Smart songwriting 101: Robyn – Call Your Girlfriend

This is another track off Body Talk that does what’s now the quite typical Robyn thing of playing with the expectations and conventions of pop with some seriously smart lyrics.

I’m gonna presume you’ve heard this before, but if you haven’t, take this time to give it a quick spin or two. Don’t read on till you have. Put it on, and go and do something else on the internet.

You back? Ok, let’s go. Apologies if this gets a little hard to follow.

The track begins with the chorus, all major-key and soaring synths. It’s a break-up song, and Robyn’s character appears as a sympathetic observer, an understanding friend, some peripheral third-party to this relationship break-down. She’s providing a lovely message, too Roughly: ‘I understand you’re not happy in this relationship, but you’re going to break her heart, so let her down gently’.

And it struts along like this, full of ‘you’s and ‘her’s. She’s observing for sure, but there’s something slightly uncanny about it. Why is she so concerned about how the relationship ends? Why is she so casual about this guy cheating on someone? Who is this ‘somebody new’? In what you think it is initially, – a typical ‘don’t break her heart-type ballad – it’s already a bit weird. The questions buzz around your head momentarily, but this is Robyn we’re talking about. She’s cool. She’s the protagonist of the album. She’s trustworthy. It’s probably all good.

The song ends. It’s great and you’ve had a good time. In fact, it was so good, you’re gonna listen to it again. There’s that strange jarring ending with the final chorus and you wanna listen to it from the top to get the hit of the resolved melody one more time.

And because of that strange ending, you might do this five, six, even seven times – and then you notice

About a minute-and-a-half in, slipped almost surreptitiously at the start of the stripped-down stomp of second verse, there’s this:

‘Don’t you tell her how I give you something that you never even knew you missed / Don’t you even try to explain how it’s so different when we kiss’.

‘I’ ‘we’? Where did that come from? As if that sinister reveal never took place, the song marches on to that same sympathetic and soaring chorus. You must have misheard. Only it’s slightly different this time, listen:

‘But you just met somebody new / And now, it’s gonna be me and you.’

The second line wasn’t there before. The awesome voice-sampler/synth solo probably draws the attention away from the reveal again before it really sinks in; but it’s there, another reveal of the true intent of the song if you weren’t paying attention at the start of the second verse. What felt like a slightly weird declaration to let her down gently, something that could be read as a perverse sort of female solidarity, suddenly becomes a woman instructing her lover to end it – albeit it nicely – with his girlfriend.

Creepy. And then there’s that awkward sudden ending too, right? Think about it. The ending is actually how the chorus is in the three of its four instances. The first and second choruses have the same unresolved quality as the last. The strange one is the revealing third; the one you intended to hear when you started the song again to get the hit of the resolved melody.

An unresolved melody at the end of a song is a common pop strategy to make a song more ‘morish’. But here it’s two-fold move. You’re hearing more than you know with the ending. It appears strange because it doesn’t repeat the previous the rise of the last chorus and also withdraws something from the song’s narrative. You’re expecting a smoking gun to make absolutely sure of Robyn’s guilt. Then you realize that ‘concealing’ chorus is the only reason you’re here in the first place.

The final chorus is the song hiding an incriminating item of underwear, or scrubbing off someone’s fragrance after you’ve already noticed it. It’s an act that conceals but reveals something in the peculiarity of concealing it in the same instance. The cat’s already out of the bag.

So, you listen to the song over and over (start going through your partner’s phone when they’re not there) and you begin to notice the evidence, what the lyrics are actually saying, what’s been right in front of your eyes all along but didn’t notice, and how elaborate the concealing of that truth was.

And that is why Robyn deserves to be one of your favourite artists of 2010.

MP3: Robyn – Call Your Girlfriend
MP3: Robyn – Indestructible


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