Robyn's 'Dancing On My Own' Opens The Corners Of Community The magic of Robyn's millennial anthem is its bait and switch: It's a fun, energetic dance song about being lonely and heartbroken. And yet, the minute you hear it, you instantly feel less alone.
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Alone Together: Robyn's 'Dancing On My Own' Opens The Corners Of Community

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

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

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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.

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