Seeing Robyn at this year’s City Arts Fest was my first big pop concert. I’m happy to have fulfilled this rite-of-passage; never mind the fact I’m almost 30. Actually, being almost 30 does relate to this story, because, as I age, the less tolerance I have for staying out late, fumbling through crowds, STANDING, and the general pack-in-as-much-as-you-can-handle model of music festivals. EXHAUSTION =FUN? But to see Robyn meant participating in this chaos-fest, so I bucked up, slammed a 24 oz Red Bull, packed a Snickers Charged, and practiced standing around and pushing through crowds a few weeks before the event. Here is how it all went down:
I brought my friend Luke with me to take pictures, because my camera is old and I don’t understand hand-held technology. First, Luke and I went to a multi-purpose events space known as FRED Wild Life Refuge to check in and get our press passes. FRED is in a cool-looking, mid-century building that is officially described as a “collaborative arts center.” But I would like to call it an “all-purpose room-o-rama,” which just means that it is big and confusing. What the fuck is an all-purpose events space supposed to be, anyway? Or a collaborative arts center? I’ve been inside and I still don’t know. There are designer colors on the wall and lots of different “event areas”. It does look really cool inside, though.
The confusing FRED provided me with the most confusing press check-in that I’ve ever experienced. [Oh wait, I have never press “checked-in” for something. I’ve only ever snuck around whatever event I was reviewing, feeling secretly superior, even though I paid to get in. “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM??” I would silently scream at fellow spectators. If only.] There was some fiasco about what press passes Luke and I were supposed to get, what we should get, and what we would actually receive. We ended up getting separate passes and only one was a pass for the Robyn show. “Ummm, what?” Rather than me braving the pop fiends alone, trying to take pictures of Robyn that didn’t look like Rothko paintings, Luke and I decided to be “punk” and sneak us both in with the non-Robyn pass that they gave us. So, music festivals are shit-storms of chaos for press and public alike. Oh yeah, I had already figured that would be the case. The anxiety of the check-in was further perplexed by the fact that, after we left the check-in desk, we were kind of naturally corralled into a low-lit maze/room/foyer that housed one of the festivals rotating art shows. This would have been cool except that we were already hecka flustered and confused and now, here we were, trying to figure out where the art was supposed to be (re:”maze”), who were art people doing art things (yikes!), who were art people just there to look at art things (get out of my way!) and who were the other dumbstruck onlookers pretending to know what to do (I know you!). Also, there was Vitamin Water shit everywhere, which is never a good sign. Once we found the room protrusion that acted as the gallery, we had a look around as fast as we could. Some of the art was interesting, but vibe-wise, it was all either serious and made you feel bad or was funny and made you feel bad. To further concentrate the aura around us, during this entire experience there was no background music and a total lack of a chattery white-noise buzz. We had to get out of there. So Luke and I left feeling confused, worried, and totally awkward as fuck. But anyway, ENUF COMPLAING!! (Not really) ONTO THE ACTION! (Sorta) IT’S ALL UP HILL FROM HERE!
Because the art experience made us feel like our souls were all deconstructed and heavy, we decided we needed to rebuild our souls with alcohol. After a few drinks and a peek at the World Series at a neighborhood bar, we felt ready to slam another Red Bull and head out. We wandered down to the Paramount Theatre around 8:15. The Paramount is old and fancy and is a hella classy place to see a pop diva, so things were looking up for us. Before we approached the entrance, Luke and I did some jumping jacks and a secret handshake to increase the chances of us both getting in. It was a little scary, but we were able to breeze right in, just by flashing the door person the weird little fabric patches that served as our passes. Our poor ticket taker seemed blitzed and confused; they had probably just talked to 500 people in a row. It also seems like all door people see the satin square of a press pass sticker and their eyes glaze over with approval. Either that, or they don’t give a fuck. If they do, they are little jerks.
When we got inside, the Portland-based dance-duo, YACHT was booming throughout the whole theater. We went in for a quick sonic dip and caught the end of their set. The main YACHT people, Jonah and Claire, wore grungy 90’s Euro-trash clothes and jumped around in unison. Before the last two songs, they kept asking, “Does anyone have any questions?” No one was stupid enough to scream out yes.
When we came back out, a ton of people were still wheeling about in the lobby/foyer/ fancy waiting-area place. Here, we decided to engage one-on-one with fans to get the inside scoop about why they would pay shit tons of money to come here tonight. Also, we wanted to take their pictures so you could see them. This was a good decision because, in general, people were fucking stoked and this energy rubbed off on me and Luke. One exception was the little hipster couple that were all slouchy and angsty and told us “Um, yeah, we are actually, like… here to see YACHT….” REALLY?? Paying $40 to see a Portland band in Seattle is stupid, I said to them. Not really. But I think you and I can agree that they were stupid bummers. Luckily, they were the only people in the whole world who felt like that. Everyone else talked about Robyn like she was the musical version of a crisis hotline, saving them and inspiring them. People fucking LOVED to talk about Robyn and how she is “AWESOME” and “AMAZING.” They were dying to tell you about how HARD SHE WORKS and HOW LONG SHE has been working , how it’s SO TOTALLY NOT about the money, and that she is a dancing MACHINE. Seriously though, Robyn’s fans really want to see Robyn get her propers. And they should, because we are dealing with a magic Swedish pixie, tough-as-nails bird lady, who has all the cred of a class act super star, yet also seems to be perpetually skirting the actual achievement of that status. This strange paradox of existence just further adds to her deep cred. She is an indie diva. That sounds terrible, but there really isn’t a better term that I can come up with right now to describe her.
One might wonder, “Why isn’t Robyn as famous as all of the other pop divas that we know and love/hate?” The most probable answer to that is that she is not insane. This may be because she has better genes (Swedish) or it may just be something that she tries really hard at maintaining. Part of that effort seems to have included removing her self from the mainstream pop music machine. You may or may not remember her first single, “Show Me Love” (it is really bad), which was put out in the 90′s when she was only like 15 or 16. I imagine that dealing with being packaged and promoted in a particular popular musical model, while trying to grow up, was nightmarish. (It was actually, probably, OK and really fun.) But, after some time and some albums that had either luke-warm receptions or non-international releases, a change was a-coming for Robyn. In 2004, the pop-star and her label severed ties, as she moved towards a more electro-dance pop vibe. From there, she started to independently release her work on the label that she created called Konichiwa Records. You can read all about it on her Wikipedia page and she talks about it in interviews a lot. The complexities of international music distribution are boring and complicated and I’m not going to go into it here; just know that this was a turning point in her career and, from this point on, Robyn started to kick major pop-ass, getting weirder and weirder. Being cut loose from the creative confines of a major label freed her to write harder dance music, as showcased by her prolific Body Talk albums. Doing what she loved, without some asshole dude trying to dumb it down, probably also contributes to the artist maintaining her sanity. You can YouTube a few of her videos and see that she is a young woman who is eager to talk about the work, how hard the process has been, how rewarding, and also, how she likes to be tough. In the video interviews that I’ve seen, she mostly refrains from that awful diva filler about how “it’s all for the fans, and I love my fans and I live for my fans blah blah blah BLARG!!!” She simply tries really hard to make the catchy-as-fuck, sometimes-serious, music that she wants to make and, so far, she is succeeding at it. In summation, she’s fucking cool, but don’t take my word for it; here is what some of the fans had to say:
This Canadian couple were the first fans we talked to. Meghan started off by asking if I had ever seen Robyn before. When I said “no” her eyes lit up like she was gonna say “OH MY SHIT! GET READY TO SEE GOD, GIRL” but actually what she said was, “She is like nothing else. Holy shit. She is worth traveling halfway across Canada to see. Every one sings along. It’s incredible. I would pay 3 times the money I paid to she her.”
They travelled from Calgary. I don’t know where that is, but is sounds FAR. It seemed like a lot of people traveled to see her.
Lori and Daryl did not travel but they did have some cool shit to say about Robyn…
Lori: “Dancing on my own is my anthem. I sang it at Pride Idol (last summer at Seattle Gay Pride) and people loved it.”
David and Rodrigo were on a date (maybe). David was excited:
“It’s Rodrigo’s 1st Robyn! I came with to show him the ways, he’s in for a real fucking treat.”
I pressed David a little more, asking about why people love her live show so much. He said, “People have a visceral reaction. The theatrics don’t’ overweight the music and vice versa. She dances her ass off in a jersey for 2 and half hours! But then she’s incredibly real and sweet as hell.”
Kathryn and Kevin said that they had “Read great things about Robyn and had to check it out.” Kevin added, “her sister really likes her.“ WORD O MOUTH, YO.
The Tall People below are named James, Wes, Dan, and Ken. Why were they here? “Robyn. Period,” said Wes. (In other words, “it’s like, Duh!”) He added, “She is an energy ball.” Dan and Ken didn’t want to say anything.
While searching for other nice-looking people to interview, we ran into YACHT at their merch booth. We hadn’t planned on interviewing them, but they were probably the most approachable and smiley musicians that we’ve ever seen manning their own merch table. They were serious about that “ask us anything!” shit that they keep talking about between songs. I asked them what their feelings were about playing tonight with Robyn and they said, “HUGE.” That was a better response than what I had imagined. We left it at that. Then we took this sweet picture together:
The “furgirls” Leah and Erika said that “Robyn is Amazing!” and that they were here because, “LOVE KILLS!” (That is a song title, but it still doesn’t make any sense.)
We ran into three seriously classy ladies in red who had things to say like this:
Mary (on the left): “She is great because she never let go of the dance vibe. And It’s not about making money.“ Emmi Lyn was in the middle. She just nodded in agreement with her friends. It was Aileen’s birthday and she said, “I heart Robyn!“ It’s her birthday! She doesn’t need to do any ‘splainin’!
Then we saw some Olympia people who said that they were excited. You be the judge:
After we micro-interviewed all of our new friends, Luke and I went up to the photo pit where shit got real. The photo pit is this aisle that is fenced off right in front of all of the foaming-mouth superfans who squish up next to each other and happily break their ribs on the safety rail. I felt their eyes seething hatred upon our privileged shoulders. Luckily, we were only allowed to be up there for 3 songs. After 10 minutes of awkward waiting, Robyn finally came onto the stage. The theater was packed and the balcony section looked CRAZY! A roiling field of elevated dancing fools. It was awesome.
The first song was a weird slow intro/speaky thing that basically just let everyone get all giddy with anticipation. Dark red lights slowly went up to reveal a bunch of keyboard and drum dudes in white lab onesies. Robyn slowly slithered out (she is so blonde! And serious! And tiny! And close!) and did some roboty spoken word stuff as the song started to build. She had weird printed spandex leggings that may or may not have been a “steam punk” print (gears and chains and stuff) and also a boxy shirt that looked like a paper bag with stars cut in it. Not a jersey like I was hoping for, but good for how weird it was. If anyone can pull off a paper bag smock, it is Robyn. She was already dancing really hard, like stomping on the ground, twirling, marching, and constantly pulling off other cool dance moves; all within only about one minute of being up there. She further broke the ice with some comedy relief by retrieving a banana that she started to eat aggressively. Somehow, she did this without insinuating blowjobbiness and that, my friends, is a hard balance to strike. She was just like, “Damn, I need to eat something. Might as well make it entertaining!” Then she busted out a couple of remedial singles like “Dancehall Queen.” I was kind of bummed that these were the songs she was singing while we were down in the pit,but maybe it was a good thing that she refrained from the jams for those first three songs. Photographers (which I was posing as) are not supposed to lose their shit and/or move their bodies in any rhythmic way. Not pro. Thankfully, we soon had to leave the pit and I found a cozy pillar to lean on. Here, I relaxed and enjoyed the spectacle and weirdness of being at a big pop show. I also felt great about not be crammed into the armpit cracks of several sweaty strangers trying to “dance.”
One thing that I’m happy to note is that, although Robyn’s vocals were definitely treated, she was really singing and she was singing damn well. No off-key quavering bullshit here. No pop diva with a headset whose dance moves take priority over out-of-breath vocals. When she launched into “Dancing On My Own”, everyone started (appropriately) dancing even harder. Everyone was definitely also singing (Meghan from Calgary doesn’t’ lie!). It felt very posi and healthy and fun. She busted through AT LEAST a dozen more songs that everyone LOVED without any hint of fatigue. It was kind of crazy. When she did mutter things into the mic in her reassuring Swedish chirp, she sounded Zen-as-shit. She wasn’t even breathing hard! (Robyn might be a cyborg. I think she does have a song about being a robot.)
To get back to “Dancing On My Own,” this song has some weird power about it. The general enthusiasm, sincerity and admission of vulnerability that everyone engages in when they rave about that song, can be intense and even awkward. Saying that you love that song is a bit like saying “I am, from time to time, a pathetic loser.” Yet, this sentiment is ultimately neutralized with the bold understatement that all of us losers can take care of ourselves in the midst of heartache. She made fake make-out arms with herself at some point during the evening, the gesture being funny and empowering at the same time. See what I mean??
I didn’t stay for the whole show, knowing that she would likely be on stage for a full hour-and-a-half. (Ow! My bones!) But I had seen enough to know that :
a) A Robyn show is special,
b.) people would be leaving here tonight also feeling special.
Special like they just partook in a day-long cleansing ritual where they divulged all of their sins and shitty-behavior and, not only got forgiven, but were given practical, real-world tips about how to be a better person. So yeah… I just inadvertently compared Robyn to both Jesus and Scientology, but I think that you get the point. A Robyn concert seems to be just as much about dance music as it does about basking in the glow of fellow sensitive souls who aren’t afraid to be sincere. Even the hipster kids were dancing with their hands out of their pockets.
Photography by LUKE CHMURA
(check out his Vimeo page HERE)
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