Beginning her career in pop music at the age of just sixteen, with her debut album Robyn Is Here first appearing in 1995, Robyn saw early commercial success in the United States. Though she had already released a couple of well-received singles in her native Sweden, and one too in the UK, ‘Do You Know (What It Takes)’ became her debut single in the US in mid-1997, and reached number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. ‘Show Me Love’ came out later the same year and achieved precisely the same feat. But then in 1998, ‘Do You Really Want Me (Show Respect)’ – which had already been released in Sweden – emerged as her third US single, and it failed to chart. It would prove the last single – and Robyn Is Here the last album – released internationally by Robyn for almost ten years.
Having spent a full and exhausting year touring the United States across 1997 and 1998, Robyn returned to Sweden and began work on her second album. Again writing or co-writing all of the album’s songs, My Truth was released in Sweden in 1999. While the depth and intimacy of the songwriting drew acclaim at home, some of the lyrics caused consternation because they discussed the abortion which Robyn had in late 1998. Refusing to remove or modify the relevant songs, Robyn’s international distributor, RCA Records, ultimately decided to cancel plans for an international release.
As a result, Robyn switched from BMG, which then owned RCA Records, to Jive – although within a few months BMG and RCA would also acquire Robyn’s new label. Whatever, by the time her third album, Don’t Stop the Music, appeared in 2002, Robyn was thoroughly disenchanted with the music business. She later said, ‘I think the third record I made was a big compromise. I felt like it wasn’t fun anymore […] I was going backwards. I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do.’
Back in Stockholm and browsing a record store, Robyn came across Deep Cuts, the recently-released second album by The Knife. In her own words, she was at once ‘amazed by it […] I thought it was the best thing I’d heard in years. I just felt like wow this is really what I’ve always been looking for – and not only was it good, it was Swedish.’ Robyn sought out the electronic duo, comprised of siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer, and the result of their collaboration was the song ‘Who’s That Girl’.
Over buzzing, juddering synths and spurts of percussion, it is still Robyn’s voice which structures ‘Who’s That Girl’. The song features a fantastic hook, as she urges ‘I just can’t deal with the rules / I can’t take the pressure’; and the chorus is as catchy as can be, Robyn repeating the titular question as The Knife’s production unfastens. Yet when Robyn took the piece to her record label, they balked at the new sound: ‘They just thought it was weird. They just didn’t understand it. I guess they didn’t consider it to be pop music, which I think is crazy. It’s totally pop music! Modern, inventive music – that’s what pop music should be.’
The Knife already had their own record label: Rabid Records, founded by the indie band Honey Is Cool, which had been led by Karin before disbanding in 2000. The Knife had released both of their albums plus a handful of singles on Rabid. Taking confidence from their example – and recollecting ‘I felt like either I quit making music or I start my own record company’ – Robyn bought herself out of her Jive contract, and soon established Konichiwa Records.
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Tellingly, Robyn’s first album on her own label would be self-titled: nothing but Robyn. Robyn again led the songwriting process, stating later:
‘I think the biggest lyrical inspiration for this album was going back to when I was like 15 and on the subway listening to hip hop. Back then, because I didn’t know many people in Sweden who knew about rap, it was like my own music world, where the lyrics were very direct. So I tried to return to that age when you’re so strong and self-confident, while acknowledging there’s also a part of being a teenager when you’re sometimes very insecure and feel very fragile.’
‘I still wanted to write pop music. I wanted it to be simple, I wanted it to be sparse, and I wanted it to be hard.’
Her main collaborator, heading the production of the record, would be Klas Åhlund. The founding member of the genre-blending and oft-masked Swedish band Teddybears, Åhlund was also a producer, who had worked previously with Eagle-Eye Cherry. The first song he and Robyn collaborated on towards Robyn was ‘Be Mine!’. Åhlund would subsequently have a hand in eight of the album’s thirteen original tracks.
Robyn was released in Sweden in April 2005. The album debuted at number 1, making it Robyn’s first chart-topping album in her home country. It would spend a total of thirty-six weeks in the Swedish Albums Chart. ‘Be Mine!’ became the album’s first single, released just ahead of it at the end of March. The song reached number 3 on the Swedish Hitlistan, and was followed up in June by ‘Who’s That Girl’, which went only so far as number 37.
In late 2006, as Robyn began to be prepared for a prospective international release, The Rakamonie EP came out in the UK. ‘Konichiwa Bitches’ became the first UK single from Robyn. It appeared in March 2007, and was followed by ‘With Every Heartbeat’ – a collaboration with Kleerup not featuring on the album – which had been released as a single in Sweden earlier in the year. ‘With Every Heartbeat’ soared to number 1 in the UK in August. By the time ‘With Every Heartbeat’ was released in the United States, marking something of a comeback for Robyn the following January, ‘Be Mine!’ had just been distributed in the UK – almost three years after its initial release in Sweden. It climbed to number 10 in the chart.
Meanwhile, Robyn had been issued twice in the UK over the spring and summer of 2007 via Universal/Island; and at the end of April 2008, it would emerge via Interscope in the US. For the international edition, an interlude with the Swedish title ‘Tomteverkstan’ was removed from the original collection of tracks; but ‘Cobrastyle’ – a Teddybears cover which had first featured on The Rakamonie EP – and ‘With Every Heartbeat’ were added and the tracklist rearranged. ‘Curriculum Vitae’ remained the album’s opener, but it was now followed by ‘Konichiwa Bitches’; with a strong middle sequence comprising, in turn, ‘Be Mine!’, ‘With Every Heartbeat’, and ‘Who’s That Girl’.
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From her earliest music, Robyn’s voice has always possessed a hard-edged earnestness, practical and realistic and pushing up through the surface of her compositions by virtue of its emotional resonance and a graceful understanding of the beauty of the moment, whether it sustains or bruises hope. Perhaps if there is anything distinguishing pop music from other forms, it lies in a wholehearted endeavour towards crystalising feelings which are fleeting and muddy: the moment of a breakup rather than its build or consequences; an unrequited love instead of a relationship’s long course; mornings, afternoons, and nights rather than weeks, months, and years.
The clarity inherent in Robyn’s voice works especially well up against bold and clashing but still streamlined textures. As Robyn begins, singing ‘It’s a good thing tears never show in the pouring rain’, ‘Be Mine!’ rushes forward on a hurried bassline. Flurrying violin heightens the elegance of Robyn’s resignation; and drums flutter like a quickened pulse under the hook and chorus, as Robyn continues ‘And now you’re gone there’s like an echo in my head / And I remember every word you said / But you never were and you never will be mine’.
Words repeat and echo to both challenge Robyn’s declarations, and to express the distance between her and her lost would-have-been love. Then two-thirds of the way through the song, a startling spoken-word bridge comes in, depicting a vivid scene: ‘I saw you at the station / You had your arm around what’s-her-name / She had on that scarf I gave you / And you got down to tie her laces’.
The original video for ‘Be Mine!’, which accompanied the single’s release in Sweden in 2005, was directed by Brad Kluck. It cuts swiftly with Robyn depicted in a variety of settings and uniforms: Robyn bald, and alone pulling on a plain dark-brown wig; with a sea-green bob and a gold tasseled skirt, adorned in fur and posturing in front of a red curtain; with a chopped black haircut and yellow rubber gloves; checking her tired complexion closely in a mirror; and Hollywood-esque, with flowing golden locks driving a red convertible. The video contrasts been the posed, the flamboyant, and the ostentatious, and the harshly self-critical. It comes to a close with Robyn cutting away at her natural head of hair.
A new music video for ‘Be Mine!’ was filmed for the UK release of early 2008 – with the video and the song extending across the year throughout Europe. Directed by Max Vitali and made available at Robyn’s website, it begins with Robyn poised anxiously on the upper-right corner of a bed, wearing a fitted black dress with furry sleeves. She twists and squirms while separately, amid shots of the nighttime foliage and worn apartment fronts, she stops at a kebab shop then a pool hall with a young friend. The video plays on the ambiguity of the song’s subject, with Robyn admiring and hiding her pain from a narrow distance, never quite disclosing whether the one whose loss she is lamenting was once a firm part of her life, or always something more hoped for, a construct as much as a reality.
As well as two videos there are effectively two versions of the song itself. While Robyn initially performed ‘Be Mine!’ as it appears on record, she later began singing it acoustically, slowed down with just the piano for accompaniment. There is also a live version where she plays the song at the original tempo, alongside a heavy-hitting drummer and a small string section of violins and double bass.