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Pop Goes the Damsel


While other singers are busy playing fame games to court fans, Robyn is taking over the world the old fashioned way -- with her music.

Photography by GL Wood

It seems appropriate that when Robyn turns up for her Out photo shoot at the mammoth Palm Springs studio usually reserved for snapping souped-up hot rods, she's smack dab in the middle of the gayest week of her life. On Thursday night the Swedish pop star performed in front of Hollywood's creme de la queer--including some girls from RuPaul's Drag Race, Adam Lambert, Johnny Weir, and other assorted famous queens -- at Logo's New Now Next Awards. One night later she played a secret show to a West Hollywood club packed full of gay fans who, in between songs, took to their Twitter and Facebook accounts to post blurry photos and log giddy status updates like "I never thought I'd be so happy to have a vagina in my face!" from the front row. Tonight, she'll stage dive into a crowd of 3,000 sweat drenched gay men dressed in little more than booty shorts and muscles when she headlines the White Party, "North America's largest gay dance festival." And finally, on Tuesday, she'll swing by The Ellen DeGeneres Show for a victory lap.

The back-to-back timing of so many gay appearances may be coincidental, but her affinity with the queer community comes as no surprise considering how frequently her sexuality -- and even gender--have been called into question. "I get mistaken for a lesbian all the time -- but I guess I do have the most lesbian haircut of any of the girls in my field," she laughs, referring to her signature blonde bowl cut. "And when I was growing up and I introduced myself to people I'd say, 'Hi, my name is Robyn and I'm a girl,' because in Sweden, Robyn is a boy's name and I had such short hair. My handicrafts teacher thought I was a boy for three years. I tried to tell her I was a girl, but she'd just say, 'My little boy wanted to be a girl when he was a kid, too.' Finally my mom had to write her a note that said, 'Please don't assume that Robyn is a boy anymore because she's a girl.' Having that experience where I was confronted by people's reactions to what I looked like or what I was supposed to look like made me identify with queerness. It still happens to me all the time, and a lot of the time it happens to me in America because even though what I consider butch is still very feminine in Europe, here you can shock people very easily just by looking a little queer."

Though the singer's popularity exploded in the United States last year, this is hardly her first American affair. In 1995, at the age of 16, just three years after she was discovered by Swedish pop star Meja during a chance meeting at her middle school, Robyn released her debut album, Robyn Is Here, in Sweden. Two years later the album, filled with fizzy pop songs co-written by legendary hit makers Max Martin and Denniz Pop, made its way to America, where tracks like "Show Me Love" and "Do You Know (What It Takes)" shot up the Billboard Singles Chart.

But despite the album's success, something was amiss. "I never felt at home in the pop industry," Robyn says. "My parents had a theater company, and I was exposed to a lot of different things as a kid. My mom is an actress, and she was always playing a man or a witch -- they were never typical roles. She had a shaved head and she'd come to pick me up at daycare and I'd walk on the other side of the street because I thought she was so ugly. You just want your mom to be pretty. Even though it occurred to me that my mom was different, it didn't occur to me that my upbringing was unusual. Because I grew up in such an alternative family, I think I had a very naive image of what making pop music would be like."

By the time she released her second album, My Truth, in 1999, the music industry had been invaded by a platoon of teen pop icons. "Britney [Spears] and Justin [Timberlake] had entered the same world as me, and they were like kamikaze pilots who just did everything right," she says. "I was just not that kind of person, so right then I already knew I wasn't going to be around for that. They just did it so much better than I did."

After giving mainstream pop one last try with 2002's Don't Stop the Music, the singer befriended musicians and soon-to-be collaborators like electro duo the Knife and Klas Ahlund, producer and founding member of Swedish band Teddybears. "Being around those people made me feel like there was a whole different world where things are done differently," she says. "I had made the song 'Who's That Girl,' with the Knife, and when I played it for the people at the record company I was working with, they just hated it. I thought, This just doesn't make sense for me. Why am I trying so hard to squeeze into a hole that's not my shape? I realized I was stuck in a world I hadn't chosen for myself. When that really sunk in, I became obsessed with cleaning out my life and building something new from the ground up. I got rid of my management and started my own record company."

Founded in 2005, Konichiwa Records's first release was Robyn, which reintroduced the world to the now fully autonomous and freely experimental singer. A gutsy mix of electro-pop, swaggering rap, and string-dizzy dance ballads, the album was met with critical acclaim and commercial success overseas, thanks in part to the single "With Every Heartbeat" which went to number 1 in the United Kingdom and number 5 on the Billboard Dance Chart in the United States.

The singer followed up Robyn with Body Talk, which she released as three mini-albums throughout 2010. This unorthodox move allowed her to continuously offer fans new tracks without having to fully halt her tour to record additional material and kept the focus squarely on the music -- a rare move in an era when pop has become more about posturing than product. For Robyn, doing press, filming guest spots on television shows like Gossip Girl, and opening for other artists including Madonna, and, this summer, Katy Perry -- after having already headlined her own tour -- are simply means to a critical end: getting her songs heard by as many people as possible.

"There's a part of me that understands why certain artists decide not to do interviews at all," the notoriously private singer says. "If I were to talk about my personal life and write the songs I'm writing, I wouldn't have anything left for myself. I think refusing to talk about my life is the only way I can do it because I want my music to be intimate -- you can't make good music without intimacy." Still, Robyn is practical, if wary, about the particular demands of being a pop star. "I think [not doing press] is too simple of a solution," she says. "There are a few things that are really amazing about a professional kind of approach to pop music, but a lot of times pop artists enter the music industry without deciding for themselves beforehand what their goals are. Lady Gaga is right: The fame monster grabs you, and if you're lucky it takes you on a ride. But I don't know if that's always what you want. It's just one of those things like you're supposed to get married--you're supposed to want fame. It's never really questioned."

Like Lady Gaga, and many of the other female singers currently playing the fame game, Robyn counts her gay fans as some of her biggest supporters, especially in the United States. 2010 saw a rash of songs, from Katy Perry's "Firework" to Ke$ha's "We R Who We R" to Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" touted as gay anthems, and Robyn's "Dancing on My Own," the standout, Grammy-nominated track from Body Talk, could certainly hold its own in that category. A tale of unrequited love plugged into a drum machine, the song distills the alienation and loneliness of wanting something -- or someone -- that can't be had into five bittersweet but ultimately empowering minutes of electro-pop.

But unlike some straight artists whose jockeying to be the voice of the gay community has left many feeling patronized and pandered to, Robyn doesn't presume to speak for anyone but herself. "I have never thought of 'Dancing on My Own' as a gay anthem, but hearing it put that way doesn't surprise me," she says. "Gay culture has always had to embody outsidership. I think we're all just scared to be lonely. We all want to be loved and we all want to be seen. When you're different on a very basic level, that feeling is going to be with you more often than someone who doesn't have to face what being an outsider is really like. I think it's a song about being on the outside -- very physically -- and if it feels like a gay anthem then I take that as a super compliment."

Once she wraps up her weeklong tour of Southern California, Robyn will take a bit of a breather before joining Katy Perry for a month of summer tour dates. Then the future is hazy for the singer. There's a rumor floating around the Web that she's already recorded the follow-up to Body Talk, but it isn't true. Still, while Robyn may not be sure of her next step, one thing remains clear -- she will continue to put the music first. "I'd love to try new things, but it's been so important for me to build the Body Talk album the way I did -- to tour, instead of doing radio promo, to treat the music as the center of everything," she says. "It's the only way I can keep doing this. I just don't think it's worth doing it any other way."

To view a slide show of exclusive Robyn photos, click here.

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