Friday, July 1st, 2011

Robyn – Call Your Girlfriend

Ah Robyn. Men love her, women think she’s a smug bitch.


Michelle Myers: Did you ever see that episode of “Mad Men” where Peggy Olsen gets naked with that jerk art director, and he gets a boner and then he calls her the “smuggest bitch in the world?” That turn of phrase sums up my feelings towards Robyn quite nicely.

Jer Fairall: Robyn bleeds empathy, from the sheer warmth of her melodies to her ability, currently unparalleled among her peers, to wring genuine human feeling from the dramas played out amidst the throb and strobe lights of the dance floor. No surprise, then, that she ends up contributing what might the most compassionate “other woman” song ever written, a feat otherwise unimaginable in the wake of pop’s degradation at the hands of hacks like Dr. Luke and Snipe that she’s the hipster’s dance diva if you like, but its not like we’re getting anything like this from the charts (the North American ones, at least) these days.

Dan Weiss: I’ve witnessed Robyn’s ascent from feisty indie comeback story to heart-exploding hookmaster with awe. “Call Your Girlfriend” is one of her best even without the context. But the context sure is juicy. Last year’s three-part Body Talk EP extravaganza began with her greatest and least requited hit, “Dancing on My Own” and progressed through the fuckbuddy Rosetta Stone “Hang With Me,” both triumphant in electronic spirit despite their overwhelming postmodern lassitude. In the former, there’s no guy on the table. In the latter, she guards herself for a relationship that sounds more settlement than joyride. Completing the trilogy is “Call Your Girlfriend,” where she wins the guy after all — at the expense of an about-to-be dumped girl who might as well be another Robyn. Putting the sad news in her new prize’s mouth, the line that always gets me is “And it won’t make sense right now/But you’re still her friend.” She sounds a lot less triumphant on this one. When pop is this complex, idols are crowned.

Iain Mew: Weirdly, the other song this most makes me think of is “Dry Your Eyes” by The Streets — it’s the whole thing of deliberately using clichés presented to people when their relationship has ended in a really affecting way, by emphasising that someone is beyond anywhere where words can help. Except that while that song was platitudes offered to Mike Skinner by a caring but ineffectual friend, this one is platitudes ultimately meant to reach a (as far as we know) completely blameless girl, being dictated by someone she doesn’t know, in a manner akin to someone directing a hostage video while pointing a gun. It’s never quite clear whether the desperation in Robyn’s voice is down to guilt or concern that she might not be obeyed, but it’s a devastating performance and alternating the superficially kind words with revelling in her position of superiority, just makes them sound all the more cruel every time the song kicks up another gear.

Alfred Soto: As subtle tonally as Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” or The Pretenders’ “Hymn To Her,” Robyn’s tune directs sympathy towards the girlfriend about to get dumped yet manages, thanks to the singer’s hysterical high notes (“Yoooouu just found somebody neeeeww…”), to convey deep anxiety about the kind of relationship the singer presumably wants to start with the guy; he dumped one girl already, what would stop him from dumping Robyn too? A country music scenario if I ever heard one. Longtime producer Ahlund feeds those “you’s” into a sampler, playing with the keys as if it were 1985 and Scritti Politti’s “Absolute” remained the benchmark for conjuring the ineffable.

Edward Okulicz: Sometimes it feels like Robyn only has to burp and critics will fawn, and it’s not always deserved (i.e. “Fembot” and that awful Diplo one), but here it’s earned so many times over. The tune is as endlessly singable as that of “Dancing On My Own” and the lyrics have the same combination of simplicity and emotional resonance that makes not just Robyn’s best pop, but lots of the best pop of all time. But most of all, it has that one gorgeous moment of emotional punctum: “And now… it’s gonna be me and you” after the second chorus is one of those moments of transcendence that carries the song into world-beating territory. I know she’s basically created a persona which mostly appeals to nerdy boys who overrate their own sense of aesthetic, but man, is she ever good at what she does.

B Michael Payne: Robyn, more than anyone I can think of, is one of those “critical darlings.” I’m not really sure why, though. Her production is honestly just not as catchy as the work behind Katy Perry, Ke$ha, et al. Her lyrics are not that great. She doesn’t even maintain a constant level of sophistication like her buddies The Knife. What Robyn has going for her is fist-punching chutzpah and an inability to resist busting an awkward move. And, therefore, “Call Your Girlfriend” is one of her best songs. Just enjoy her music. She makes it easy to.

Anthony Easton: Expansive, epic, disco candy: reminds me of the emotional payload in something like Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” but, you know, a little more genre savvy.

Katherine St Asaph: Back when the world wanted to blog a Robyn-Katy Perry feud into existence, I wrote that the two weren’t so different. Here’s even better proof: just like Katy with “E.T.,” Robyn takes a gorgeous, sparkle-and-streamers production and makes it nigh-unlistenable. This is a song sung by a complete asshole persuading somebody else to be just as much of an asshole. Sympathy? Someone sympathetic would be staying away from other people’s boyfriends, and instead of luxuriating in her cruelty and giving the track a use, Robyn deploys Robyn! and, in doing so, persuades everybody else to be cool with it. “Dancing on My Own” and “Hang With Me” are just as ebullient without the bitter aftertaste. But hey, she PUNCHES the AIR in an EMPTY ROOM in her VIDEO, so it’s ALL OK!

Kat Stevens: I’ve mostly given up on Robyn. I feel I am never going to be able to connect to her emotionally, especially when she screws up her face like that, so giving a shit about her Just 17 photostory lovelife is just not going to happen. Nor am I likely to be charmed by her gormless playdough electro stuff like “Fembot”, which sets my teeth on edge. But the existence of “With Every Heartbeat” gives me hope that one day another talented producer will tap into her whineyness and harness it for good. This is not that day.

Zach Lyon: If it weren’t for that middle eight in “Dancing On My Own,” directly followed by the sound dropping out and that HUGE I-will-never-not-air-drum-to-this drum smash, the song never would’ve clicked for me and I would have trouble listening to it more than once (as it is, it was one of my favorites of the year). “Call Your Girlfriend” is “Dancing On My Own” without the drum fill. Not that the production or song structure was ever the biggest part of her act prior to Body Talk, and this does come off like Robyn2005 more than the others, but the whole track is so flat, all the way through, that I lose interest a minute in. I’m not on board with Robyn being the most sympathetic pop star in the world, either — I think a lot of that actually stems from her fashion sense, her brand, and maybe even her nationality, more than her lyrics — and right here she just sounds immature. Wouldn’t surprise me on a Taylor Swift record; Robyn just sounds like she needs to grow up.

Pete Baran: Suppose an alien landed in your backyard, and demanded, in the inexplicable alien way that aliens think, that the future of the earth depended on understanding what Robyn was all about. And it gave you four minutes. You could do a lot worse than playing “Call Your Girlfriend,” and then using the 15 seconds left to ask “Any questions?” I’d give us an 80 per cent chance of survival.

Jonathan Bradley: Pop’s Mary Sue does her frowny-face dancing thing over gleaming synths and a pounding four four beat. It’s beautiful and sad in exactly the same way as every other beautiful, sad Robyn song. And, oh yes, it is heartbreaking. “Tell her that the only way her heart will mend/Is when she learns to love again” is a line sung in the third person only as a defense tactic; Robyn’s voice quavers and it’s clear she is familiar enough with the sentiment to know how little comfort it is. But thinking Robyn is actually being nice about this? “Don’t you tell her how I give you something that you never even knew you missed,” she warns her new man. After all, it would be terrible for him to gloat to the old bint about how much better Robyn is, wouldn’t it? Not the briar patch, Br’er Fox!

Michaela Drapes: After months of intense thought on this subject, I have come to the Occam’s razor-ish conclusion that Robyn never actually intended us to take this song’s lyrics at face value. She’s sneaky like that.

33 Responses to “Robyn – Call Your Girlfriend”

  1. I had a slight obsession with this track a month or so ago, so maybe I’ve over-thought it. We all know he’s never going to make the call, right? And that this is the sound of Robyn realising that? And how pathetic the conversation she’s imagining begins to sound to her? Not just the conversation that you won’t have with your girlfriend but the one that she won’t have with you, because she can’t ask for what she’d like to ask for, because she realises how pathetic it would sound? And how totally she’s fucked this up? And that eventually she’s not singing about your girlfriend but about herself because it’s her heart that’s going to have to mend when you go back to your girlfriend? And then you’ll be saying these pathetic things to her, and she won’t believe you.

  2. i fell asleep early last night for like the thousandth time this week and when i woke up my first thought legitimately was SHIT I DIDN’T REVIEW CALL YOUR GIRLFRIEND so i’m happy it did well, if it had gotten like a 6.89 or something i would have been super upset.

    (i would have given it a 10 obvs. this track sort of makes me want to go and take all my other 10s back.)

  3. I was feeling so gratified reading the negative blurbs that I kept forgetting I actually really enjoy this song and that I’d given it a [9].

    It was a bit difficult writing this blurb, basically because I was just regurgitating thoughts I’d gone over more extensively here:

  4. Yeah, I’d written about it recently — this is basically Princessa’s “Tell Her” (no YouTube link, because there isn’t one) without the nerve to say what she really means and go for the “she was born to lose” or “she’ll die a little bit, like lovers do every day” nastiness. Because this really is a nasty scenario, carefully disguised with punching and shimmering to seem like it’s not nasty at all. And all that punching and shimmering makes it sound great, but it’s also what Robyn does, making this beautiful but not necessary.

  5. Alright, but I still say that there’s something different between this song (which I like) and something like Paramore’s “Misery Business” (which I think is loathsome the way that Katherine does here).

  6. For the record, I don’t think Robyn is a smug bitch. She’s bringing back short hair (and getting things done) as a thing for Smug Serious Professional Bitches (oops, guess that explains that then), and I’m totally behind that 1000 percent.

  7. I picked the tagline to draw attention to what I felt was quite an interesting gender split, if based on a small amount of data from women:

    Men: [9] [10] [10] [9] [10] [9] [9] [5] [7] [9] = 8.70
    Women: [5] [5] [2] [9] = 5.25

    If we were Metacritic, that’d still be “universal acclaim” mind you.

  8. Hey, I love me some serious professional ladies too. By smug, I mean Robyn sounds self-satisfied with how nice and sweet she’s being towards the guy’s girlfriend. At least that’s how it seems to me. I actually prefer Misery Business because it gets petty and nasty.

    J Bradley’s on the money with the pop Mary Sue thing.

  9. I can’t help but see the story like this: Robyn is somewhere in town (let’s say the train station), and espies the central man and the titular girlfriend. He puts his scarf round her and gets down to tie her laces (you get the idea). She has never met either of them, but, being a psycho, immediately falls in love with him. She then runs through an extraordinarily detailed scenario in which he can dump his girlfriend for her. For me the clincher is the “You just met somebody new” at the end. Robyn by this point sounds desperate, as if she realises her fantasies are just fantasies and (though I might just be imagining this) she seems to put a slight stress on the “just met”. Even if he is in any way aware of her existence, he’s only just met her and therefore there’s no way on earth he’ll ever do any of the things she suggest he does. So basically Robyn is an insane stalker. (I would give it [9])

  10. @Mathers I’ve actually been wondering for a while what you think of this song in re: your distaste for “Misery Business.”

  11. “By smug, I mean Robyn sounds self-satisfied with how nice and sweet she’s being towards the guy’s girlfriend.”

    Wow — we’re on opposite sides here. Nothing in Robyn’s vocal performance suggests self-satisfaction. She’s scared to death! Her anxiety powers the song.

  12. I’m with Alfred — she’s definitely not self-satisfied in the least.

    Obviously, one’s interpretation of this song depends on how many times you’ve been on either side of this equation. Or if you’ve never been there.

    If anything, this conversation is completely one-sided and all imaginary — totally in Robyn’s head. I’m convinced that the dude in question ever hears this request — mostly because Robyn knows it’s not going to make any difference. She’s so screwed already for falling for a dude who’s taken.

  13. (BTW, that gender split on the ratings is fascinating! I’m not entirely sure that it actually means anything, really. But, interesting nonetheless.)

  14. I hear anxiety–you don’t end a song without completing your chorus and the chord progression if you’re not going for anxiety. But I don’t hear doomed anxiety. The production is too celebratory for that, all major keys and power synths and sparkle and whooshes.

    Which, again, is what you get from a Robyn single, but the subtext is “Call your girlfriend! Make these fireworks happen! It’s the right thing to do!” when in fact it’s a really shitty thing to do, only slightly removed from cheating. And if the “I give you something you never knew you missed” and the “it’s so different when we kiss” lines aren’t imaginary — there’s no hard evidence that they are — it isn’t removed from cheating at all.

  15. Everything I can say in response, Katherine, is, for better or worse, kind of smug and ageist of me, so I think this is going to be one of those agree-to-disagree things.

    That being said, I do feel there’s a a level of pop deception going on here that’s up there with the best of the The Smiths songs in this vein, or any of the countless 80’s electropop jaunts that did the same thing — Depeche, Yaz, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Electronic, etc., etc., etc. — or anything else that sounds cheerful sends up flares of foreboding. (The converse of this also interesting to think about over in the Patrick Wolf conversation.)

    Robyn is all alone in that video, after all. What better way to indicate that this is a terribly one-sided conversation? Welcome to Robyn’s id, everyone! But her super-ego’s hanging out at the mixing desk.

  16. I’m not sure whether I think the conversation is in Robyn’s head or not, but ultimately it doesn’t matter, especially when comparing this to “Misery Business”; there’s a basic level of empathy here that the other song is missing, a kind of pettiness that I can’t get behind.

  17. I don’t know what about my response could possibly be tied to my age — and jesus christ, I can’t control that, because if I could I’ve have done it years ago.

  18. Not age, life experience.

    Honestly? I’m glad that both this and “Misery Business” exist. Sometimes, in life, you feel like the former, other times the latter — I’m just glad there’s two songs on this subject that are relatively unvarnished versions of actual feelings that one might have while tangled up shitty romantic situations. It’s nice to think, “Oh, no one should ever be in this kind of situation! She should just walk away!” But the reality is, it happens. You can’t walk away; you won’t walk away. Maybe under other circumstances you would, but hey, we’re only human. We make mistakes.

    I’m not taking sides, I’m not endorsing bad behavior, but sometimes life gives you the short end of the stick. Sometimes you’re going to get fucked over by someone stealing your boyfriend, or when you steal someone else’s. Sometimes you’re going to want revenge. Sometimes you’re going to want to gloat. Sometimes you’re just going to want to call someone a whore. Sometimes you fall for the wrong person, even when you know you’re stepping into a den of snakes.

    Popular music, in its best form, is an outlet for the best and worst of the human condition. Without anger, betrayal, and heartbreak, pop music would be very very dull indeed.

  19. Which would be great if any of us were arguing that this song (or “Misery Business”) shouldn’t exist. I don’t like the latter BECAUSE I recognize that it pinpoints something real and unsavoury in the human psyche, not because I think I’m magically immune to feeling that way. I’m just not ever going to want to listen to a song about that particular feeling when I’m not feeling that way myself (unlike the many, many songs about other unsavoury feelings I’m happy to listen to whenever), which I am happy to agree to disagree about.

    The smug ageist thing is still weird. I don’t presume I know enough about any of your personal experiences to judge why you would like or “get” this song or not…

  20. The difficulty for me in parsing the lyrics is “but you just met somebody new.” Is that “just” supposed to be “just recently” or “just now”? Or is it “there are no deep reasons why our relationship is ending; it’s only that I met somebody new”?

  21. Right. I’ve got about … what, almost 15 years on most of you who are in your early 20’s here? That’s practically a generational shift. My view of the world is coming from a profoundly different place, that’s all. I recently talked about this elsewhere; it’s not my job to tell people 15 years younger than me how to live their lives; I have to be really careful about not coming off as, well, a scold.

  22. The problem is I think Robyn’s being dishonest — not with herself, but with her audience. It’s less a song per se than an argument from the defense presented as a shiny song to solidify the well-framed case. And then those melodies turn into people thinking there’s empathy here, and then the video makes all the blogs call this the best song ever, and all I can think of is this other woman — hypothetical or not — who’s just had her own story pre-empted. (Spoiler: “Dedication to My Ex” does almost exactly the same thing.)

    As far as any personal connection, that is not something I feel comfortable getting into in this comments section, but judging on past experience it is far, far more plausible that I’d be the one who got called and told all this nonsense because the person I was dating just met Robyn.

    I haven’t heard “Misery Business,” but judging on lyrics alone I suspect I’d like it a lot more. (In fact, “Well, there’s a million other girls who do it just like you / Looking as innocent as possible / To get to who they want and what they like / It’s easy if you do it right” is not a bad description of this song!)

  23. Yes … and believe it or not, someday, you might ostensibly find yourself in Robyn’s shoes, too.

  24. Oh, I like the idea of “Misery Business” being a pre-emptive answer song/sequel to “Call Your Girlfriend.” A lot.

  25. In which case I’d hope I’d be less of an asshole about things.

  26. (By which I refer to Robyn — see blurb.)

  27. And that’s a perfectly fine thing to take away from all this! Pop songs — they’re didactic, occasionally.

  28. Some scattered thoughts:

    1) this is my favorite thing anyone has written about this song:

    2) @Martin: I’ve always taken it as meaning “it’s only that.”

    3) I think one of my favorite things about this song is how wildly people’s interpretations of it diverge even though the lyrics are kind of straightforward.

    4) For me the sonic joyfulness embodies the ebullience of Robyn’s passion for this dude less than any certainty she might have about their future.

    5) I don’t hear talking about how awesome their love is as crowing so much as justification: cheating is bad, getting involved with someone who’s taken is bad, but who can argue with true love? It’s very sad for the girlfriend, but we love each other, these things just happen, it’s no one’s fault.

    6) One story you can read into this is that the person who’s been all concerned about the girlfriend is actually the boyfriend: “oh, yes yes, of course I want to leave her, I want to be with you, Robyn, because I love you, but I don’t want to hurt her.” And Robyn believes him because he’s a good person (except the cheating) (but it’s true love!) so for a while she’s like, yeah, okay, of course, you want to make sure you do it right, and when she’s in a good place to hear it (which is never, because no one wants to have this talk ever). So this is somewhere between reassurance (“it’s gonna be okay, this’ll be better for everyone, let her down easy and you can come with me guilt-free and she’ll be okay someday”) and demand (“…also, I am sick of your excuses, what do you mean you don’t know how to say it I JUST SPELLED OUT FOR YOU HOW TO SAY IT DO YOU NEED A VIDEO”).

    7) I don’t think he’s going to call his girlfriend. But I also don’t think that necessarily (necessarily) means he’s just toying with Robyn, either. I think it might be possible that he really doesn’t want to hurt his girlfriend, and he is just kind of really bad at that right now, but out of weakness more ill intent or even apathy. People are complicated, which is a euphemistic way of saying sometimes mostly good people are kind of shitty.

    8) for the record, I am not speaking out of any kind of personal experience here, though a little secondhand observation is perhaps informing my judgments.

    9) one of the saddest songs I know is an Ani Difranco song (lyrics) about breaking up with an Other Man, which maybe conditioned me to sympathize with Robyn here.

    10) and now you see why I could not get my shit together to blurb this thing!

  29. That’s a really interesting link, especially the “it implies it’s been sung before” bit — someone should spin that out.

    But then there’s this in the comments:

    “Yes, that song is great. I actually subconciouslyfeel sad that I don’t have a girlfriend to dump when I listen to it, which I know I should not feel.”

    I mean, Robyn’s convincing people who don’t even have girlfriends about the rightness of her case. I’m not sure why everyone thinks this guy is immune.

  30. (clarification: that first paragraph sounds really condescending, when I didn’t mean it to at all! ugh. I should stop commenting on this song; it is making me look really bad, and I have way too much of a visceral reaction to it to be objective.)

  31. At ca 2:24 during the “yooouu” her face looked, for a moment, curiously like Neil Tennant. I <3 them both, so no problem. 9.

  32. Sorry, 2:28ish

  33. I wish I’d gotten my shit together in time for this song. As always, good work, every one.