I couldn’t shake my conjecture that the audience at Robyn’s American debut did not include the same people who helped put “Show Me Love” and “Do You Know (What It Takes)” in Billboard‘s Top 10 in 1997. Maybe that’s based on my hunch that most people’s haircuts cost more than their tickets, or the abundance of BlackBerries, or the flabbergasted woman outside who loudly asked, “How is this show sold out?” “She’s had two Top 10 hits, and she just went to #1 in the U.K.,” I enthusiastically replied. She turned to me and laughed. “Well, I’ve never heard of her.”
I don’t blame her: That U.K. hit, “With Every Heartbeat,” a pulsating, string-filled, Björk-Madonna hybrid, hasn’t even charted in the U.S. Neither has her 2005 self-titled opus, a whip-smart, spongy pop juggernaut ranging from electro spousal analysis to ballads about robots to junior-high rap boasts. Yet both reveal an ex-teenpop star who’s made as many artistic strides as fellow Max Martin–produced cohort Britney Spears, on whose new “Piece of Me” you can hear Robyn singing backup.
This show’s backstory could’ve provided material for any number of biopics. Ten years ago, riding on the U.S. chart success of her two singles and the overwhelming popularity of Swedish-produced teenpop in general, Robyn was set to embark on a tour supporting the Backstreet Boys. But after being diagnosed with exhaustion, she returned to Sweden to recover and was quickly forgotten here. That is, until Internet music magazines picked up on Robyn and its standout track, the defiant knockout “Be Mine,” placing on many year-end ’05 best-of lists. Which brings us back to the Highline, a decade since prom night passed, Robyn’s big Springsteen Hammersmith Odeon moment. Armed with two drummers and a Korg/laptop quadrant stage left, it was a minimal setup that looked to unleash maximum force. Robyn entered amid a seizure-inducing machine-gun spray of pinpoint white lights, which knotted the purling growl of synth-bass that opens her cover of Teddybears’ “Cobrastyle.” Visibly smiling, dressed in matching black zip-up sweatshirt and leather miniskirt, with a white cutoff tee and white scarf (bandanna?) tied round her neck, her shock-white hair boyishly cut except for a bushel of locks swishing her face, she strutted. She leaned downwards into the mic when she belted the chorus. She cutely shook her head. And the crowd went ballistic.
The sound of a packed house screaming their faces off for a straightforward but spirited version of a lesser single left one feeling slightly incredulous. When Robyn sang the Knife-crafted “Who’s That Girl?”, it wasn’t like the crowd didn’t know the answer. Hell, everyone knew all the words! Nevertheless, for an artist whose emotional nuance and candid subject matter are her stock in trade, there were some surprises. “Bum Like You,” a rumbling, angsty rocker worth 10 Avrils, was admittedly inspired by a documentary about Bukowski. Likewise “Handle Me,” whose subject is censored on her album, is in fact about a Nazi creep. And it’s not every day that a pop star covers “Jack U Off,” let alone performs it as a Jerry Lee Lewis–style rollicking rocker.
But at 45 minutes or so (an hour tops, and that’s including the encore), the show ended too abruptly, as if a cane zipped out from stage left and yanked her off. Since Robyn’s arrival had been so delayed, I expected a sweat-soaked marathon set. However, that slight disappointment was a minor quibble: When Robyn blushingly chirped, “I’m so happy to be here,” you would’ve been hard-pressed to find anyone that didn’t already feel the same way.