Songs in a Key of Life: On Seeing Robyn in Concert

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I was in the first semester of my last year of college when I began listening obsessively to Robyn, the self-titled dance album by Robyn Miriam Carlsson, best known for her 1997 hits "Show Me Love" and "Do You Know (What It Takes)." 


The album arrived at the precise moment I needed it. As I faced graduation from college, adult life felt to me that clothes that didn't fit because I was made wrong for them. When I got a job in Washington, I initially felt more lost than found. My first great romance ground to an inevitable, and inevitably humiliating, end. I had very few friends in the city. I remember one day when I sat on the floor of one of the bathroom stalls in our office trying to regularize my breathing so I could go back to my desk and seem normal. And worst, I was young and unworldly enough to miss that I was going through a rite of passage, rather than a unique and unprecedented catastrophe.

Robyn became my guide to living in that sorrow and fear--and to moving beyond it. In the first video for "Be Mine!" a song about the impossibility of the title plea, a heartbroken Robyn embraced awkwardness and ugliness. "I'm just pretty some of the time" she said, declaring herself knowable in "Who's That Girl?" She sighed over a guy she knew wasn't good for much in "Bum Like You," and smacked down one who was beyond the pale in "Handle Me." 

And "With Every Heartbeat," released later, updated Tina Turner's "Don't Turn Around" for a new generation. Turner may have not wanted her former lover to look back on her agony, insisting, "I'm going to be strong / I'm going to be fine." But Robyn was the one who walked away, declaring "I don't look back / Though I'm dying with every step I take," acknowledging that things are only "just a little, little bit better." She's not okay, and that's alright. Her songs were a guide to living alone with defiance and honesty, a willingness to acknowledge pain, and a refusal to lose herself in it, or anything else.

Given how intensely I feel about Robyn, and Robyn, I guess it's a little strange that I felt so ambivalent about seeing her in concert. I know the risks of loving an ideal from afar. But when she and Kelis, also in the process of reinventing herself as a dance star, announced that they'd be co-headlining the evocatively-named All Hearts Tour, I couldn't resist. I bought tickets for Monday's show at the 9:30 Club in Washington. What I didn't predict was that it would be so hard to share her with anyone else.

I don't go to shows that often. I'm short, which can negate the impact of going to see your idol if the crowd turns out to be tall. And I get nervous in crowds. My sense that Robyn was a sympathetic spirit only increased when she released the video for "Dancing On My Own" off her latest album, Body Talk, Pt. 1, a good illustration of how disconcerting clubs can be. But I've still never been in a crowd like this one. Instead of easing back between sets, the audience packed closer to the stage, a mass of sweat, confetti, nerves and impatience. One guy, who had committed the cardinal sin of thinking that if you leave a prime spot close to the stage you're entitled to reclaim it, shoved past me so hard I thought my glasses might be broken.


And that same guy, the one who I shot mental and ineffective daggers at during the set change? Once Robyn came on stage, he danced along next to me, his hand over his heart for most of the next hour and a half. We threw our hands up in the same bouquet, reaching for the same light when Robyn roared into the final chorus of "Dancing On My Own." We all jumped up and down, screaming "Don't fucking tell me what to do!" with the tiny, hyper, hyper-efficient woman who was dancing so hard she was losing clothes and earrings onstage. We gave ourselves over to joy for the night to heed her instructions to "cry when you get older." And we let her lift us up from heartbreak with a slowed-down encore rendition of "Show Me Love," the song that made her famous the first time around. By the end of the night, I'd kind of forgiven the guy. We were both there because we love the same woman.

In a song off the upcoming Body Talk, Pt. 2, "Hang With Me," Robyn warms up a little, though she warns her listener not to "fall recklessly, headlessly in love with me." It's a caution that comes five years too late. All of us who come to her shows are goners. But no matter how private and incandescent, no matter how pushy our love for her is, for one night, at least, exulting "I can't believe it!" into the mic, she loved us all back.
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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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