Planet of Sound: Robyn, “Fembot”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.)

There’s this thing music geeks like to do, where we point to a lesser-known artist with a catchy pop sensibility and say, “Look at them! If only more people heard them, they would be huge stars already.”

In the case of Robyn, a Swedish pop singer who’s technically more indie than the Arcade Fire, the lament may be unnecessary; even after leaving a major label to release her albums herself, she’s had a couple worldwide hits and the love of a significant portion of the music-listening Internet. But, to Robyn fans, that doesn’t seem like quite enough – nobody mentions Robyn along with Rihanna, Beyonce, or Lady Gaga, and her album sales are miniscule by comparison.

Most likely, the things standing in her way are some of the same things that make fans love her: her down-to-earth relatability, her oddball humor, and the sense that she’s not “larger than life,” but in fact just life-size – your size. But there’s also the reason we’re gathered here today on Tor.com: her continued fondness for robots and science fiction metaphors.

Sci-fi’s gone mainstream now, sure, but I’m still not certain Top 40 radio is ready for an idol who goes on about androids quite as much as Robyn does.

“Fembot” was the first single Robyn chose from her 2010 Body Talk album series, an exuberant, double-entendre-filled, R&B-inflected track from the robot’s point of view. The overwhelming vibe for most of the song’s running time seems to be of total sexual confidence:

My system’s in mint condition
The power’s up on my transistors
Working fine, no glitches
Plug me in and flip some switches
Pull up in docking position
Pop the hatch and hit ignition
B-b-burn out, baby
Ready for demolition
(Once you’ve gone tech you ain’t never going back)

Robyn’s bionic narrator refers to her “digitally chic titanium armor” and “automatic booty applications” while “sipping propane topped with a cherry.” The robotic elements are what make her so irresistibly assured.

But there is a counterpoint to that interpretation. The song’s first lines, delivered rather more flatly than the rest, are these:

I’ve got some news for you
Fembots have feelings too
You split my heart in two
Now what you gonna do?

Which makes it possible to interpret the song as something more about the double-bind that women can find themselves in, both in the music industry and, sometimes, life in general. They are expected to be steel-shiny surface-perfect, but there’s an internal life in there that nobody really seems to be all that interested in.

In contrast, on “Robotboy,” off her self-titled 2005 album, Robyn highlights the aspects of a cybernetic “life” that involve fragility rather than toughness:

Hey now boy, where you been?
Smashed up toy, are you lost again?
Your circuit’s blown
Will you find your coordinates home?

In an interview with Spinner magazine, asked about the sci-fi elements in her songwriting, Robyn answered:

Totally, I’m a nerd for sure. But for me, writing about robots, I’m not trying to predict the future or anything. It’s more like, it’s a nice metaphor – it’s more about the human condition… But of course in a song like ‘Fembot’ it’s also fun to use those words, and you can play around with them and it’s a lot easier to understand than if I wrote a song about political issues or women’s bodies. It’s trying to put it in a context so that people can understand what I mean. And dance to it too.

Which is, of course, exactly what many science fiction and fantasy fans have been insisting about our literature of choice for years now. It can be fun to interpret the world through this sort of lens, and it can also shed unexpected light on aspects of everyday life or the world around us.

Critic Nitsuh Abebe has written perceptively about how Robyn’s best tracks (he points to “With Every Heartbeat” and “Be Mine”) seem “incredibly empathetic and weirdly nurturing, like Robyn is perpetually on your emotional side.” And so, since that facet may not be fully on display in the selections above, I’ll leave with one last song that fuses familiar emotion with science fiction imagery:

Hey, what did I do?
Can’t believe the fit I just threw
Stupid
Wanted the reaction (wanted the reaction)

I remember the words
How I said them so they would hurt
But then, I regret my actions (I regret my actions)

If I could press rewind…

 It’s true. I’ll defend to the end any artist who, in the middle of a big ol’ weeper about a possibly relationship-ending fight, is willing to belt out the line “All I want / is a DeLorean…”


Joshua Starr wants a DeLorean, too. But really, who doesn’t?

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