Robyn and Jessie: There are Rock Stars, and There Are Pop Singers

Posted on May 15, 2013

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Summer 2012. I begin hearing buzz about a young, British R&B singer whose songs draw comparisons to those of the late, great Aaliyah. Naturally, I consult YouTube for confirmation. After a pair of highly-stylized-yet-vapid music videos, I’m over it. The songs are fine; I just don’t believe her. This Jessie Ware is not for me.

Last week, Amazon drops the price of Ware’s debut album, Devotion, to six dollars. I decide it’s worth giving it a try at that price. On my way to class, I start the record from the top. By the second track I’m floored. “Wildest Moments” is a master course in elegant pop simplicity: sparse yet moving drums, tastefully minimal instrumentation, and most importantly, a vocal melody that sticks to you. And by the time I get to the chorus on the next track, “Running,” I’m practically angry dancing. These were the two tracks I checked out on YouTube! How could I have so widely missed the point the first time around?

Perhaps the answer lies in the inverse scenario.

Winter 2010. My friend and neighbor Nitasha has been given a fun writing assignment: find the city’s best no-cover dance party. She gathers a group of us, but after a few underwhelming dancefloors, everyone except for me bails out. So Nitasha and I just go for it, hitting up another half-dozen spots, sweating it out on some floors, attempting a bastardized salsa on others. We head home giddy, a rhythmic bond newly formed.

In the cab back, dancing still on the brain, I bring up the Swedish singer Robyn. She has just released Body Talk, and the praise for her passionate brand of dance music is uniformly high. Nitasha is somehow not yet on board, but I have a good feeling I know why. The cab pulls up to our block, but even at 4 a.m., it’s not quite time to sleep. I need to make Nitasha fall in love with Robyn.

“Oh I’ve heard this one. Yeah, it’s OK.” We are sitting on the floor, on the last four square feet of Nitasha’s apartment not covered in piles of books and magazines, watching the music video for “Hang With Me.” I want to ease Nitasha in to Robyn’s visual universe, and this video, an intimate peek into Robyn’s touring life, seems the right place to start. In it, a fabulously coifed, slyly smiling Robyn proceeds to dance around a bedroom, ride a rollercoaster, sign autographs for cute kids and melt every last beating heart in her path.

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“That was amazing! Play another one.” My plan is working. Next is “Indestructible,” a bittersweet journey through the travails of Robyn’s love life and a promise to her new flame to “love you like I’ve never been hurt before.” The accompanying video is downright sexy. A gorgeous woman writhes in bed as a string of men (and one woman), presumably from her past, take turns loving the hell out of her. Meanwhile, in a separate bed, lies our hero, engulfed by clear tubes through which colorful liquid races. She looks otherworldly. Nitasha leans in, mesmorized, trying to return the sparks shooting from Robyn’s piercing eyes.

We continue. A stunning live performance of “With Every Heartbeat“, followed by “Show Me Love,” a quick detour to goofy, ’90s pop-machine Robyn, and it’s time for the kicker. “Dancing On My Own” gets us back on our feet, our eyes still transfixed on the screen, and we become a euphoric blend of shaking hips and incredulous smiles. We have found the best no-cover dance party in the city.

So what’s the phenomenon here? I think the answer can be broken down rather simply: Some singers are rock stars, others are purely singers, and only the most complete and gifted among them are both (Certainly the term “rock star” is no longer limited to the genre of rock.). Rock stars rely largely on theircool to lure you in, while pure singers can often distract from what is great about them by trying to be like rock stars.

When I think back to the first time I heard a Robyn track, I do not recall being, as I am now, entranced by her undying passion. It shines through much more clearly when you witness how her music makes her feel. And when I first saw a somewhat dead-eyed Jessie Ware, far too polished in slicked-backed hair and a stiff white blazer, describing her “Wildest Moments” with a lover, moments supposedly capable of bringing out “the greatest” or “the worst of all,” I assumed these boasts to be rather insincere. The aesthetic felt wrong. But, when separated from the oddly forced elegance she displays in front of a camera, her voice rings true and sincere.

Now, I believe this sort of dichotomy to be something worth celebrating. There absolutely is artistic merit to being a rock star. In interviews, Robyn is modest, even shy. Her tiny Swedish-accented speaking voice is adorable. But on a stage or the set of a music video, she morphs into a sexed-up, wildly-gyrating creature from a brighter future. We need rock stars like her in our lives. And if you can flat out sing and have something to say, but little stage presence or music video acting chops, there is plenty of room for you, too. Jessie Ware’s voice has stepped on my heart on every trip to class this week (It doesn’t hurt that Devotion’s production and songwriting is top-notch.). The world of pop music ought to be filled with singers of varying types of ability and appeal. Major labels package them in such a way that it’s often difficult to separate the marketing from the music.

Luckily, we have some control, too. May I always consider the audio-visual dichotomy when I initially dismiss an artist’s work. I would hate to miss out just because I did it wrong the first time.

Featured in The Michigan Daily, 9/25/12

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