The Utopian, Queer Promise of Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend”

My experience of Robyn is this: 10 years ago, she took the indie circles I followed by storm with the one-two combo of “Dancing on My Own” and “Call Your Girlfriend,” from her album Body Talk. My understanding is that she’s always been popular in Europe, but enjoyed a brief moment in the US in the 90s (my husband was shocked to learn that “Show Me Love” and “Honey” were released by the same performer) before being blacklisted because her second album referenced abortion.

Her unique mix of play, painfully earnest vulnerability, and taut, danceable synthpop lifted Robyn to a unique place in the popstar environment. Who else, for instance, has somersaulted on Ellen (I know, I know), inspired a goofy SNL parody, or inspired concert-goers to start an impromptu singalong in the subway immediately following their show?

Like Lorde and Mitski, Robyn’s flavor of vulnerability is unique, hers a little more honest about romantic pain and desire. The song that broke after her show at Madison Square Garden in 2019 was “Dancing on My Own”; when shouted by hundreds on a packed platform, everyone still glowing from the show, its isolation flips. It’s not any popstar who can inspire that sort of tender, ironic inversion.

Given that we’ve recently entered a new decade and the world is radically different now than it was when Body Talk arrived (though we need to consider the question “radically for whom?”), I’m interested in exploring the thought that “Call Your Girlfriend” is not just a song that holds up — I would argue that it is objectively a classic of the sad bop form — but also one that taps into something progressive and radical and forward-thinking. It’s a song, I think, that asks us to radically reimagine how we might uncouple ourselves from each other in gentler, more entangled ways.

I came to this conclusion through two things that I immediately understood the very first time I heard “Call Your Girlfriend.”

  1. The song is queer.
  2. The song ends in a place of uncertainty, as the singer might one day be the Girlfriend that the You is asked to call. (I first heard this as naivete, but came to notice the nuance with time.)

It likely had something to do with being newly out of the closet (to friends, at least) around the time of Body Talk’s release, when I was more intentionally seeking out media that told queer stories, but I latched onto Robyn and “Call Your Girlfriend” and clung to them. Something about the song tugged at me — even though it nor Robyn are explicitly queer. There’s more here, it seemed to say, this is, somehow, very gay.

I asked a few queer friends about this and several told me they’d had similar experiences; one friend thinks it has something to do with hearing a woman sing the word girlfriend.

The song’s proximity to gender is interesting because the loose narrative of the speaker allows us to impose our own subjectivity upon it. The You of the song is an ungendered blank slate, a neutral null space where we, as listeners, can supply the love-object. That alone provides such ample space for young queers, desperate to see themselves where they can, to locate themselves within it (I remember several times hearing the song wryly mentioned in association with the usual run of What do lesbians bring to the second date a Uhaul jokes).

But if we continue to play with gender a moment longer, inverting the song along the binary spectrum gives us “Call Your Boyfriend.” It’s much less graceful and easy off the tongue (as most men tend to be) and “Call Your Significant Other” feels too obviously a template. However, assuming we retain the genderedness of Robyn as singer, the shift to “Boyfriend” would inherently push the song into the realm of the queer (imagine the bisexual drama). And perhaps it’s in that absence of “Boyfriend” that I felt a sort of shadow, as if “Call Your Girlfriend” were cast against queer negative space. It feels similar to me how (and this is generalizing slightly) gay men hold up their divas, because they can sing the things that society and culture prevent men from singing to other men.

But dig in any direction and it won’t take long to find examples of how queerness has always been subversive and scrappy, resourceful, no stranger to shadows. I once heard Hamed Sinno, the singer of Mashrou’ Leila, describe on a podcast how, in some Middle Eastern poetic traditions, it was considered improper for men to sing love songs to women, so instead they sang them to other men. The homoerotic sits so often in plain sight.

In “Call Your Girlfriend,” I felt l like I’d come upon a small, queer secret — something naked and evident but somehow unseen by so many, something that I could access and share with those who were different like me.

There were other takes about Robyn’s tangential queerness back then too. Play the chorus of “Dancing on My Own” and you might notice that the way Robyn sings But I’m not the girl you’re taking home sounds a little fluid, a little more like But I’m not the guy you’re taking home. My friend L latched onto this detail and immediately wanted to know Did she say “guy”? Is she queer?

I’ll admit I heard guy on my first time through the song too, though I’d been quick to hear it “correctly” by the time the second chorus arrived. I was a baby queer who’d been raised with a very traditional and limited view of the forms relationships could and can take, so while I struggled with my bisexuality while trying to affirm to myself and others that I was, indeed, gay, back then I was also intimidated by the brief glimpses into the manifold spectra of gender that I’d seen, just starting to undo the knots that heteronormativity tied into me young (this was long before I began identifying as nonbinary; the project continues).

L and I weren’t the only ones who heard the genderswap; I recall someone asking Robyn in an interview about the slippage between guy and girl, and she basically said, It’s my accent, with the sort of self-conscious laugh that indicated the question’s silliness. I told L this, and she said, Who knew accents could be so queer?

I have a memory of a roadtrip with my mom and brother around that time. I was up front, in charge of the music, which often meant tempering my Very Serious tastes with something more suited to hours in a car, and I thought Robyn made a good compromise. Both my mom and brother objected to the premise of “Dancing on My Own.”

Why would you do that to yourself? my mom said. Why not leave?

I anemone’d. I must’ve been out at the time, though not, I think, to my parents. I felt like identifying too much with the sentiment of the song — and the exquisite melancholic agony of other sad songs — would be to own my queerness in a way that I wasn’t quite ready to vocalize.

I had hooked up with a few men by then, but promised myself that I’d come out to my parents only when I had a boyfriend (no ifs or ands, definitely some butts), and when I did, I did. My dad was away for work and I waited for the friend who’d given me a ride to my parents’ house two hours away so I could pick up my own car to leave, but she hovered awkwardly.

Summer 2011 in rural Oregon was slightly before the ubiquitousness of smartphones and GPS navigation and — after I told my mom I’m gay, I have a boyfriend — my friend said to me outside in the driveway that she couldn’t remember how to get back to the freeway. I haven’t kept in touch with this friend over the years, but the randomness and chance of her bearing witness to one of the more significant of my comings-out comes to mind every now and again.

A few years ago, I heard or read a musician remark quippily that all modern pop songs are about the start or stop of a relationship. (My gut said it was Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! when she was doing the press circuit for what I seem to remember her calling the “dumb love songs” on the band’s album Shapeshift with Me, but I haven’t been able to locate the exact interview to confirm.)

But even if we take the line with the proverbial grain of salt, a quick survey of pop songs over the years reveals a broad thematic interest in the excitement of new beginnings and the pain of endings. “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Go Your Own Way,” “Together Again.” Even Billie Eilish’s “bad guy” — newly #1 around the time of this essay’s first draft — seems to teeter at a precipice. The rush of becoming entangled with another person, the void left by parting: pop songs are anticipatory and ruminative lenses.

“Call Your Girlfriend” promises few of the easy answers of most mainstream pop songs, and complicates this beginning-end binary in a number of ways. First and most obvious is that it melds the start of relationship with the end of another. Because of the ambient pressure that the song’s love object — the You — could one day be urged to call the singer, the song’s relationship to time is one of Extremely Right Now-ness tied tightly to What’s To Come. As listeners, we are not given access to a defined future or past. “Call Your Girlfriend” is an ouroboros, creating from the pop song unit a mosaic cycle of relationships beginning and dissolving simultaneously. So long as there’s someone to play it, the song is potentially infinite: an ocean contained in a drop.

One of the bathrooms in the house where I grew up has two large mirrors mounted on opposite walls. The effect was between kaleidoscope and funhouse and something else: looking into one side, I could see my face and the back of my head just beyond it, repeating on and on for what seems like hundreds of feet, until the tunnel’s gentle curvature, caused by a slight angle of the walls or glass, carried me, every blurrier and more distant, out of sight. Turn the other direction and it was the same, like there was a series of rooms extending in a wide arc through the house and neighborhood, a strange and fragile dimension contained within the mirrors.

The infinitude of “Call Your Girlfriend” feels like this to me, tied somehow to the concepts or processes of sublimation and utopia. In alchemy, sublimation is the chemical process of removing impurities until the most purified and ideal form of a substance is reached. It’s similar to the search for utopia: both seek (for lack of a more nuanced phrase) something better than the now.

However, through a romantic lens, sublimation is an antithetical process. The perfect partner is a myth, making sublimation a process that resists the symbiotic growing-together that comes with spending time with a dedicated set of others. We are social creatures, so to resist any sort of becoming entangled with others runs counter to being human — from the bacteria in our guts that digest our food to the people we do or do not fuck, we are intertwined with and caught up in myriad other beings.

In The Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing points out the relationship between fungi — which are, turns out, more animal than plant — and flora is a symbiotic and interconnected one without which so much of life as humans choose to recognize it would not be possible. In a forest, if a tree isn’t receiving enough nutrients from the soil, mushrooms can actually transfer carbohydrates across the network to ensure that the needs of each organism are being met.

Humans can be like this too — each of us nodes in an interconnected and overlapping social web. If I can see you and the connections on the other side of you, there are ways that I can send nourishment along. Likewise, if I can see you and see that one of your connections has calcified or is causing you harm, I can urge you to withdraw. In Mushroom, Tsing also challenges the negative connotation of the word contaminate: the longer and more intimately we interact with someone, she says, the more we leave traces in each other. We become entangled, which is why, when someone deeply caught in our fibers is torn away, it hurts.

I hear something decidedly mycelial in “Call Your Girlfriend.” Instead of salted earth and scorched roots, the song offers a softer detangling: And it won’t make sense right now but you’re still her friend. Perhaps the relationship wasn’t a loss but a lesson, or perhaps it was the right thing for a time that’s now passed, or perhaps circumstances dictated that it the kind of entangling needed to shift. “Call Your Girlfriend” gives us permission to do so gently, to be willing to accept that for so many of us, our lives can be — and are — steered by factors outside our control.

The implicit potential for a near-endless repetition of “Call Your Girlfriend” creates a sort of absurd, uncanny gif-like hypnosis (especially those gifs that have been edited to repeat seamlessly). The players become no more clearly defined, falling into a chain of getting-together and breaking-up. The singer of the previous play becomes the girlfriend of the current, buffing the figures in the song down to mere archetypes, much like those accordioning reflections in the bathroom mirrors: recognizable, but not fully detailed.

Like a gif, this endless tumbling forward in “Call Your Girlfriend” creates an eternal present. In fiction, the use of the present tense in first person makes it difficult (though not impossible) for introspection. Creative Writing 101 will likely tell you present tense is about moment-to-moment immediacy: the giddy tunnel vision to the first kiss, the first fuck. But sublime experiences end — they must. However much we enjoy the high, we have to come down. It’s a cultural trope: the tragic, distancing pity through which we view those who cannot or who don’t know how or who struggle to navigate the return to earth. The present tense and imperative mode doesn’t allow for dredging up sordid histories or any of the things that the song’s You may have told the singer about the Girlfriend. There are no plans or promises for what’s to come — even the song’s cautious declaration Now it’s gonna be me and you, flutters only gently toward the future.

In Cruising Utopia, Esteban Muñoz writes about the difficulty of imagining a queer present, arguing that no present is structurally designed to be inhabited by queerness — which is why we turn toward imagining new queer futures and potentialities. Utopias by their very definition cannot exist, yet without that ability to imagine and restlessly seek them, we are good as dead in the waters of a stagnant and scummy pool. It’s a great situation for the scum, perhaps, but not so much for the queers.

Queerness is, in its most radically defiant and progressive form, an act of situating, of entering into a disruptive relationship with the dominant narratives that power structures have passed down. Queerness, like utopia, is something we are always in the process of seeking without ever quite reaching — much like how every relationship is an ongoing entangling between persons, a becoming, never an arrival. Arriving means settling. Arriving gave us the “New World,” gave us genocide and colonialism, gave us micro- and macroaggressions, and the strata of content, neolib queers who, made “complete” or “whole” or “equal” once given the rights to marry and join the military (institutions rooted in ownership, violence, and imperialism), turn a blind eye to the work, desires, and needs of less-privileged queer communities, many of whom continue to hustle and die just to be seen. To relinquish the dynamic for the static spells death.

I bring up Muñoz because I think the tightness of “Call Your Girlfriend”’s frame also pushes it toward the realm of the utopian. One of the subtle moves that I see happening in the song has to do with how it slyly plays upon certain expectations. It’s a pop song that on its face implies an arrival: You calls their Girlfriend, the singer and You get together, romance and happiness ensue. To read the song this way is to return to narrative and retreat from queerness, but “Call Your Girlfriend” confounds this easy interpretation by giving the listener neither the breaking-up or the getting-together. Both happen offstage — we trust that they happen, but can’t say with certainty that they do. (Does my Scorpio moon show too much if I claim that trust is one of the more precarious emotional gestures?) Trust, like queerness, is an act of positioning oneself toward the future in a vulnerable way.

And maybe that’s another reason why “Call Your Girlfriend” feels queer to me: in encapsulating a moment of active remaking, the song raises another very queer state: uncertainty. That But you just met somebody new is the final line of the chorus (aka the artery that moves the song from the beating refrain to the extremities of the verses) — feels pointed. Of all the reasons a relationship could end, the one named here is one of the most nebulous, what some might call “unfair”: chance.

Queers and people of other minority groups have never been promised safety, security, or any of the other things we’ve been told to want. Who better understands the precarity of human existence under capitalism, patriarchy, racism, queerphobia, transphobia, ableism, fatphobia, and every other oppressive structure steeping into the air we breathe?
Some relationships should end and do not, some end when perhaps they could have been repaired, and some don’t end soon enough. “Call Your Girlfriend” is not explicitly about those situations. It does not call out the perceived flaws of the titular Girlfriend. By remaining fixed in the present moment, the song refuses the usual narratives of romantic breakdown, and instead points toward the unpredictability and chance of life, the bittersweet and melancholy fact that two people committed to one another can have the best of intentions and still grow apart with time. Or how you become so used to the shape of living with someone that you forget that there are in fact other ways of being in the world (as Robyn sings, Don’t you tell her how I give you something / you never even knew you missed). Or how it’s possible to meet someone whose needs and desires better and more healthily or productively align with your own.

Part of what ties genres together are certain formal and structural agreements, and how deviations from those agreements affect how we conceive of them. A Girlfriend is different from a Pop Song is different from an Animal is different from a Mushroom.

The way “Call Your Girlfriend” employs the formal tropes of pop music also works on the level of engagement between entities. For one, though based on contemporary definitions it moves too quickly, it meets the technical definition of a ballad — a populist and sentimental song form meant for singalongs.

Another: the juxtaposition of a lightness of sound with a darkness of content. The perpetual misread of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as being jingoistic nationalism underscores how this mode can be persuasive — jauntiness can be deafening. But this juxtaposition asks the listener to pay attention, to be invested, to not let the slick pop glass slide without investigating a little closer.

The song’s bridge comprises a burbling synth solo that appears after me’s single appearance, a digital shout of joy erupting from Robyn’s voice. Where it’s easy to imagine a more rock-oriented performer (Cyndi Lauper or Stevie Nicks, say), filling the bridge with six-stringed pyrotechnics, the earnestness of Robyn’s plea sticks close the body but becomes more-than, becomes post-lingual. The synth run devolves almost to silliness, threatening to skate off the rails of the song’s pop allegiances, but lands with another classic move: the back-up singers holding down the melody while the diva to deviate from it. In even this, there’s something more enmeshed at work than a star singing over the support. As Robyn — who, for all her talents, does not possess the sort of pipes associated with most divas; she is (no shade) no Whitney or Aretha — goes into that last chorus, she is, herself, her only back-up singer. Listen, and you’ll hear diva and chorus merge in It’s time you had the talk, becoming one of many. This is not a song about isolation but overlap — the sketch of a romantic ecological system in 3 minutes 46 seconds.

Like I said at the top, 2010 was a different time; each of us were different people then. 2010 and Body Talk found Robyn irreverently featuring Snoop Dog, the pair of them declaring that the CIA, the Vatican, and even Satan himself should know better than to fuck with her. This was also the Robyn whose cheeky, earnest dorkiness slips out lines like All I want / Is a Delorean in bubbly, effervescent pop songs.

But imagine releasing “You Should Know Better” in 2020. It’s not inherently tone deaf — you could imagine a more mainstream pop star delivering the song as a rousing anthem, for instance, but one blunted of nuance — but the Robyn who made Honey is different: more grounded, harrowed, reshaped. She has less time, I think, for bullshit.

Her performances on the Honey tour in 2019 underscored the importance and power of interconnectedness and collaboration. The shows made evident the ties between Robyn and her band, between her and her dancers, between her and us. During the first chorus of “Dancing on My Own,” she and her band went silent, allowing the crowd to sing the refrain of the song that — for me and many of the people I was growing up with in 2010 — named a specific feeling we knew to be deeply true and yet which we hadn’t had quite the right name for.

When the lights come up, Robyn steps out of herself the performer and becomes herself the person: she sees and is seen by the crowd clearly for the first time. She takes in the energy we bring her. For another artist, this basking could quickly feel egotistical or masturbatory, but Robyn emanates gratitude for what we’ve given to her, for turning out for her to receive what she’s turned out for us.

Any sort of entanglement comes with risk. And while in “Call Your Girlfriend,” And now it’s gonna be me and you returns us to that tumbling forward, perhaps You just tell her that the only way her heart will mend / Is when she learns to love again / And then you let her down easy is closer to the song’s heart. It’s a protective gesture, an oracular voice out ahead of us, calling back the sort of gentle wisdom that comes with having been burned before.

“Call Your Girlfriend” has been with us for ten years now, and I think it remains as vital and necessary a song today as on the day it was released. Though limited in some ways (the song doesn’t take into account the possibility of nonmonogamy, for instance) it presents an opening. A volley in a conversation, perhaps, a necessary stepping stone. If we think of pop songs as transmissible units of culture that we can share between and among ourselves, then I hope the song’s call for a gentler way engaging with each another will come to mind in those moments that inevitably require each of us, from circumstance or necessity, to detach ourselves from the ones who have meant so much.

The coming decades will be transformative for many of us. They must be. We will have rethink how we interact and relate with and to each other, and a system at the end of its slow collapse need not spell doom. It can, in fact, be an chance for radical reinvention, and for opportunities to find new ways of living with each other, perhaps this time a little more closely.🔮


see more of 'in another world'

Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Z Kennedy-Lopez is a word-slinger and sometimes-educator who likes cats, swimming, and Latinx/Latine electronic music. They write a lot about animals and apocalypses, and their work has won a six-word story contest judged by Amy Hempel, been nominated for a Pushcart, and has appeared/is forthcoming in publications like Hobart Pulp, Storm Cellar, TSR Online, Arkana Mag, A VELVET GIANT, and others. They are a fiction reader for the Atticus Review, and can be found on Instagram and Twitter, both @queerbooksloth.

Z has written 1 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. It somehow never occurred to me that Call Your Girlfriend could be anything other than queer. I’m not a massive follower of Robyn, so I’ve only soaked up the song by casual cultural osmosis, and I think it’s always gotten categorized in my head, without my trying, as explicitly Queer.

    Z, this piece is a fascinating read. I’m all for radical reinvention and transformation. And why not pop music to lead us there? Thank you.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.