Tough Crowd: On Robyn’s ‘Honey’ Tour and Grown-up Pop Music

Album cover Robyn Honey Blonde woman lying on blue fabric with a red background
From Honey Album Cover, Robyn, Konichiwa Records, 2018

Two days after I saw the Swedish dance-pop artist Robyn in concert in February, I strode onto the campus where I teach listening to her music, as I often do. (Preparing to walk into an 8 AM section of first-year composition demands a good psych-up playlist.) When the fourth cut from her most recent album, Honey, came on as I entered my office building, I nearly stopped in my tracks.

“Send to Robin Immediately” isn’t, by its nature, a track-stopping song. Live, though, the cut had a commanding valence. Robyn opened her tour with the song, and that meant that the first words of the show, which rang out from offstage, were “If you got something to say/ I need to hear it/ I need to hear it/ Tonight.”

Robyn’s task on the Honey tour was a tricky one. She was supporting a record that was more mournful than her previous work, but many of her fans were showing up to party. By beginning the Honey tour with a demand that her audience air their grievances, Robyn confronted this challenge head-on; she then went on to play a set that blended party-girl favorites and sombre reflections on loss. What stopped me in my tracks that morning was a realization: on the Honey tour, Robyn showed the world how to be a 40-year-old female pop star.

“Baby, be fair/ Be nice.”

Honey, which came out in October of 2018, is Robyn’s first solo LP in eight years. While the critical response to this record has been favorable, fans’ engagement with it has been mixed. At the San Francisco edition of This Party is Killing You, a touring Robyn-themed dance party that I went to in May, the DJs played only two cuts from Honey during the two hours I was there. In the segment of Slate’s Culture GabFest that focused on Honey, Atlantic staff writer David Sims typified some fans’ responses to this album when he noted: “I will admit, initially, I was like, ‘Where are the bangers?’” 

Many of Robyn’s American fans came to her music via her 2010 record Body Talk. Full of “bangers,” this album fueled innumerable dance parties, including — famously — the closing scene of the third episode of Girls, when, after finding out that her college boyfriend is gay, Hannah Horvath cranks up the volume on “Dancing on My Own,” a woman-scorned-turned- emancipation anthem that has become a kind of “I Will Survive” for the 21st century. “It’s a song about loneliness, but the moment you hear it, you instantly feel less alone,” Sam Sanders wrote in his essay about “Dancing on My Own” for NPR’s American Anthems series.

Honey comes from a different place than Body Talk. As has been well-documented, Robyn underwent a series of traumatic events between 2010 and 2018, including the death of her longtime producer, a tumultuous break-up and make-up with her fiance, and several years of intensive psychoanalysis. In an interview with Jessica Hopper featured on The Cut, Robyn described the difficulty of making music during these years, and how she eventually found her way back to writing: “I was disabled in a way by my sadness. I couldn’t push through, which would be my natural go-to reaction. Then you decide to do things really, really, really softly, and you realize that’s more effective.” 

It’s easy to see why fans looking for “bangers” would not be inclined to appreciate music that was made “really, really, really softly.” But Robyn’s setlist repeatedly demonstrated the throughline that runs from Body Talk to this record. 

Early in the set, Robyn followed Body Talk’s “Hang With Me” with “Ever Again,” the final track from Honey. Both songs describe on-again-off-again relationships; when juxtaposed, it was clear how much personal growth has unfolded between them. In “Hang With Me,” Robyn discourages the listener from getting too close, warning that “it’s gonna be/ All heartbreak, wistfully painful insanity/If we agree.” In “Ever Again,” by contrast, she invites truth and acknowledges the mind games she previously played: “Go ’head and try a little crazy on me/ You don’t have to worry/ About the pulling and pushing away.”

Later, Robyn paired “Dancing on My Own” with “Missing U,” the first cut from Honey. In “Dancing on My Own,” Robyn hears a rumor about a cheating partner, and — when she goes to a club and sees the evidence for herself — dances through the pain, unwilling to let “stilettos and broken bottles” prevent her from “spinning around in circles.” In “Missing U,” by contrast, she mourns the closure that her partner’s absence means she’ll never achieve: “I keep digging through our waste of time/ But the picture’s incomplete/ ‘Cause I’m missing you.” 

Body Talk is, at heart, the record of a 30-year old woman who, when brought low by men or culture, responds with defiance. (See: “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do,” “Fembot,” “Indestructible.”) Honey, too, relays the experiences of a woman confronting the challenges of the patriarchy. Here, though, Robyn’s response is not a knee-jerk middle finger, but rather an exploration of the vulnerability that these experiences create. In the chorus of Honey’s second track, she reminds us that “I’m a human being”; in the album’s titular song, she asserts that “down in the deep/the honey is sweeter”; in “Missing U,” she concludes by acknowledging the complicated legacy that lovers leave behind – “All the love you gave me still defines me.” 

In reflecting on Robyn’s task on the Honey tour, I’ve found myself returning to a series of articles that New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum has written about the ‘bad fan.’ From at least as far back as All in the Family, Nussbaum demonstrates, TV viewers have willfully misread showrunners’ work: celebrating Archie Bunker for ‘telling it like it is,’ characterizing Walter White as a hero for the working class, identifying with – rather than laughing at – Mindy Lahiri. Bad fans, Nussbaum shows, share characteristics with Internet trolls — they’re loud and they make no secret of their disregard for women and people of color. Showrunners sometimes respond to bad fans, though, and in the same way that a good Twitter clap-back provides a satisfying rejoinder to public expressions of retrograde politics, so watching plot twists that address audience members’ misconstruals feels like victory: art conquers all. 

Since Honey’s release, I have had conversations with multiple interlocutors who have echoed David Sims’s response to this record, saying something on the order of ‘I love Robyn, but I just can’t get into her new album.’ (I’ll just say it: all the people who have said this have been men.) I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Body Talk devotees who remain skeptical about Honey are ‘bad fans’ on the order of the Redditors who savaged Skyler White. Still, these fans opine for a bygone Robyn, denying her the more complex, more adult experience that Honey reflects. Like the showrunners Nussbaum writes about, Robyn didn’t shy away from the audience members who have been dubious of her new record; instead, she crafted a set list that spoke to them directly. Live, Robyn demonstrated that she expects her fans to evolve with her — that while she’ll continue to play the hits from her “Indestructible” period, her audience is going to need to come along as she moves into a “really, really, really soft[]” era.

“Never had that kind of nutrition”

In May of this year, podcaster Jane Marie tweeted…I want Madonna, someday, to make music with themes for older audiences. I guess what I’m saying is I want menopause pop, but like good menopause pop?” 

Aging as a rock star is a tough proposition: pop music is designed to appeal to a young demographic, and life on the road takes its toll. (In October of 2018, near the end of his set at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Auditorium, James Murphy, who famously retired from music at the age of 41, told the crowd that “This isn’t getting any easier, and we’re not getting any younger.”) On the Honey tour, Robyn showed how to tour in support of a pop record about the complexities of adult life; how to convince skeptical fans that that record can bang; and how to do it all while throwing one hell of a party, ruby-jeweled nipples and all.

In June, Robyn turned 40. This month, she will return to the US for a handful of follow-up tour dates. If you’re stuck on the “bangers” from Body Talk, get yourself a ticket. Let her make the case for Honey to you in person. 

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