a stupid mistake. Why doesn’t this bother me more? For the love of God.
So here I am, loving “Do You Know What It Takes” and “Show Me Love”, making the same mistake all over again. Is it wrong that the two most unabashedly radio-driven songs Robyn ever released – the two Robyn tracks most focused on making money – are possibly the two best songs of her career? The two with the least lyrical depth? The least personality? These are the two that hit the pop heights? How could we let this happen?
How could I let this happen??
Yes, both of these tracks were co-written with Swedish pop mastermind Max Martin, back in his early days when he still wrote for primarily Swedish artists. He is the reason I feel this way. He is always the reason.
Look, it’s worth noting that (at least in my eyes) neither Max Martin nor Robyn had hit their respective peaks when they wrote these tracks. Martin still had a decade of boy band dominance and Kelly Clarkson ballads ahead of him, and despite her obvious talents Robyn was still only a 16-year-old. But isn’t it lovely that not only would these two talented pop people would work together on their way up, but that their collaboration would mark such an unabashed high point for the both of them?
Maybe I was being two negative earlier. I don’t want to be. Commercial goals aside, “Do You Know What It Takes” and “Show Me Love” are two great, soulful pop songs that I hold dear to my heart. And while these two would go on to long and fulfilling careers in the music business, it is a shame that after writing two of the world’s greatest pop songs they would collaborate again only once.
Such is Pop Life.
YOU’VE HEARD THE BEST, NOW HEAR…
…some other songs that are not quite as good but still pretty good.
I don’t want to talk up Robyn Is Here too much. As cliche as it is to point out, its singles are big bold radio beasts while its album-only tracks are merely nice by comparison, a common side-effect of being an R&B-flavored pop record in the 1990s. But even if you pull those singles off the record (the Swedish release didn’t have “Show Me Love,” if you can imagine that) you’ll still notice that Robyn is a distinctive, mature, and emotive singer. Even the most by-the-numbers material here can’t help but be emboldened by her presence.
I mean, who would be compelled to give half a shit about “Don’t Want You Back” without Robyn singing? Or “In My Heart”? Or “The Last Time”? Sure, you’ll occasionally find traces of the emotional complexity that would color her later work, like on “Here We Go”‘s ode to doomed love affair. There’s even a strange auto-bio piece, the aptly titled “Robyn Is Here,” featuring the most poorly timed self-advertisement ever featured on a pop record:
Can you hear it, smell it, feel it, Robyn is here
Provin’ I’m alive when I’m comin’ with the spring
Makin’ my debut summer ’95, startin’ to sing
We know, Robyn! We all bought your debut together, walking down to our local Sam Goody holding hands! No need to remind us!!!
I made a tactical error in kicking this blog off with a string of introductory posts, didn’t I. I sound like a broken record. So I’ll say it one more time and then we can all go home: Robyn Is Here is a mostly by-the-numbers 90s pop record from an artist who had not yet fully developed her personality, but has a couple of fantastic singles nonetheless. There. There we are.
But let’s not call it that. Let’s call Robyn Is Here a solid, promising beginning for one of the best and most worthwhile pop artists of the last decade and a half. Because how often am I going to able to say that and really mean it?