Listen again: Robyn - Call your Girlfriend
The real superstars in pop music are often not "talented" in the usual sense; they, or the people who run them, are managers who package various elements into one successful whole which is eventually represented by the visual - the girl or guy upfront with the microphone. This management can be a real talent in itself.
Take Madonna. She's over now, as an ongoing creative voice. But for years she was so fucking switched on to what was becoming popular, finding the right people to write with, exactly which producer to harness to what tune; she was at the top of her game for years. It's a phenomenal achievement being able to be that plugged into where music was and where it was going.
Newer models delegate more. With Madonna you got the sense that every musician, songwriter, producer - whatever - was personally selected by her (probably not the case, but she'd built a team around her who knew exactly what she would want), and that's the reason that although her music spanned many genres down the years there's a singular voice there. It all feels like it kind of come from one person who was running it all.
These days there are committees that put teams together for songs and albums. It's not about who's new and exciting and hitting the new sound first - just before everyone else gets there. Now it's "Who's the hottest producer right now? Who's the best songwriting outfit right now?"
There's no fucking discovery going on anymore. It's "Get the best of what's already around and get them in the studio". And then they just put a new face in-front of whatever it is they produce.
Does the work of Beyonce sound singular in the way Madonna's does? It doesn't. What were Beyonce's last few big tunes? It's hard to remember, because they sounded like everything else around at the moment. They were all written and produced by the people who are writing and producing EVERYTHING.
Thank god, then, for the independent pop artist.
Thank god for Robyn.
If this is your first time listening to this, listen a bunch of times. If it's not new to you, see if there's anything you missed. Either-way, it's a borderline electro-disco tour-de-force that merits many repeat listenings. Loud.
"Call your Girlfriend", is narratively working on a number of levels. It's also beautiful, empathetic, manipulative, selfish and as much an imagined dialogue between Robyn herself and the woman whose being left behind as it is a talk between Robyn and the man she's taken from another. It's a song written by someone who has been hurt in the past and down the years developed an understanding of what needs to be said and what shouldn't be said. Sometimes, counter-intuitively, a lie can help avoid some real - long lasting - grief. It's an understanding only a truly previously heartbroken woman could come to.
It's not a discussion. The man doesn't get any say in what's to be said or in how. Robyn spells it out for him point by point.
What's interesting is how the chorus takes on a very different feel after the first two verses.
Something that still, on the surface, sounds all about empathy has morphed into something else.
The chorus now takes on an air that is positively triumphant.
Up until this point the song has felt like a mix of exactly what to say to comfort someone who's hurting (from someone who knows) and hard-to-hear but realistic advice (also from someone who knows), but now we go off on a tangent. The music stays the same, but if Robyn's talking to anyone - it's now partly herself and partly her new man.
We've moved on from trying to comfort the broken-hearted.
"Don't you tell her that i give you something you didn't even know you missed
Don't you even try and explain how it's so different when we kiss"
It's here that we smash into the duality of Robyn's feelings. On the one hand, there's being a decent human being. On the other hand, she wants that relationship over. Now.
The chorus now sounds like Robyn's coaching her lover and telling him precisely what and how to say in order to end things swiftly - it almost sounds pretty mercenary. Is this brutal empathy totally about moving on in the most efficient way, or is it about cutting the ties that bind as quickly as possible so that she disappears quickly? Or both?
This brief segway into Robyn and her new man's imagined near future isn't something that needs to be addressed. This guy isn't going to break up with his girlfriend by telling her "When I kiss this new girl, Robyn, we can't stop from fucking each other". Instead, she's shifted focus again - now mostly to him. Breaking up with someone you had feelings for is difficult, but it needs doing - she seems to be saying. REMEMBER WHY YOU'RE DOING IT - THINK ABOUT HOW I MAKE YOU FEEL. And is she feeling a little good about herself? Is she reveling in this a little? Luring a person from another - there's some power in that.
Couple these lines to Robyn's movements in the accompanying music video and you appreciate just how sexual they're meant to be.
Go break-up with that girl and be gentle, but then get back here, because you're mine now.
The scorned woman is clearly not the only focal point of this exercise now. The excitement and passion of the new relationship have mostly pushed her out of the picture despite the fact that we end up returning to the same key line and the same chorus; but the pure empathy that existed at the beginning is not what it was. The words are the same but the intents behind them have shifted. Decent behaviour and trying to do the right thing have been, perhaps unavoidably, punctured by reality. There's a little pain here and guilt. But also the thrill of the new has seeped in. And there's adrenaline and a need to feel that new persons skin on yours.
It's a pop song. The verses and chorus sound pretty much the same all the way through, but they evolve. They come to us with a little more information each time, which make things a little more complicated and muddled each time and a song that initially, on first listen, might seem unapologetically pop is revealed to actually be tinged with tragedy. And then it's pretty-much joyous at the end; almost.
This song is nothing less than magnificent in communicating all of that to the listener; all pretty much by stealth. Mournful synth cries at the beginning, coupled to that jaunting - clipped - bumping bass, sat atop that irresistible foot-tapping beat. It's a glorious pop tune, but it doesn't end with the feeling of uplifting release you expect from upbeat music - even if you've listened to it many times and know it well. Instead, there IS a feeling of the tragic running through it, which only intensifies. It sounds like a love song, but it's mostly about a breakup, and not just about a breakup - it's about Robyn telling some guy exactly how to do it. You can summarise the song with a sentiment along the lines of -
"I have a new love.
I wish, maybe, I could act a little better, but I'm doing my best to make it easier - but also, right now, fuck everything else. Just for a little while."
You won't hear a more human song.
It's a glorious, superbly accomplished and realised, song in its own right and as a piece of narrative it's a masterpiece.
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