Please, American Women! Go Buy Robyn's Music

The case for a less Gaga gay icon.

Oct 21, 2011 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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Last year, I joined a bunch of friends to see Robyn perform at Radio City Music Hall. I don’t remember how much the ticket cost, but I would gladly pay twice the amount for the same show.

I saw Lady Gaga in 2008, just as “Poker Face” became a mammoth hit. It was fun. Very fun! She was totally into it, and so were the gay dudes chanting her name like she was the messiah they’d been waiting for ever since Madonna. But I haven’t seen Gaga live since, nor I do plan to.

Needless to say, I’m don’t consider myself a “Little Monster.” Sure, I consider Lady Gaga a talented songwriter and performer, one who has, in fact, literally changed the entire framework of pop music by marrying the unyielding thump of Eurotrash club music with a brilliant and timely commentary on fame and self-importance, with testament due to her own acknowledgment that she’s not a doe-eyed cutie with as mediocre (and post-production- friendly) a voice as Britney Spears or Katy “Sexy Baby” Perry.

In fact, I went to college with Gaga, whose music I stubbornly continue to hide under her real name, “Stefani Germanotta” in my iPod because it’s still weird to see her as a bombastic pop icon. We weren’t friends or anything, but we crossed paths, often during which she performing (her style at the time was Tori Amos lite, most memorably barefoot at the South Street Seaport). When a friend from Minnesota posted the video for “Just Dance” on Facebook several years after college, I was stunned when someone connected the dots for me. STUNNED. This was Stefani? This was that rich girl from the Upper West Side who was infamous around campus for shoeless Lilith Fair?

Admittedly, I was as jealous as I was perplexed. Even as “Lady Gaga,” her prominent Italian features contrasted starkly with the bottle-blond hair and angular shoulder pads and wrap-around sunglasses. There was a lightning bolt on her cheek! She was deep-throating tiny mirrorballs! This was…new. Different. Random. Vaguely symbolic. So, y’know, good for her! Among friends, we thought this was hilarious. Could this really catch on? Could Stefani Germanotta rise above the growing Facebook pages of gay friends, where “Just Dance” -- a fun, catchy song, featuring Akon, of all people! -- was becoming a pop staple? Or would she just fall into the same unfortunate abyss of hit-and-runs like Tweet or Willa Ford or Debelah Morgan or Iio or Hoku (I’m picking names out of a hat because my iPod is chock full o’ all those people).

We were very quickly silenced when Gaga became not only a real thing, but a phenomenon. Stefani Germanotta was becoming famous! Huge! Iconic. When initial resentment wore off (it took a while), I was actually kind of proud of her. I mean, she wasn’t just some dummy who got snatched up by a talent agent looking for her pretty face.

No, Stefani worked her ass off to get this far, and even if you consider her romantic, rags-to-riches fairy tale (the “rags” being “living in a matchbox on the Lower East Side while go-go dancing for cash”) (even though said matchbox was allegedly parentally subsidized) merely clever marketing, just watch any interview with her and she’ll remind you that she’s more savvy than Madonna ever was, and more prepared for our constant cultural real-time monitoring process than any other performer alive.

Her interview with Anderson Cooper for "60 Minutes" proved that she knows exactly what she’s doing. And whether or not you buy the fervid devotion to her fans that leaves her in tears, or the insistence that she was bullied in her youth for her nonconformity (despite those pesky Abercrombie pics), one thing’s for sure: she owns you.

Well, at least if you’re a gay dude. Gay men love Lady Gaga (no doy). Apparently, everyone loves Lady Gaga, considering that it can’t only be us, a measly 10 percent of the population, that made “Born This Way” push millions in its first week. But the gays? That’s her jam. I’m gay, and I like Lady Gaga. Did I wake up at the ass-crack of dawn to buy “Born This Way”? No. Did I buy it on the day it came out? Sure.

Even if some criticize the authenticity of the extreme measures Gaga takes to support the community, but she’s doing way more high-profile pro-gay work than any other artist on her level of notoriety, so let’s keep her popular. But when it comes to finding a gay pop music icon based on the music, all signs point to Robyn.

Granted, my taste in music places me in an odd cross-section between Youthful Gay Brooklynite and Elderly Black Lesbian. But Robyn possesses something extra that has accrued legions of gay male fans. And yet, Robyn has never really gone out of her way to appeal to a gay audience, or any audience, in particular (the closest she’s come may be featuring a lesbian couple having sex in the video for “Indestructible”).

2010 was supposed to be the year Robyn found stateside success (and blowing the roof off of Radio City ain’t too shabby), but, frustratingly, she seems to have come down with a case of the Robbie Williamses. She just doesn't seem to click with young women here, not the way it is with acts as fruitful as, say, Taio Cruz (who?), Avril Lavigne (still???), and Kesha (even as I’ve grown to respect her, I refuse to use that fucking dollar sign). Adele -- a throwback to just a talented lady sitting a piano -- owns heartbroken sad people, male AND female.

So why, then, is Robyn -- whose three-album trifecta, Body Talk, a smash among critics and bloggers -- still so deeply hidden in the shadow of all the other big-name ladies atop the charts?

Unfamiliar with some of her deep cuts and need a point of entry? Look to further than, “Konichiwa Bitches,” the single off of Robyn that proved she was a take-no-prisoners, badass bitch, reemerging from the her days of being a 90s teen idol as a sort of gender-amorphous weirdo dance queen.

So why bolster Robyn instead of Gaga? I simply think her music is better. In collaborating with Kleerup, Röyksopp, Teddybears, Savage Skulls, Snoop Dogg, and The Knife, Robyn obviously knows what works (and Snoop’s appearance on “U Should Know Better,” and Robyn on his amazing remix of “Sensual Eruption” are each pitch-perfect parody in their own right).

What Robyn possesses is a sort of quiet confidence that feels particularly potent when, instead of pulling out extensive props, complicated stage designs, or Native American headgear, she just gets onstage and sings. No messages, no props, no histrionics. Just fun!

Lady Gaga is obviously the consummate performer and an activist. But her desire to be so queer- and bullied-child- friendly (which, to her credit, feels significantly more genuine than those who co-opt it at any cost) can feel, at times, a little overbearing. To me -- and this is just me, a gay guy whose boyfriend helped him realize that he was wearing jeans four sizes too big because he is, essentially, a white, 28-year-old male Whoopi Goldberg -- all that extra shit is just extra. Team Robyn. Go buy some records.