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How Robyn’s Body Talk brought pop music to the club

A look back at the 2010 record that radically reshaped the sound of the charts

This week, Robyn takes over the site as guest editor. Here, Robyn superfan Kate Soloman dives into the massive sonic legacy of the star’s own breakthrough record.

Cast your mind back, briefly, to the charts of 2010. The Black Eyed Peas were churning out a generic party song every other month; Taylor Swift was still country, and Beyoncé was Sasha Fierce. Lady Gaga’s dazzling pop theatrics were touted as the future, underpinned by thumping industrial tunes like “Telephone” and dresses made of meat. But somewhere, in the cracks between the predetermined hits, another artist was subtly shaping the way women, in particular, would create songs for years to come. Robyn was back – and she’d been staying out late.

“My drinking is killing me” isn’t exactly the traditional pop album opener. With it, Robyn radioed in from another dimension over restrained electro beats and sirens. The spoken word track grows in intensity with every verse, its shopping list of grievances taking its time to get to its point: “Don’t fucking tell me what to do.” It signalled that something new had arrived, both in sentiment and sound. It was a rejection of the traditional pop mould, even of the R&B inspired melodies that had run through her previous record. Robyn had a clear message of intent: she was going to do what she wanted, and what she wanted was to bring pop to the club.

Body Talk wasn’t so much a traditional album as it was a catalogue of songs, released whenever they were ready. This freedom to randomly thrust songs into the world whenever she felt like it came with the independence of running her own label, Konichiwa Records, which Robyn had set up when she realised the majors were never going to let her take her own path. She’d been a teen megastar in her native Sweden, and had success in the US and UK with early bubblegum singles like “Show Me Love”, which best encapsulates the Robyn of the late 90s. It was recorded with Max Martin at Sweden’s Cheiron Studios, home of the meticulously crafted early Britney Spears/Backstreet Boys sound, and opens with a throaty “yea-aay-yea-aay” that, if you were doing a pub quiz, you’d swear down was Spears. The Britney comparison is only deepened by the clipped hi-hats and striking piano chords that sound cribbed from “...Baby One More Time”, a full year before its release. But Robyn was already outgrowing that shrink-wrapped R&B pop sound, even before it became the sound that epitomised the era. When her label insisted on more of the same, she went it alone.

“Show Me Love” also features as a bonus track on her first independent album release, simply titled Robyn. Stripped back to a simple ballad, embellished with electronic nursery rhyme twinkles and a hint of ghostly reverb, it felt like Robyn reclaiming herself. Robyn, the album, was the first step on the road to Body Talk, sending up the concept of the pop diva, introducing her as the boss bitch, and goofing off when you least expect it – and that’s just in “Curriculum Vitae”. “She split the atom, invented the X-ray, the cure for Aids, and the surprise blindfold greeting,” it intones, introducing an album of dance beats, semi-raps, a heavy synth influence, diegetic sound effects and the android-like tech sounds that would be so prevalent on Body Talk.

There’s a vibrancy to Robyn, perhaps in part because it was the first collaboration between Robyn and Klas Åhlund, who co-wrote and produced much of the record. Robyn was the first time Robyn had truly collaborated with a producer, sharing ideas and shaping the sound even if she wasn’t physically twiddling the knobs. “With Every Heartbeat”, her collaboration with Kleerup (and significantly billed as with Kleerup, not Kleerup featuring Robyn), was essentially a blueprint for the tears-on-the-dancefloor bops that she has become famous for, with little to no regard for traditional song structure. Without Robyn, there would be no Body Talk.

Thankfully, there was. Released as two EPs, and a longer LP combining the best of both, Body Talk progressed her sound from hip-hop inflected dance pop to something darker and clubbier. Becoming a musical magpie, she’d spot beats or sounds she wanted to emulate then work them into songs with Åhland. Body Talk became an extension of both Robyn the album and Robyn the woman – intense, goofy, emotional and always up for a life-affirming dance. Everything may have been killing her, but it wasn’t holding her back.

Having spent a lot of time touring the dancefloors of Europe’s clubs after the release of Robyn in the mid-00s, elements of disco and dance music seeped into Robyn’s songs. But it wasn’t that Body Talk sounded like club music – not like Calvin Harris or David Guetta, who were storming the charts with predictable drops and sticky, repetitive hooks. Instead, Body Talk invoked the club. It took that feeling of sanctuary you feel in a crowd of like-minded dancers and applied it to pop songs. Every night out was captured, filtered and turned into something personal and universal. Sometimes the beat pumps through a wall, sometimes you’re in the thick of it, sometimes on a high, sometimes ready to bail.

Songs got stuck in loops and twirled out of them with a simple kickdrum (“Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do”), they slammed their drinks on the bar and stomped into the fray (“Dancing On My Own”), they palpitated with a nervous heartbeat over romantic strings (“Call Your Girlfriend”) and hid behind robotics (“Fembot”). Even if you listen to Body Talk on the bus, or in bed, you feel at least an echo of dank nights spent in railway arches and bunkers.

Technology was a motif that risked dating the album, but even “Fembot” stands up today. For all its sterile technical sounds and “Kubrickian” assembly, as Åhlund describes it in the Guardian, what keeps the album from ageing too quickly is its emotional intensity. Robyn has a knack for honesty; every Robyn song seems to contain an actual piece of Robyn, whether it’s a shard of broken heart or a silly little aside.

“Call Your Girlfriend” switched up the classic “here to steal your man” narrative that, at the time, pop had been peddling via the Pussycat Dolls, Avril Lavigne and myriad others. Instead, Robyn’s version took dumping someone for someone else to a place of empathy and kindness. The heartache of “Dancing On My Own” has struck a chord with an entire generation of LGBTQ listeners. Even the righteous frustration of “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do”, the house beat turns something potentially cheesy into a banger that you wouldn’t be ashamed to dance to for its full four minute run-time.

Somewhere at this intersection of emotion, experimentation and homage, Body Talk caused a ripple through pop music. Max Martin – who is second only to Lennon and McCartney for chart-topping hits, the go-to man for pop success – recently told Robyn that artists are forever asking to make a Robyn-esque smash. She told the Guardian, “He told me: ‘So whenever I have a female artist come into my studio, they usually put your album on the table, and they’re like: ‘I wanna make this!’” You can hear Body Talk in Norwegian musician Sigrid’s restrained beats, in Carly Rae Jepsen’s defiant heart-on-sleeve Emotion, even in the synthetic pots and pans of PC Music and Charli XCX’s clubkid mixtapes.

“I definitely have had moments in sessions where I’ve thought ‘What would Robyn do?’” singer and writer of sad bangers Chlöe Howl told us. “Striving to create something completely fresh that’s still somehow familiar. That dichotomy of the sugar sweet melodies and vocals, with the gritty, dark, solemn or sometimes downright filthy of the lyrics – I always try to think of how I can bring that into my music.”

Even the release structure of Body Talk foresaw the demise of the album, and pop polymaths’ impatience with the slow grind of the traditional label cycle – see Charli XCX’s quick-fire mixtapes, making her studio albums obsolete before they’re even finished. Working particularly with the like-minded A. G. Cook (co-founder of the equally inventive PC Music collective), Charli’s more experimental releases find a natural home online. The second of her collaborative tapes, Pop 2, was conceived and created in just two months; it was released online in the third. Rising pop hopefuls now tend to eschew the album, instead releasing shorter EPs as and when they’re ready, maintaining momentum and picking up fans, and perhaps collating them into a debut album if there’s demand. Streaming and on-demand access make this more immediate way of working an option; but even before all that, Robyn was the pioneer.

After an eight-year dry spell, the idea of three Robyn albums in a year sounds like a distant dream, but her new album, Honey, is now imminent. On it, it’s clear that Robyn isn’t ready to leave the club. She has spent the last eight years DJing rather than performing, and releasing esoteric dance tracks with close friends. Honey feels like something of a balancing act between what fans have clamoured for (Body Talk Part Four) and what she actually wants to be doing in 2018. If Body Talk was like catching feelings mid-rave at 12am, Honey’s minimal approach is more like 5am as the high wears off. But even as Robyn herself yet again explores new musical territory, Body Talk’s legacy still ripples through pop today; emotive dance acts like Tove Lo and Zara Larsson are constant reminders of the pop rule book she ripped up, in favour of searing emotions and thrilling club beats.

Robyn’s new album Honey is out October 26