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Alone Together: Robyn's 'Dancing On My Own' Opens The Corners Of Community

Jun 10, 2019
Originally published on June 10, 2019 10:31 am

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.


"Dancing on My Own" starts with one of the most visceral, propelling four-to-the-floor beats of the past few decades. The tempo is perfectly situated right around 118 beats per minute, pretty close to what scientists say is the preferred walking tempo for humans. The one-five-four chord progression is immediately familiar, like it's been around since the beginning of time. Everything about it is meant to make you smile and move and dance. It could easily be a perfect teen pop song, especially considering Robyn got her start making just that.

But "Dancing on My Own" is more than that. When the lyrics start, you realize she's tricked you, that it's all one big bait and switch. This is a breakup song:

Somebody said you got a new friend
Does she love you better than I can?
There's a big black sky over my town
I know where you're at, I bet she's around

In lesser hands, it might be confusing. When Robyn does it, it's human. Contrary emotions wrapped up in one package, happiness and sadness living together in a groove: Everything about this song is a juxtaposition. That's what makes it an anthem.

When I decided to make "Dancing on My Own" my pick for NPR's American Anthem series, I went to social media and asked anyone who saw the request to send me their stories about the song. I heard a little bit of everything.

There were the DJs who spin it at wedding receptions, knowing it will get everyone on the floor. People who have played it for hours in one sitting, or kept it on repeat for a road trip hundreds of miles long, or made it the last dance at every house party they've ever thrown. People who insist it can be a queer anthem: "Is she singing 'I'm not the GIRL you're taking home' or 'I'm not the GUY you're taking home'? Who knows! Maybe she MEANT it that way? ROBYN IS A GENIUS," they said, more or less. The ones who have used it to get through not just breakups, but cancer, or death, or a lot more, who love that decadent drum fill toward the end more than life.

All stories of juxtaposition. People finding community in a song all about being solo.

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In the late 1990s, when she was still a teenager, Robyn had two U.S. Top 10 singles. "Show Me Love" and "Do You Know (What It Takes)" were in line with the rest of the teen pop from those days, adjacent in sound to the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync and Britney Spears. Less than 10 years later, Robyn had left all that behind, made her own label, Konichiwa Records, changed up her image and started making pop with an edge.

"It was a big, big change for me," Robyn told NPR in 2010, "but I really didn't feel like I had another option. For me it was like the last, last thing to try, before I was going to quit music."

It worked. Robyn's self-titled album and its follow-up, the three-part Body Talk series, made her a star in Europe and a cult favorite in the States. Music critic Sasha Geffen says in this new phase of her career, Robyn succeeds because she still has teen pop in her heart, even if she broke up with that part of the industry.

"It's important to see her as a teenager who survived," Geffen says. "She has kind of learned to carry the intensity of teenage emotion into perfectly adult pop songs ... which I think is incredible."

It's as if Robyn wants you to live in that space — to give you time to insert all of your emotions and stories and feelings into the seconds between the lines. -

Patrik Berger, who co-wrote and produced the song with Robyn, told me the lyrics were the hardest part. The chords and the track and the melody came together pretty quickly, but every single word took its time.

"I think we spent, like, a couple of days on each line," Berger says. "I remember we were texting each other for, like, weeks on lines. I have a notebook [full] of lyrics that we scrapped."

The result is only around 130 words, with a simple, accessible story. A woman ends up at the same club as her ex. She sees him across the floor, dancing with someone new. She's hurt, but she keeps dancing, over a floor full of stiletto heels and broken bottles. Drum break. Repeat.

Nate Sloan, a musicologist at the University of Southern California and host of the music podcast Switched On Pop, says the miracle of those lyrics is their sparseness. "[There's] like six seconds of silence between each line in the verse," Sloan says. "Which is not a lot of time in the abstract, but on a pop song, that's like eons."

It's as if Robyn wants you to live in that space — to give you time to insert all of your emotions and stories and feelings into the seconds between the lines. Berger says his favorite line is one that gets at an extremely teenage feeling:

Yeah, I know it's stupid
I just gotta see it for myself

"You're not being the smartest person on the planet," he says, unpacking the words. "You're not being the nicest, you're not being the best. You're just a loser — and that's fine."

Though "Dancing on My Own" was never a radio hit in the states (I've never heard it on the radio once), it has had a long shelf life. Lena Dunham and Allison Williams danced to it in an episode of HBO's Girls, pushing through their characters' mid-20s pain. Just this year, it ran under the credits of the Charlize Theron/Seth Rogen rom-com Long Shot and was a major plot point in the Elle Fanning pop fable Teen Spirit. In 2016, Britain's Got Talent contestant Calum Scott took his slowed-down acoustic cover to No. 2 in the U.K., a higher peak than that of Robyn's original recording.

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But whenever the song has popped up in the close to 10 years since its release, the moral of its story has remained the same. Everything I've found in the months I've spent thinking about it, talking to people about it, working it into my bones, has shown that this song, all about being alone, has helped people find community and togetherness.

Nora McInerny is one such example. "That whole album [Body Talk] reminds me of it being October in Minnesota," she says. "The sun shining, this really blue crisp sky. The air is cold, the leaves are turning but it hasn't snowed yet, and I'm driving down the freeway, listening to these songs that are so hopeful and energetic. It just feels like falling in love when I hear those songs."

Nora is a writer and host of the podcast Terrible, Thanks For Asking. She says the moment she met her husband, Aaron, he had one question for her: "Do you like Robyn?"

Aaron made Nora consume the singer's entire discography, and it became the soundtrack to their courtship. She says she remembers him killing Robyn's songs at karaoke, or dancing so wildly to them that he once caused a good friend to tear his ACL on the dance floor: "Strangers would applaud him." When they got married, they walked down the aisle to a Robyn song.

But a few years after their relationship began, it ended. Aaron was diagnosed with brain cancer. Robyn's music became a soundtrack to a different part of their lives.

Before Aaron died, he made Nora a playlist of songs to play at his funeral. She says about 1,000 people showed up to the "makeshift" ceremony, put together in a big studio space in Minneapolis. When the crowd had thinned out to about 100, the music, hand-selected by the man whose life they were there to honor, was still playing. Nora, a little drunk by then, found herself dancing with her friends to "Dancing on My Own."

To this day, she says, there's a moment in the song that makes her cry:

So far away, but still so near
The lights go on, the music dies
But you don't see me standing here
I just came to say goodbye

"What's true of most human experiences is that you're going to have more than one emotion at a time," she says. "It's very rare to have all of that in a song."

These days, she says, hearing "Dancing on My Own" makes her think of the friends she was with that night, or of how she now loves to pull her and Aaron's son out onto the dance floor at parties. She thinks about being in communion with others, finding some way to get through it all.

Nora, of course, is not alone. Go down the rabbit hole of live videos and you'll see crowds bursting into the chorus a cappella, singing perfectly and earnestly like a children's choir. Or the one where dozens of Robyn concertgoers wait on a subway platform after a show in New York: bundled up, crammed shoulder to shoulder, singing "Dancing on My Own," together.

This is what's so confusing, so endearing and so lovable about this song. When I talk to people about it, they tell me how it always manages to make them feel less lost — eager to dance themselves toward the next day, or the next party, or the next lover. It's a song about loneliness, but the moment you hear it, you instantly feel less alone.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Every generation needs a good breakup song. Some are full of rage, some full of sadness. Swedish pop star Robyn made a breakup song that became a millennial anthem full of energy and perseverance. It's the latest musical deep dive in our American Anthem series. And NPR's Sam Sanders is our guide.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBYN SONG, "DANCING ON MY OWN")

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: From the start, Robyn's "Dancing On My Own" reaches right into your soul and latches on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBYN SONG, "DANCING ON MY OWN")

SANDERS: The song's about 118 beats per minute, a tempo engineered almost perfectly for human movement.

NATE SLOAN: You know, it's right around where scientists have placed the preferred walking tempo.

SANDERS: That's Nate Sloan.

SLOAN: Co-host of the podcast Switched on Pop and assistant professor of musicology at the University of Southern California.

SANDERS: Nate says what also makes this song special is that it's one big bait and switch. After the music starts all happy and dancey, Robyn turns it around when she starts to sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING ON MY OWN")

ROBYN: (Singing) Somebody said you got a new friend. Does she love you better than I can?

SANDERS: Somebody said you got a new friend. Does she love you better than I can? That's a breakup song. Nate Sloan says that puts "Dancing On My Own" right up there with a bunch of other classic sad songs that sound happy.

SLOAN: It's definitely got a long history in pop, like "MMMBop" by Hanson.

SANDERS: Wait. That's a sad song?

SLOAN: That's a really sad song, actually.

SANDERS: (Laughter) OK.

SLOAN: Yeah.

SANDERS: In "Dancing On My Own," Robyn is at the same club as an ex-lover. On the same dance floor, she sees this ex dancing with another girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING ON MY OWN")

ROBYN: (Singing) I'm in the corner, watching you kiss her.

SANDERS: The chorus peaks with Robyn accepting reality and dancing through the pain.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING ON MY OWN")

ROBYN: (Singing) But I'm not the guy you're taking home. I keep dancing on my own. I keep dancing on my own.

SANDERS: The strange thing has happened with "Dancing On My Own" in the last few years. Every time I've seen people experiencing this song, a song with the words on my own in the title, they are not alone. Lena Dunham's character on HBO's "Girls" - she danced to "Dancing On My Own" in a scene of that show with her character's best friend. Lots of people told me about playing this song at wedding receptions to get everyone on the floor dancing and singing together. There's this one video on YouTube. It's got dozens of people on a subway platform in New York, all going home after a Robyn concert, waiting for the train. And crammed together on the subway platform, they burst into song together, singing "Dancing On My Own."

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) I'm just gonna dance all night.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) I'm all messed up. I'm so outta line.

SANDERS: "Dancing On My Own" was first released in the States in 2010. Years before this song, Robyn was making light, fluffy teen pop. But Robyn left that behind, made her own record label, changed up her look. And she began to make music that was edgier. In 2010, Robyn told NPR about basically breaking up with a certain side of the music industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ROBYN: It was a big, big change for me. But I really didn't feel like I had another option. For me, it was like the last thing to try before I was going to quit music kind of.

SANDERS: Sasha Geffen is a music critic. And she says even though Robyn left teen pop behind, she still has teen pop in her DNA. And that's part of what makes the song "Dancing On My Own" work.

SASHA GEFFEN: It's important to see her as a teenager who survived, right? She has kind of learned to carry the intensity of teenage emotion into perfectly adult pop songs.

SANDERS: Patrik Berger is a Swedish songwriter. He co-wrote and produced "Dancing On My Own" with Robyn. He told me his favorite lyric in the song is this perfect example of that messy teenage emotion - Robyn singing about being stubborn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING ON MY OWN")

ROBYN: (Singing) Yeah, I know it's stupid. I just gotta see it for myself.

SANDERS: Yeah, I know it's stupid. But just gotta see it for myself. Patrik Berger says lyrics like that make "Dancing On My Own" something different than those breakup songs where you're just tough and strong, and everything's gonna be fine, and you're great.

PATRIK BERGER: You're not really being the smartest person on the planet. You're not being the nicest. You're not being, like, the best. You're just, like - you're just a loser. And that's fine, you know?

SANDERS: (Laughter).

BERGER: You're lost.

SANDERS: Lost but dancing through it. In researching this story, I heard from a Robyn fan who had a particularly touching story about just that - being lost and using "Dancing On My Own" to dance through it. Her name is Nora.

NORA MCINERNEY: I'm Nora McInerney. I'm a writer and a podcast host.

SANDERS: Her podcast is called Terrible, Thanks For Asking. Nora told me as soon as she met her boyfriend Aaron, who became her husband...

MCINERNEY: He asked me basically right away, oh, do you like Robyn?

SANDERS: He made her listen to all things Robyn. He was obsessed. Robyn became a big part of their relationship. But a few years after their relationship began, it ended.

MCINERNEY: Aaron - four years after we met, he died of brain cancer.

SANDERS: And as he was dying, Aaron made Nora a playlist.

MCINERNEY: One of the songs that was on his funeral playlist was "Dancing On My Own."

SANDERS: Nora obeyed his request, and she played Robyn's "Dancing On My Own" at her husband's funeral.

MCINERNEY: There's that line where she says, the lights go out. The music dies. But you don't see me standing here. And I just came to say goodbye. And I do bawl at that part pretty regularly.

SANDERS: At the funeral, Nora did bawl. But she also danced.

MCINERNEY: It had thinned out. There were maybe a hundred people left. And the music was playing. And I was very, very drunk. I would not recommend blacking out at your (laughter) husband's funeral. But if you got to do it, I mean - if you must, if you must. And I remember singing that song and crying with my friends.

SANDERS: Nora says now "Dancing On My Own" makes her think of all the times she'll get on dance floors with her son, Aaron's son, and dance with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBYN SONG, "DANCING ON MY OWN")

SANDERS: And that's really the reason Robyn's "Dancing On My Own" is a true anthem - because every time with this song, whenever you hear it, whenever you experience it, you immediately feel less alone. Sam Sanders, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING ON MY OWN")

ROBYN: (Singing) I keep dancing on my own.

MARTIN: Sam is the host of the podcast It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.