In Defense of Robyn’s Boston Calling Headline Set

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Photo: Saidy Lopez/Aesthetic Magazine

When Day 2 of Boston Calling came to a close, I’d never been more indecisive about a set. I was invigorated, yet disappointed; inspired, but perplexed. Four days later, these feelings have yet to dissipate.

Robyn’s headline gig at the Massachusetts festival was my first live glimpse of the Swedish songstress/dance-pro–an artist who had eluded me since her 2005 self-titled debut’s sharp 180-degree segue into Euro-style synthpop. By night’s end, the crowd’s expectations (including my own) and self-propelled hype worked against us when we were delivered a set we could barely recognize or participate with.

Rewind.

Merely hours before taking the stage in Boston that night, Robyn announced that for her upcoming bout of festival performances this summer (Boston was the first), she would be debuting brand new remixes of her songs crafted by some of her favorite dance contemporaries such as Cassius, Joakim, Mr. Tophat and The Black Madonna. She told the world: “Remixes make me listen to a song in a different way; they stretch you out as a listener and leave space for other things that a pop song usually doesn’t. I hope to be able to share this experience with my audiences at Governor’s Ball, Boston Calling, and Field Trip over the next week and just dancing together.”

It only took about 15 minutes for Basic Boston Becky’s to grab their drunk college friends and coerced, bored-looking boyfriends by the hand and hightail it out of there.

I repeat: people walked out. A lot of people.

What Robyn did for the next 90 minutes was creative, courageous…and yet, still a very, very questionable decision. She comprised her entire set full of remixes, sandwiching two of her (still very clubby) tracks with La Bagatelle Magique (“Love is Free” and “Set Me Free”) in between. If you were there to hear that song from Girls, you left sorely disappointed.

There were times when 20 minutes would sail by without any cohesion or vocals. Similar sounding beats pulsated, thumped and streeeeetched to fill these vocal-less gaps, which seesawed between fascinating and lulling. For a half-drunk, probably stoned crowd who stood in 95 degree heat all day (seriously, it was a scorcher), it was sort of soul-crushing. Fans were noticeably disappointed and not feeling it; some were even downright complaining and killing the buzz for others around them.

But when a familiar chorus struck, the entire crowd lit up and sang their hearts out, but these singalongs were few and far between, which hurt the budding momentum. The energy undulated with remixed beat after remixed beat – rising, plummeting, and then mostly plateauing and failing to climax. Having waited 11 years to see Robyn – I can’t argue with people claiming to be disappointed. I was too, in a way, but the walkouts were still incredibly unjustified, in my opinion.

Having said that, let’s make like Robyn and flip this script because:

Robyn is a fucking genius.

While I wish I saw her regular show – I ended up finding her performance to be exhilarating (at times) and incredibly artistic, driven and brave. She took a chance, trying to give the crowd something she thought we might have unknowingly wanted. She went full-Prince on us. It was just played to the wrong audience in the wrong city.

Robyn worked that stage, shimmying in a red ADIDAS jacket and a pair of half-ruffled, sparkly pants. She ditched the jacket while dancing in front of her stage props – four towering mirrors stage left that reflected her contagious spirit and killer dance moves back out to the crowd.

When Robyn says she is “Dancing On Her Own” she is not fucking around. She truly danced like no one was watching. (I have no doubt that she dances exactly like this when she’s at home alone, just chilling.) Her spirit had free reign. She dances because she NEEDS to. Because it elevates her. Because dancing to Robyn is just as much of a creative expression as opening her mouth and singing notes. And I respect the shit out of that. She was one of the bravest performers I’ve ever witnessed. I was happy. Bewildered for sure, but happy.

What I learned from Robyn that night: Do what makes you feel good, even if it’s not what others expect or want from you.

This particular Boston crowd did not want the show Robyn had planned for them. They wanted the hits. In this case, the crowd wasn’t wrong. They desperately wanted to connect with her, to share a moment with her that they’d remember forever. They wanted it so bad you could taste it.

But it wasn’t the set we expected. It wasn’t the set we craved. It was the one that we got that night, and it was unique in every way. Flashy, fierce, calculated and cool. While I absolutely still feel like I need to “see Robyn” and completely agree that a set like that was too niche for a large festival crowd, I admire her creativity. I swoon at her voice. I’m passionate about her passion. Regardless of the many highs and lows, she still moved me physically and emotionally.

Robyn and her band left everything they had on that stage. I just wish Robyn had thought to invite us to the party, too.

 

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Photo: Boston.com

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