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Why Robyn is a Queer Icon

Few artists understand the sheer power of heartbreak better than Robyn. The Swedish pop powerhouse may have a back catalogue brimming with bangers, but there’s a bittersweet sentiment nestled in amongst the synths that links her biggest hits. This ability to fuse devastation and euphoria has earned her mainstream success, but it only takes a glance at Twitter to see that she also has a reputation as a queer icon. She proved this recently by returning from a lengthy musical hiatus, releasing new single “Missing U” and sending Gay Twitter™ into meltdown mode.

Memes depicting gay Robyn prayer circles emerged, as did jokes about her famously enthusiastic LGBTQ fanbase. INTO staff writer Mathew Rodriguez even described her as “one of the few things at the center of the queer men / queer women fanbase.” He’s definitely not wrong – but why exactly is it that we stan so hard?

To answer this question requires an Oprah-style dive into Robyn’s childhood, which was unconventional, to say the least; her parents ran their own experimental theater group and would tour for six months a year with their daughter in tow. In a 2011 interview with OUT Magazine, she describes being initially embarrassed by her shaven-headed mom and frustrated by the fact that her “masculine” name and short haircut led to her being mistaken for a trans man by teachers. In the same conversation, she theorizes that these early experiences helped her “identify with queerness.”

Obviously, queerness is about more than a “lesbian haircut” and an androgynous aesthetic, but her descriptions of feeling like an outsider with a misunderstood identity are likely to ring a few bells amongst the LGBTQ community.

She soon got bored of wanting to fit in, and later began to embody the core ethos of queerness; the desire to fuck with labels, refuse conformity and curate an identity rooted in a rejection of norms. She played the pop star game in her early teens, releasing a slew of twee but catchy pop songs and earning a reputation as a Swedish “national treasure” – a label she later came to chuckle at in this mini-documentary. Without realizing it, she became a poster child for purity and innocence – a reputation which she seemingly didn’t want.

After being refused the freedom to experiment – her label famously asked her to re-record parts of 1999 album My Truth, which featured two songs about a secret abortion – she backed out of her deal and quietly began working on new music with groundbreaking electronica duo The Knife. At this point, she began forming a queer chrysalis which would soon split to reveal Robyn, the album which first caused LGBTQ fans worldwide to properly lose their shit.

The album was rejected by record execs for being too weird; from the glitchy, cheeky speak-rap of “Konichiwa Bitches” to the jagged synths and nonconformist message of “Who’s That Girl?,” there was enough quirk in the album to make labels bristle at the thought of taking it on. So, like countless queer people whose visions are considered too anomalous for the mainstream, she took matters into her own hands by building a label all of her own and rejecting external interference – to the point that she even released a track called “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do.” Tongue-in-cheek? Maybe, but the message is still clear.

As a newly-liberated artist, Robyn’s music began to take center-stage. More importantly, the locked-and-loaded ‘sad bangers’ we now know her for were nestled in amongst the more experimental tracks, and they quickly propelled her to worldwide chart domination; “With Every Heartbeat” is a touching ode to the pain of a break-up which plays out over grandiose strings and ambient synths; ‘Be Mine’ is even more to the point, featuring a hilariously cheesy line about an ex-boyfriend having the nerve to wear a gifted scarf to meet a new girlfriend. Sure, it sounds dramatic – but don’t we all indulge ourselves internally by becoming the Gossip Girl-style narrators of our own pain?

For Connor Young, it was this song that crystallized his adoration for Robyn. “The acoustic version of ‘Be Mine’ was always a go-to for me,” he explains. “In my head, it was written for this one guy I was totally in love with at school. Shocker – he was straight! He would play me like a cat with a dying mouse, so I loved that low-key longing in her music; you can really hear it in her voice and, to be honest, who hasn’t been there?”

This blueprint of heartbreak on the dance-floor was one she later perfected with “Dancing On My Own,” a balls-to-the-wall banger which sees her frantically thrashing her limbs in catharsis as the object of her desire makes out with someone else. The album (technically a compilation of three smaller EPs) which spawned her biggest hit, Body Talk,  was a celebration of nightclubs, and in promotional interviews she described them as “churches” – “like [they] have a bigger meaning to people.” Historically, nightclubs have played a vital part in the formation of queer culture. They’ve become safe havens for misfits whose identities are persecuted in broad daylight; small but perfectly-formed community spaces designed to facilitate pure euphoria without judgment.

Unsurprisingly, Robyn tracks always go off in a club setting. When she played the occasional DJ set, Bethan McKnight would play her hits and watch dancers go wild. “I love her emotional bops,” she explains, before linking them to queer culture more specifically. “Sad songs that slap are a big part of the queer canon; she has so many hits that embody that struggle. I personally remember being between homes, working ridiculously long hours and being on medication for severe acne. At the time, I would just listen to ‘Dancing On My Own’ for hours on repeat while I traveled between the hospital, different houses and work; it encapsulates this loneliness which I find hard to define, but still relate to deeply.” The track was later immortalized in a touching scene in Girls, in which Hannah dances out her frustration at discovering her boyfriend is gay, cementing its status as both a cult classic and the ultimate sad-banger.

Now before you say I’m reaching, I know that heartbreak is universal; the majority of us experience it at some point, but there are small details which make Robyn’s specific blueprint resonate more clearly with queer people. First of all, our love lives are often censored during daylight hours. We don’t have the luxury of engaging in PDAs without the fear of being beaten, so our own love stories often play out in clubs custom-built to house them. The second fact is that, although plenty of queer relationships go on to live happily ever after, we’re rarely shown this in mainstream media. We’re either promiscuous, heartbroken, maligned for our sexualities or left pining for straight protagonists who ultimately fuck us over. Queer happiness doesn’t make for good television; instead, our depictions are rooted in trauma or marginalization. Robyn reclaims this; she crumples up her heartbreak and swathes it in synth-lines, dancing through the pain like so many of us have in the past.

One final observation recurs amongst the fans I interview: her aesthetic still draws in queer fans. Jonny Seymour of Stereogamous describes her resilience, independence, and eccentricity as reasons why he loves her, but he also cites her willingness to blur the lines with pronouns in her songs and her “cute androgynous look”; Bethan similarly describes her androgyny as a plus point. Maybe it’s because pop stars are so often placed under pressure to conform, but Robyn’s refusal to be boxed in aesthetically seems to resonate hugely amongst a queer community whose appearance is still heavily, sometimes violently, policed.

Essentially it’s difficult to pinpoint one reason for Robyn’s status as a queer icon. Her unconventional upbringing and refusal to conform set her apart as an artist whose music comes from an undeniably queer perspective; she plays with song structures and toys with her appearance, embellishing her music with a subtle tinge of rebellion (see the reactions to her loose, experimental mini-albums) and a massive dose of heartbreak. But ultimately, it’s her resilience that seems to resonate with the queer community; she dances through pain, rejects any misunderstandings of her identity and even builds her own platforms to preserve the ‘weirdness’ of her work.

Ironically, the sparse, glimmering synths of “Missing U” have already divided critics convinced – somewhat unfairly, given the lack of actual music we’ve heard – that the new record won’t scale the dizzying heights of her masterpiece Body Talk. But it seems she’s at a point where reviews don’t matter; the fan-dedicated documentary that accompanied its release just proves what we already know: Robyn’s queer fanbase is going nowhere.


Jake Hall