A couple years ago, I started noticing certain music blogs doing a somewhat strange thing: there was a movement where certain pop stars started finding their albums and songs garnering favorable reviews in otherwise picky rags. Rihanna was a classic example of this: despite her music rarely being discernibly better or worse than pop radio at large, she found herself an indie critic darling, perhaps in a fit of hipster irony, perhaps due to perceived “real talk” about her relationship with Chris Brown, or perhaps because some lone writer admitting to a guilty pleasure/crush that flowed throughout the blogosphere, other sites desperately trying to remain hip by also liking her, in a sort of Emperor’s New Clothes situation. Whatever the case, these isolated examples rang hollow. Some, to be fair, made far more sense (quirky favorite Janelle Monae, for example). Others, well, others were Robyn.
Before a couple years ago, Robyn’s claim to fame was releasing the second best 90s single by a woman named Robin or Robyn with the title “Show Me Love.” She was among the tritest of 90s pop options, producing bouncy, sterile electroswede tunes in the classic ABBA vein, something that an Ace-of-Base-weary populace was just not craving en masse. Her song got play, but was quickly relegated to a particular forgotten pop shelf alongside equally overcutesy Donna Lewis’ “I Love You Always Forever.” Or so I presumed. Perhaps I was wrong, because suddenly, well after a decade of obscurity, Robyn’s name began cropping up again, not in the context of Buzzfeed-style forced nostalgia, but on relevant sites, with relevant tastes, and being given strong marks. I listened. I heard the same music I heard in ’97. I was baffled. This, I insisted, must be the next great Rick Roll. No legit site could truly consider this groundbreaking new work. Robyn was assuredly one more point of ironic appreciation, like PBR-drinking and trucker-hat-wearing.
I still stand by this basic premise. Robyn’s sudden indie cred makes as little sense to me today as it did then. But hey, we all have a couple great songs in us, right?
The song that broke the camel’s back for me was “Hang With Me.” I have since grown to appreciate the more popular “Dancing on My Own” on some level, as well, but “Hang With Me” started making sense early. There’s some shimmer in the backing track that almost makes sense in an 80s nostalgia context, which doesn’t hurt, but the song itself is classic pop infection 101. There is a pretty standard build from verse to prechorus to chorus, with the latter becoming a pulsing, pumping dance moment before diffusing back into the verse. It’s such a standard technique in this style it’s almost not worth mentioning. In some ways, it could be any current dance song. Stripped down a bit, however, it still holds up. Indeed, that’s where it shines.
What Robyn does not do here is sing the expected “let’s fall in love and dance all night” track that is so prevalent in this genre, and that alone is a welcome respite. “Hanging with” seems to take on a bit of a more intimate meaning here than what we normally consider “hanging” to be with friends, despite Robyn’s insistence that “friends” is what things need to be. Hanging implies regular adventures as part of her crew. Hanging implies becoming a confidante. She’s not just auditioning the subject for one more position in her entourage: instead, the subject will receive what seems to be a true appreciation and individual connection. He (or she) will also probably receive a little something extra, depending on how one translates “I know what’s on your mind.” That line alone offers a certain charm. Way to be sex-positive without being blatant, Robyn. This person, this potential hang-with-er, is being granted both the emotional give-and-take of a strong friendship and the sexual intimacy of a conventional relationship. Too good to be true? Possibly. So what’s the catch?
This is the bit that seems ahead of its time. Want all the best parts of spending time with me? Let me be my own person, then. Don’t fall in love with me. It will only end poorly, for you and even possibly for me. It is not certain exactly whose heartbreak that scenario ends in, especially with the admittedly ridiculous adverbs and adjectives peppering this bit of the song, so it could go either way. The point seems to be, though, that once you fall into the conventional meaning of love, everything good in a relationship gets strained. Arguably Robyn describes a partner as one might describe an ideal mate: willing to do right by you, able to be confided in, who will build you up when you’re down, but be honest when you’re in the wrong. Robyn is not seeking this in a mate, though, but in a friend. She is offering as much as she desires, and all she really asks in return is not to drag her into the drama and pain of romance. There will be love (how could there not be), as we love our friends, but there seems to be a desire to cut out the bullshit and protocol. Where is the shame in that?
It is in this way that Robyn could arguably be said to have shaken up dance music. We can be OK without love. We can have intimate connections without needing to bring love into it. We can treat each other with respect and still have physical moments with them. It’s almost a silent manifesto stating that real connections have deep roots no matter what they form into, and that sexuality can still be ethical and respectful regardless of the context. It resonates not only as someone who has always seen that line as blurry at best, but also as someone who frequently judges pop music for trite or empty messages. Maybe we only need to make a meaningful connection to a standard pop hit for it to suddenly sound better, or maybe there is something subtle about the songcraft in general which would make “Hang With Me” superior anyway. It doesn’t guarantee a full album of quality tunes, especially in 2013, but it does leave one wondering: is this what the others saw? I still think the re-emergence of Robyn was a bit of a fluke, but if it means having this song in my life, well, we could have done much, much worse.
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