It’s time we had the talk.

Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend” is the kind of musical beacon that sends me running involuntarily to a dance floor. It’s also a list of instructions: navigating not a new dance craze, but an impossible conversation. Robyn is directing a cheating lover about exactly how to own up.

Maybe it should have been obvious from her first intonation. Only in the second verse is it explicitly shown: Robyn herself is the mistress. (So I’ll refer to the three involved parties as Robyn, the Girlfriend, and the Cheater, whose gender is never actually specified.)

Maybe it feels arrogant for Robyn to write herself as a lover worth leaving a partner for. Initially, I definitely heard this as a veiled “I’m the shit” song—homewrecking being an illustration of her undeniability, with a bit of a lyrical twist in the game-plan format. This is the niche of Ariana Grande’s “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” another title written as a command. Here, deliberately all lowercase, she knows it ain’t right but doesn’t care. It’s a vibe to champion playlists rather than dancefloors.

I decided to feel this way about “Call Your Girlfriend” simply from the premise of the story. I thought this track contributed to Robyn’s album and Robyn’s image by showing how she is beyond worth cheating for: she’s an intimate partner in crime, scheming over throbbing bass,  absolving guilt, dissecting everything lesser lovers could never grasp. It’s so different when we kiss. This is what sexy dance music does.

In the shoes of the Girlfriend, this is a nightmare projection: not only to be steadily cheated on, but schemed against, by a team I thought I was half of. Then to be told I don’t understand, yet clutched as “still friends,” and left with the condescending clean escape of being “let down easy…” The song is a plot to go through the motions with me unscathed, pretending to care while telling me not to get upset. The exhilaration of the track represents, for Robyn and the Cheater, the understanding of what waits on the other side of this chore: the joy of being together, without me.

But there’s something else happening in “Call Your Girlfriend.” I heard the hint first somewhere in the needling bass, or soaring brass, but there’s a distant sincerity demonstrated in the lyrics. 

I can try to count it. Here are some superficial measurements, but nonetheless they helped me realize something that surprised me: Robyn isn’t presenting herself at all. She refers almost exclusively to the Cheater and the Girlfriend, and exactly the same amount. When she’s speaking to the Cheater, she’s really always speaking about or to the Girlfriend through it.

Robyn only expresses herself through assuming the Girlfriend’s responses and posture. As the instruments strain and build, the chorus is repeated again and again, and her intimate scene-setting folds into a recollection. Robyn knows just how the Girlfriend will get upset, and what she needs to hear. The song’s feigned dialogue disappears: she’s singing only to herself.

This is what the music video makes me feel too. Robyn wears serious, at times pained facial expressions through a passionate dance routine. She isn’t winking to the Cheater as she says, “Let her down easy” like I’d heard, years ago now. By the end, “Call…call your girlfriend” is a plea.

I’m saying: I think she’s been there. I think personal pronouns are collapsing into one another as Robyn sings to herself: Just tell _ the only way _ heart will mend, is when _ learn to love again…

When I’d heard bragging, Robyn is rather confessing, “I give you something that you never even knew you missed,” maybe with a bit of pity for all involved parties. The Girlfriend won’t hear about the chemistry, what the Cheater misses, how Robyn kisses: Robyn’s only confessing to us, listening with the ears of the Cheater. This line is only one of two places she uses the personal pronoun “I” or “me.”

The only other appears in my favorite part of the song: the breakdown, where a vocal sample is crushed up and scattered into a synth solo. She’s singing “me and you,” but mostly “you.” Otherwise, Robyn refers to herself anonymously as “somebody new.” Is she coy, or sorry? It’s how the song ends.

Maybe there’s nothing here, and I’ve just heard the song too many times, since it’s so easy to keep on endless repeat. It’s probably worth mentioning that in Robyn’s biggest hit, her role is exactly reversed and written with as much care. And so in this song and video, where she’s dancing on her own again, she’s not without remorse. She’s talking to herself, consoling herself, and breaking up with herself. She’s Somebody New.

1 Comment

  1. Kyric Koning

    This subject matter always leaves me a touch unsettled. I don’t know if giving it perspective helps, but it definitely is worth thinking about.

    Reply

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