Gosh! Folks. Sometimes, I just don’t know.
Here are some things I don’t know. I don’t know why I was born and why I am a person who does things. I don’t know if God has a dad. I don’t know why anybody would drink orange juice with pulp because I don’t know why anybody would want stuff floating around in liquid they are putting into themselves. And I don’t know why not one single Robyn album was released in the United States of America between 1997 and 2008.
No clue. None. It’s a mystery! A mystery that I am struggling to solve. If you recall, Robyn’s 1995 debut Robyn Is Here hit the charts hard upon its 1997 American release, with two top ten Billboard singles and platinum record sales. That’s a million units sold, if you weren’t sure! A million is a large number! A thousand thousands! You know how one thousand of a thing is a lot of that thing? Imagine that thing in your head one thousand times, and then imagine that thousand a thousand times. That is how many Americans plunked down their good hot dollars to hear the sultry, smooth lite-R&B vibes of Robyn’s 1997 debut.
It’s a lot of people. A lot! At least twenty-six clown cars worth.
So how did Sony BMG capitalize on Robyn’s significant stateside success? Well, they did what ANYBODY would do, given the chance to make a lot of money: they entirely ignored her 1999 follow-up, My Truth, for absolutely no discernible reason. They then proceeded to never release another Robyn record in America ever again, eventually leading to Robyn ditching BMG in 2003 and starting her own label.
Cool! Good job, record exec dudes! You are all incredible, handsome people with big fat kissable brains. Your hatred of money and success is an inspiration to us all.
Again, this brings us to the mystery. The “no discernible reason” mystery. Robyn Was Here was, by every measure, a significant worldwide success. There should have been nothing holding Sony BMG back from releasing My Truth to the whole world, into the eager arms of new Robyn fans ready to free themselves of their $18.99 worth of allowance at the local FYE for a lovely new Robyn CD. Instead, My Truth only came out in Sweden, and no where else. And I still have no idea why. Why!
I have researched this. I’ve googled. Gosh, how I’ve googled. In fact, I’ve googled variations on “robyn my truth” so much over the past couple of weeks that Gosh! I’ve Googled has quickly risen to #3 on my list of potential autobiography titles (for the curious: #2 is I Will Eat Your Dog Up, and #1 is Touch ‘N Tell Me). Sadly, there is not much writing out there about My Truth in any capacity, let alone any information regarding its troubled release. The only website I could find that deigned to make a definitive statement on the matter was the ever-reliable Allmusic.com, who detailed the situation thusly in their Robyn biography page:
“[Robyn] was set to support the Backstreet Boys on their 1997 tour, but she had to pull out of the shows due to exhaustion. In 1998 Robyn began work on her second album, My Truth, which was released the following year in Europe, where Electric was a smash hit single. However, Robyn’s U.S. label didn’t feel that America would respond to My Truth as it was, and suggested that she re-record parts of the album. She refused, and the album was not released in the States.”
Hmm. Aaah. Well, that… kinda makes sense? Maybe?
Now, I don’t know where Allmusic.com got this information. They’re typically trustworthy, but there are no sources cited here, and I can’t find a peep about this on any other corner of the internet. So this is all I have to work on.
I am more than a little surprised. After the colossal critical success of Robyn’s last two records, I was hoping maybe some enterprising pop geek historians had done a thorough analysis of her decade-and-a-half-long career, at least enough of one to give me an idea of what the fuck happened to My Truth. As much as I try to make Digital Get Down an authority on teen pop career arcs (I try I try I try), I am forced to resort to heresay and cautious speculation when it comes to this record’s release. It’s embarrassing! Embarrassing.
Maybe it’s all on Swedish websites. Maybe that’s what I’m missing. A message to my many Swedish fans: if you know the big fucking whoop about My Truth, hey! Hey!! I have an email address. Send me some words. I want your words, to me. For me, please. I am feel cold and scared, not knowing this. I am literally choking on tears.
Now, to be fair, Allmusic’s take on the situation seems reasonable to the point where I am almost willing to believe it. So let’s assume that it’s true, why not. I am not going to speak on the “quit her Backstreet Boys tour due of exhaustion” thing ’cause I don’t want to dig into gossipy personal weirdness. It is not my place to talk about that stuff. I certainly wouldn’t be stunned if Sony BMG had some issues here and there with the material on My Truth – it does, as I’ll mention later, tackle some serious subject matter – but I have no clue what they mean by suggesting America wouldn’t “respond” to the material. Did they not hear a hit? Did they feel it lacked the processed R&B flavor of most American teen pop hits at the time? Or that it simply lacked the chutzpah of “Show Me Love”?
Gosh, who knows. Who knows.
It might seem like I am harping on this. I am. I am harping on this because I suspect the ill-treatment of My Truth was what, in essence, birthed the Body Talk Robyn we know and love today. It must have gotten her mad, is what I mean. And it’s hard to blame her. As enjoyable as Robyn Is Here was, you could tell that it was coming from an eager-to-please young pop singer who hadn’t gotten her fill of major-label bullshit yet; after My Truth‘s Sweden-only release, she set off on a path of artistic credibility that would stew and fester under the radar for another five years. It straightened her priorities – from this point on, artistic honesty and human feeling would come before commercial success.
But here’s a fun idea. Let’s pretend this intro didn’t happen. Throw it all out. It wouldn’t be right to define My Truth by its mysterious botched distribution because musically it is a real push forward, Robyn’s first real attempt at making a record that sounds less like a generic pop star and more like, well, Robyn.
So let’s talk about that! That sounds good! I like that idea.
So here’s the important context. Robyn was 19 when she started work on My Truth. Early adulthood. That time in your life when you tentatively start to become a real human being, when transitory awkwardness turns to cautious self-assurance. You’re still a kid, sure, but you’re a kid who’s finally starting to throw frivolous teenage bullshit aside. You’re not in high school anymore. You’re starting to get a handle on emotions that were at one point new and painful. You’re not there yet, but you’re getting there. Your life is starting. This is who you are.
My Truth embodies this feeling. Robyn was 16 when she worked on Robyn Is Here, an age where the formulaic grooves of opening track “Bumpy Ride” made sense. It’s a nice piece of work, but its themes of pushing through the bullshit and staying true to yourself are undercut by its standard mid-90s production, to the point where it doesn’t come across as sincere. Three years later, My Truth opens with “Play”:
So immediately, we’re hearing something different. “Play” is graced with one of the loveliest and most tasteful productions of Robyn’s career, a sweet mixture of coffee-shop warmth and a jovial pop melody. Handclaps, acoustic guitar, and light percussion meshed with a string arrangement that never threatens to overpower or sentimentalize the track. It’s the sound of Robyn’s music opening up and breathing for the first time, the first time it feels like she’s welcoming the listener to know who she is.
I like to think of “Play” as a 19 year old’s self pep-talk. I fancy the idea. “Bumpy Ride” and a lot of other tracks on Robyn Is Here were directed outward, like the declarative “Show Me Love” and the down-to-earth pleas of “Do You Really Want Me?” “Play” shares some of that second-person narrative, but it feels more like Robyn is signing about herself, albeit indirectly. It’s a pause in the face of adulthood, a necessary moment of self-assurance. You’re getting older, and you want to get older, but adulthood is creeping up on you faster than you expected and you’re not sure how to handle it. You don’t want to lose yourself. “Play” doesn’t offer any answers for these concerns, but eases them with an assuring chorus: “But your heart will never grow old / And your mind will never ever get bitter / if you remember how to play.”
And it kind of works, you know. Part of “Play”‘s charm is that even when it chokes back real fears about growing old and sad, Robyn knows that she’s going to be OK, and the song is so inviting and warm that we can’t help but feel the same way. Maturation in teen pop is a hard thing to pull off because it’s so easy to fall into the trap of self-seriousness or sentimentality or grittiness or music videos filmed in deserts. Robyn doesn’t throw maturity on like a fucking new dress; it’s part of who she is, and “Play” embodies that organic maturity effortlessly.
In other words, a good way to start a record!!
“Play” lays down the themes for My Truth: independence, introspection, confident femininity. Difficult, shitty love. Themes that have been the focus of Robyn’s work since the beginning. “My Only Reason” is another example, exploring the common trope of loving someone you know isn’t right for you – a trope that might seem kinda played out if the song’s atmosphere weren’t so lighthearted. It’s this casual handling of bittersweet subject matter that My Truth does best, especially on a track like the intimate “Monday Morning”, featuring somber slide guitarwork and Robyn’s hushed vocals:
There’s also way more variety to be found here than on the stone-faced dance pop of her debut. Robyn is trying out lots of new stuff. Sometimes it works! Sometimes it doesn’t! “Underneath the Heart” is a straight-up ballad, and while it’s not a load of horseshit, it comes across as a little maudlin and forced. “Electric,” the album’s most adventurous track (and, surprisingly, its biggest hit) is a strange minor-key groove complete with blippy sampled sounds and a creeping, ominous piano. It’s not my favorite song on here, and it lacks the warmth that runs through most of My Truth, but it’s an admirable shot at a genre outside of Robyn’s comfort zone.
A precusor to Body Talk?? Sure, why not.
SERIOUS SUBJECT MATTER
Ah, yes. This.
It’s pointless to mince words. “Giving You Back” is about an abortion. A few other tracks on My Truth like “88 Days” and “Universal Woman” explore the same subject, but “Giving You Back” doesn’t shade itself in subtlety. It is an honest and forthcoming exploration of the toughest subject matter possible, the sadness and guilt that comes with the hardest decision a woman could be forced to make. And, like anything else here, it feels like it’s coming straight from Robyn.
It’s hard to me to write about a song like this, because I couldn’t possibly understand how that feels. Never ever in a million years. If I even attempted to pretend that I did, I would be a huge fucking jerk. So I won’t. What I will say is that, even if “Giving You Back” wasn’t an effective song, I would admire Robyn for even attempting to write about a subject like this on what is essentially an album for teenagers – especially in such a directly personal way. But “Giving You Back” IS an effective song because, like the rest of My Truth, it doesn’t succumb to maudlin drama and it doesn’t turn into a “serious issue” song that comes out of left field on an otherwise reserved record. Instead it’s a natural extension of My Truth‘s core themes of dealing with the fears and consequences of adulthood for the first time, albeit taken to its most tragic extreme. Being forced into a situation you’re not prepared for, and dealing with it in the only way you can.
This isn’t a subject Robyn would explore again, as far as I know. I can’t speculate, but I imagine she would want to put this sort of thing behind her. “Giving You Back” is all she needed to say, and while it’s not an easy listen, it proves that Robyn’s desire to provide a real document of her life as a 19-year-old is genuine.
This is what makes Robyn special. This is why you should care. Now I’m going to move on because if I don’t I’m gonna get real sad.
More fun facts. If you check out the production credits on My Truth, you might notice some familiar names: Ulf Lindström, Johan Ekhé, Christian Falk. These folks (primarily the first two) co-wrote and produced most of Robyn Is Here, which is interesting considering that My Truth doesn’t sound a whit like her debut. It leads me to believe that, while Robyn may have resented the creative meddling coming from her record label, I can’t imagine she would have felt the same way about her producers who seemed to be on board with her new mature direction every step of the way.
Ulf Lindström and Johan Ekhé – collectively known as the production duo Ghost – deserve some special words here. Ghost helmed most of Robyn Is Here, providing it with (as I’ve mentioned earlier) standard R&B 90s production gloss and not much else – which, if you’re trying to frame a young pop singer as another TLC, makes sense. But Robyn clearly wanted something else on My Truth, and Ghost stepped up their game accordingly; not only do they provide the lush production of “Play”, but the foreboding soundscape of “Electric” and the intimate guitar sadness of “Monday Morning” and “Long Gone.” These are tracks that sound nothing like their work on the first record, and it’s kind of heartwarming to hear how well they adapted to Robyn’s blossoming talent.
What’s missing on My Truth, you ask? Or rather, WHO’s missing. Well…
Yes. Yep. I will never pass up a chance to post this image. I could build a cottage inside of it.
No, Mr. Max Martin is not present on My Truth. I’m not sure if either Mr. Martin was too busy penning mega-successful hits in the midst of the U.S. teen pop boom (1998-1999 was his most successful period, what with your “Baby One More Time”s and your “I Want It That Way”s and whathaveyou), or if Robyn consciously chose not to work with him thinking it wouldn’t fit the feel of the record. The latter makes sense. Martin’s pop hook hammerblows don’t exactly mesh with the subtle maturity she was aiming for here, and it might have killed the flow of the record.
But I do miss him. I do. The blend of Martin’s epic hooks and Robyn’s honest voice was really something, and their two collaborations – “Do You Know What It Takes” and “Show Me Love” – remain two of the best pop singles of their decade to these ears. Gosh, do I love them. Even if a Martin single wouldn’t fit on My Truth, it’s a shame they wouldn’t work together again for over a decade after such a promising start. Together, they had the power to crush teenage hearts.
Is it worth noting that those two aforementioned Robyn/Martin singles heavily influenced Martin’s America-conquering work with Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys? And that the very sound he and Robyn created became Robyn’s main competition in the pop landscape of 1999? And that Robyn’s unwillingness to conform to the very pop architecture she helped create might have led to My Truth‘s limited distribution, and maybe the entirety of her doggedly artistic career? The irony, there?
Nah. Not worth mentioning.
I don’t want to heap too much praise on My Truth. It’s not as bold or memorable as her later work, it lacks a real powerhouse single, and it suffers from a standard 90s bloated running time at almost an hour. A few tracks don’t do anything and could have been cut. Grump grump fart poop grump.
But I want to accentuate the positive here. This is a record that deserves to be heard, especially by newer Robyn fans who want to know where all that Body Talk power came from. It’s a stab at maturity that feels almost effortless. As much as I love records like Hanson’s This Time Around, you can hear the gears turning in there. They are obviously trying their hardest to sound mature. Not so here.
And, most importantly, it’s a record that deserved an American release. Whether or not it would have been as big of a hit there as her debut is not important. I honesty wouldn’t be shocked if it sold poorly and set Robyn on the path she’s on now anyway. But it does sadden me to know that instead of getting an honest and heartfelt document of a 19-year-old woman dealing with the hardships of adulthood, American Robyn fans instead got nothing. I’m sure they assumed she’d just up and disappeared and settled for Britney instead.
A shame. My Truth could have been a friend to so many. A real shame.
Sorry, Rob. You’ll get ’em next time. You just gotta put your pop shoes back on for the next album! Get zazzed! Spice it up! C’mon lady! Ditch the honesty and SEXXX it up! Let’s hear it!