Exploring the cult appeal of Robyn’s ‘Dancing On My Own’

Lorde called it ‘perfect’, it’s soundtracked key scenes in Gossip Girl and Girls, and now a piano cover has hit #2 in the UK – we look back on the Swedish star’s low-key classic

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Robyn Dancing On My Own Video

Few musicians are able to sonically narrate the trajectory of love as skillfully as Robyn. The Swedish pop singer’s lyrics are melancholic, bittersweet, yet never saccharine. There was “Be Mine”, a tale of unrequited love; “With Every Heartbeat”, an exploration of pain experienced in relationships; and of course “Dancing On My Own”, a heartbreaking depiction of seeing an ex with a new lover. Despite being named the best song of 2010 by the likes of The Guardian and appearing in countless year-end round-ups, the song’s commercial response was comparatively lukewarm – it reached just #8 in the UK, and didn’t even chart on the USA’s Billboard Hot 100.

Six years later, however, and the song is back in the charts – albeit in a very different form. A cover version by Calum Scott, an attractive talent show alumnus, peaked at #2 last week. Even more surprisingly, his version has been a fixture on the charts for the last 20 weeks and has even been certified gold for selling in excess of 400,000 copies. How did he achieve success with a song that can most accurately be described as a cult favourite? More importantly, why is Robyn’s original still so commercially underrated?

Robyn is consistently hailed as a critical success – practically anything she touches is described as musical gold, and for good reason. Her albums may blend a poppish, universal appeal with more leftfield sonic experimentation, but her singles are always well-chosen and laden with emotion. More importantly, the singularity of her creative vision is well-documented and exemplified by a decision made in 2005 to sever ties with a major label. Her rationale behind establishing Konichiwa Records – a label that currently houses only herself and Zhala – was that she would rather release quality music without label interference. The decision paid off: the resulting eponymous album quickly spawned a #1 single back in 2007 in the form of “With Every Heartbeat”.

Although the song remains her biggest chart success, “Dancing On My Own” is often considered Robyn’s defining song. Its appeal is enduring for countless reasons, arguably the most prominent of which is its lyrical portrayal of helplessness and longing. “I’m giving it my all, but I’m not the girl you’re taking home / I keep dancing on my own”, she wails in the chorus, musically encapsulating a pain that most young people have experienced on dancefloors at some point. Robyn’s emotional delivery gives the song a visceral quality which has made it the perfect choice for several sitcoms over the last six years; it soundtracked the famous ‘hate sex’ scene between Chuck and Blair in Season 4 of Gossip Girl, as well as providing Hannah with an exhilarating musical escape from the revelation of a homosexual lover in Season 3 of Girls. 

Heartbroken ballads have always been a regular fixture on charts worldwide, but Robyn’s unique take on love and loss offered something more complex and more nuanced than pop music has come to expect. Its backdrop could be any nightclub at any time; crucially, the star points towards the nightclub as a utopia of sorts, a cultural hub which plays host to a fragile mix of emotions. “People have so many expectations when they go out, so many wishes about what their night is going to be,” she explained in a 2010 Pitchfork interview. “People get drunk and turn into themselves in a way, and they go out to experience some kind of emotion. But it’s not always about fun. There’s a destructive side to it.” This element of self-destruction plays into the track, described as a contrast between the gut-wrenching pain of seeing a lover move on and a macabre inability to look away.

“The protagonist of ‘Dancing On My Own’ may be emotionally wounded, yet the prevailing message is that adrenaline-soaked nights out are the ultimate escape”

Ultimately, though, the song specifically shines against the backdrop of a culture which argues nightlife is dwindling. Articles argue that we’re all transforming into club-phobic hermits, whereas iconic venues continue to shutter with alarming regularity due to strict licensing laws and loss of profit. The protagonist of “Dancing On My Own” may be emotionally wounded, yet the prevailing message is that adrenaline-soaked nights out are the ultimate escape – it isn’t always about meeting a potential lover, nor is it purely about hedonism. Instead, it’s about experiencing music in its most primal form and being released from negativity on the dancefloor. “I think (the nightclub is) an important place for our generation,” she explained in a 2010 interview with Dummy. “It has a role in our everyday lives that you could almost compare to a church or something that has a bigger meaning to people.”

Still, the truth is that Calum Scott’s “Dancing On My Own” cover is not at all bad. Reviews labelled his version “crisp and haunting”, whereas a string of comments on the self-produced video place emphasis on his “pure, talented, amazing voice” – a fact which is undeniable. He can sing, and he can sing well. However, by stripping the song of its initial context and transforming it into a formulaic piano ballad he loses the duality that makes the original so incredible.

Robyn was renowned for her frenzied live performances of the track – she would frantically throw herself around stages worldwide, crying out the lyrics as she desperately thrust out her anger. A similarly powerful performance ensues in the official video – a stand-out moment comes as hammering drums transition into the final chorus, accompanied by the image of Robyn ruthlessly throwing punches as strobe lights frame her wounded aggression. Scott’s video displays none of this emotion. Instead, he watches the girl of his dreams unite with the guy of her dreams amongst a sea of uniformity. There is no dancing, no energy and no release; it’s a linear interpretation of a musical masterpiece celebrated for its juxtaposition of heartbreak and euphoria.

Robyn’s ongoing ‘critical darling’ reputation illuminates a sobering truth. Whenever the raw, bleeding hearts of her devastating bangers are ripped out, stripped bare and proliferated worldwide, the results resonate because there’s no distraction. The fact that a talent show alumnus has gained enormous success with one of her biggest hits is no real surprise – these shows are based on a tried-and-tested blueprint of comprehensive backstories, stripped-back piano covers and little musical experimentation, and it seems that this formula still succeeds. It doesn’t, of course, guarantee longevity, it simply means that the masterminds behind these franchises intrinsically understand the commercial mechanisms of the music industry.

This is a game that Robyn has proven time and time again that she’s unwilling to play; her reluctance to dilute her vision to achieve chart success is admirable, yet leaves her biggest hits open for the likes of Scott to popularise. Still, “Dancing On My Own” continues to prove its undisputed reputation as a modern classic – even Lorde cited it as a ‘perfect’ track, writing “it’s happy and sad, fiery and independent but vulnerable and small, joyous even when a heart is breaking.” Ultimately, Robyn appears to have achieved the elusive dream of a perfect pop song – if anything, the success of Scott’s pared-back rendition only serves to highlight the devastating brilliance of Robyn’s timeless original.

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