Robyn brought the motion. The emotions were all ours.
I’ve never felt a physical response like what the Swedish pop star created in me during an hour-and-a-half headliner set Sunday at Austin City Limits Music Festival. Robyn took over for Cardi B on Honda stage duty for Weekend Two. As the clock ticked down on Lizzo’s festival-defining performance on the Miller Light stage, figures appeared in silhouette behind a pale scrim next door. At 8 p.m., it fell. White smoke billowed around a pair of giant hands as the vibey “Send to Robin Immediately” bled into the air. Another scrim appeared from above like a wedding veil before falling, too. It was like the stage was pulling out costume reveals in a lip-sync for its life from “RuPaul’s Drag Race." Live percussionists and synth players hypnotized a chanting crowd. The wait for the star of the show felt excruciatingly exciting. Unbearable longing.
Like the opposite of lightning and thunder, we heard her before we saw her. Robyn, otherworldly in yellow and red, emerged and immediately started moving in ways that are hard to explain. Her fists rolled one over the over, she threw her head back, she slid her knee up her microphone stand just so, she tugged down at the lapel of her dress. Every heart in the crowd beat a little faster, fully in a trance.
Then “Honey” started, and at least for me, it still hasn’t stopped.
The stage glowed golden. Over the next hour, it seemed like the lights and sounds never took a break; they only mutated so some new memory could surface in your mind. Robyn glided and punched the air as she moved into old fan favorites. “I let the bad ones in and the good ones go,” she sang, leading her fans to declare themselves “Indestructible.” She knew what was on our minds and there would be time for that, too, on “Hang With Me.” And the cigarette-in-bed groove of “Ever Again” morphed so subtly into “Be Mine!” that I didn’t notice for a full verse, even though the latter is one of my favorite songs.
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Robyn’s a master of both urgent pop hooks and discotheque reverie. In this set, she blurred the lines between the two — the dopamine dripped from chorus to chorus, stretched out so impossibly long that the good chemicals never stopped flowing in your brain.
My hands pulled my KC Royals hat down over my head after several songs in sheer awe. “Oh my god,” my friend said so often that it could have been part of the beat. There was no down, only one long up. Musical MDMA, an aural drug from a designer with very good taste.
“I see you,” Robyn told her fans early on, just so we knew what we already knew. The connection between the singer and the devotees in the front of the crowd was unbreakable; rarely have you heard so many lyrics in stereo or seen so many bodies rock back on their heels. When the time came for the spoken-word interlude of “Be Mine!” you could tell these people in Zilker Park on a school night had been waiting to say it for years.
A male dancer replaced Robyn, moving with joy and grace, for an extended solo. The singer reemerged in a blue-and-white jumpsuit patterned like fine China, her hair tied back so she was a glam George Washington. She intertwined her limbs with the dancer's, smiling wide as they matched their movements. Robyn danced her way into a jacket her partner held up for her. Have you ever in your life?
She launched into deep cut “Love Is Free” and ripped her shirt open to reveal a flesh-colored bodice with jeweled nipple appliques. Robyn shimmied into fragments of “Don’t (Expletive) Tell Me What To Do.” The night already felt like ecstasy, but the house beats took us to a new place of adrenaline-fueled bliss.
Like a cup of black coffee after one too many, the stage went dark. The crowd was shaken sober with the familiar pulsing drones and strobing white lights that could pull them out of a coma if necessary. “Dancing On My Own” began. When the chorus burned into the brains of everyone present hit, the lights went up over the crowd. Robyn’s voice and the music dropped out entirely. So, we sang in one, overwhelming voice: “I’m in the corner watching you kiss her, oh oh oh. I’m right over here. Why can’t you see me? Oh, oh oh. I’m giving it my all, but I’m not the girl you’re taking home. I keep dancing on my own."
Robyn hugged herself and looked so pleased. And speaking for myself, all I really wanted was to make her happy.
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She didn’t let us rest, plunging into the icy water of “Missing U,” then Sweden’s best Motown song, “Call Your Girlfriend.” She did the backward somersaults from the music video, yes she did. And I swear that the second Robyn left the stage, the slightest sprinkle of rain started to fall. If she’d performed anything besides “With Every Heartbeat” for her encore, I would have had a harsh comedown.
“I don’t want to be hyperbolic,” I told a friend in the wake of what had just happened, “but that was the best thing I’ve ever seen, right?”
The hour and a half with Robyn followed me all night. It was with me when I could barely turn my feelings into words to my colleagues as we packed up for the night, after two long ACL Fest weekends. There it was, as I drove down Congress Avenue on the way home, in the stop lights that turned into the Continental Club sign that turned into an uninterrupted streak of neon. I still don't know if I'm describing it adequately, now that the sun's rising.
Once you’ve got something like this set that sticks with you? Or something like Robyn’s music, or your memories of dancing to it with people you love and a whole lot of strangers, too? You’ll never dance on your own again.
“Send To Robin Immediately”
“Hang With Me”
“Because It’s In the Music”
“Between the Lines”
“Love is Free”
“Don’t (Expletive) Tell Me What To Do”
“Dancing On My Own”
“Call Your Girlfriend”
Encore: “With Every Heartbeat”