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Robyn Talks Doing Drag, Queer Culture Connections

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Photo: Heji Shin

If youre not a Robyn fan, youre not gay. Or so they say. I told Robyn about this POV from the gay Twitter collective when I called her direct on Skype recently – it was remarkably human of the pop goddess to answer, with no publicist listening in and with a titter she said: Well, that particular, uh, viewpoint is maybe a little extreme, in my mind.” 

In non-Robyn minds, of course, that hyperbolic reach illustrates the electro dance queens embedded place in queer culture, explicable underneath strobe lights inside a queer club where her shimmering dance-pop anthems register as euphoric elation and communal catharsis. 

Same goes for a Robyn concert, perhaps the closest thing to a gay nightclub thats not an actual gay nightclub. 

Or on a New York City subway platform after a Robyn concert, which happened in March when a passel of devotees convened while waiting for the E train, exuberantly belting out Dancing On My Own, a diverse chorus of voices joined together by shared human emotions. 

We, the misfits, move with her and are moved by her in the quiet solitude of our private sanctuaries (the bedroom) too, the lights down low, hearts broken but not beyond healing Robyns music at its emotional, queer-relatable core.

You look at her, writhing, gyrating, moving in tandem with only herself as her guide, like a leader among us, and think: of course she is among the Gods. A true pop music heroine. In the decade since Body Talk, when the late-90s artist reemerged a cult force in the aughts, the gay icon has culled a coalition of underground outsiders and outcasts by cutting through pop-culture excess with the rarest of pop-star features: her desire to be human first, pop artist second. 

She tells me she doesnt see herself like we see her this, after I tell her how lucky I feel to be Skyping her (its Robyn! On her own!), and how her music has served as a heartening salve for many, including myself. Our Robyn is not Robyns Robyn, however, and so her demur response – “OK, great. Im happy I can do that for you,she said, in a voice that intoned a steady softness that made me wonder what Robyn sounds like when shes shouting can be read as reluctantly appreciative (later, she tells me why).

The rest of my Skype conversation with Robyn was spent talking about why she thinks its important artists understand the queer references they use in their work, the precise reason shes proud Dancing On My Ownbecame a gay anthem, and how her current post-tomboy femininity is, for her, almost like dragging.

Has your relationship with the LGBTQ community always been such a natural fit?

Yeah, Im sure. Whatever people connect to in my music, if its there for them, then that is a natural connection. You know what I think? I wouldnt say that all LGBT and queer people are the same, so for me its maybe a little awkward to assume that all people that are LGBTQ have the same views of what I do, but I can recognize myself in the LGBTQ community in the sense that I think they are people who question what being a human being is about because it has been naturally incorporated in being different or feeling different, or maybe not being conventional or living in a conventional way. I think questioning yourself or questioning the context youre in comes natural to this community, and for me thats something that I feel connected to or that I feel that I can understand. Maybe thats why there seems to be this strong, kind of pure bond between me and that part of my fan group. 

How do you explain the relationship between the LGBTQ community and, more specifically, your music?

Theres a tradition with the gay community gravitating to music that is melodic and melancholy, maybe in the same (song). You can hear it in ABBA, you can hear it in the tradition of British gay bands and gay artists that have always championed this way of singing about emotions, whether its like Erasure, or even Queen. Theres a tradition there within gay music culture that I always felt was something that I connected to. 

You grew up with parents who owned a theater company. Was that your first exposure to the LGBTQ community?

Some of my parents friends were gay and some of them were people I liked, but I dont know if I can say that I had an understanding of the gay community through my parents.

Youve said that making your own space as a pop artist versus trend-grabbing has been at least somewhat a byproduct of being inspired by the queer community also having to create its own space. When did you first experience the queer community in that way? 

My first experience of club culture was in New York in a club called Body & Soul, which was at this place called the Shelter in New York. I dont know if you could say it was a pure gay club because it was very mixed, but it was definitely a club that was authentic in the sense that it was really connected to the foundations of house music in New York, which was a pure gay culture. But I wouldnt say it was a part of gay culture that represents all gay people either. 

Also, I think its maybe important to just define gayor LGBTQbecause theres so many different parts of it now, which is an amazing thing. You know, its really beautiful how diverse its been and become and also how broad it is now; its part of the commercial pop culture in the world. But the part that I was brought into as a teenager was maybe something that I dont think you can say was a commercial part of the gay community but something that grew out of a gay community that was very underground and not so accepted. 

When it comes to the commercialization of queerness in pop music, what are you seeing? Are more artists diving into queer culture in a way that wasnt happening when you launched your music career in the 90s? 

For me I dont think I am a protector of queer well, maybe queer, but not gay values. Im not the one who sets the agenda for how people should relate to gay culture; I think thats something that gay people have to do and kind of guard themselves. I dont feel like I have that right. But I was always inspired by club music, and the club culture is something that gay people crave. It wouldnt exist if there wasnt the gay community that started that whole movement in America in the 70s. And I think because of that, I have a responsibility to be aware of what the references are that Im drawn to. But its also queer culture in the sense that theres lots of artists who dont define themselves as gay artists but who are still making queer music, whether its Kate Bush or Prince. 

I hear attention makes you uncomfortable, why?

I guess maybe Im just a little bit uncomfortable with the idea of fame. I dont think it has to do, maybe, with fans; I just think sometimes Im like a sensitive person (laughs), so I dont always feel like I recognize myself in the image that people have of me. I might have a different day, or I might be in a different kind of mood, or whatever; I just get a little awkward. But its nothing too traumatic. 

Aside from Dancing On My Own,are there other songs of yours that have been interpreted, or even kind of claimed, by LGBTQ culture in ways you hadnt expected they would be? 

I think with songs like that you never know whats gonna happen to them. Its almost like when you release a song, its not yours anymore its up to the people who listen to it to decide what it means for them. And thats what I love about making music, or even performing live: that its a conversation between me and the people who are listening. So I dont, maybe other people do, know whats gonna happen with a song.

With Dancing On My Own,it was definitely like that I had no idea it was going to take on these several different lives, being a part of Girls, the TV series, and then becoming what youre saying: a song that meant a lot to the gay community, and in lots of different countries. Thats one of the biggest compliments you can get as an artist, because the gay community chooses their champions in a very special way, and I think all subcultures do. For me, growing up with that kind of music, its something Im really proud about. 

Gay men still have a real thing for late 90s female pop: Are they the ones who still request your 90s hitShow Me Lovebe part of your current tour repertoire? 

I think it depends on where you look. In Sweden here, where I live, a lot of people that grew up with that song still see it as one of the more important songs of my repertoire (laughs). But yeah

Do you still see it that way? 

I do, yeah. I still play it live sometimes. It was a part of the set list the last time I toured, so Im not against it in any way. 

You took an eight-year break before Honey was released last year. Will we have to wait as long for the next album?

Oh, I dont know if it will be another eight years – that would feel strange. There will be an album sooner or later, but I dont know when. Im still touring, so I havent been spending any time in the studio since the end of last year. I hope to at the end of this year, but I have no clue when Ill have music finished. 

You once said you identify with the queer community when it comes to subverting gender expectations, and I noticed your gender presentation is currently softer and more feminine. Did you get sick of having to introduce yourself as, Hi Im Robyn and Im a girl

I havent introduced myself that way in a very long time, but I think when I grew up, being androgynous was also a way of protecting myself and not being as vulnerable as a woman or as a girl. I was maybe at a stage when I made this album where I felt like it was time to let that go, even a bit. Not saying at all that androgyny is something you cant be vulnerable in, because I really think its a lot of different things for a lot of different people. And I dont think that being androgynous is, as much as it was maybe when I was growing up, a protection, because everything with gender is kind of being reexamined at the moment. So maybe, for me, it was more drag going into a feminine role than it was being androgynous.

You felt more comfortable as a tomboy. 

Exactly. So being more feminine is almost like dragging for me (laughs) or exploring something in myself that maybe I wasnt as easy with. 

Do you find power in how you choose to present gender? 

For me, I think the power of it is being able to play with it and not having to decide what it is. And that it is just like everything else: Whether you have short hair or long hair or if youre shy or extroverted, these things change over time, and I think whats interesting is how you approach it from what your norm is, or how youre feeling, what is challenging to you and maybe whats challenging to the people who think they know who you are. 

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