That girl

Robyn rings the hell's bells of pop
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johnny@sfbg.com

The saga or psychodrama of Britney Spears mirrors the crash-and-burn George W. Bush era like a reflective toxic bio-dome. Robyn is that girl on the outside whose story is so vast and smart that it's been invisible to everyone hypnotized into suffering blackouts.

Back when the Swedish star first kicked her way onto an MTV that played music videos in the summer of 1997 (around when Bill Clinton became a horny lame duck), the writer-producer partly behind the perfectly calibrated beats of her semi-hit "Do You Know (What It Takes)" was none other Max Martin, the man about to bring a little ditty called "(Hit Me Baby) One More Time" to the ears of the world. Spears soon took that abuse victim's idea of first love to the top of the US pop charts, ushering out the Spice Girls' version of girl power in the process. As for Robyn, she wound up resonating on a different level.

While reviewing 1997's Robyn Is Here (RCA/Jive), I joked about a sub-coincidence: vocalists named Robyn and Robin S were both vying for success with tracks called "Show Me Love." Unlike me, the movie director Lukas Moodysson recognized dissent beneath the slick surfaces of Robyn's music: how else to explain his use of her "Show Me Love" as the signature (and in English-speaking countries, title) theme of perhaps the best teen film of the '90s, the 1998 girl's coming-out tale Fucking ?mål? Though Moodysson has since veered toward anti-commercial visions of degradation, he still recognizes a talented woman stuck in conservative surroundings: he recently liberated Jena Malone from Hollywood and indieland for the unseen and just-about-unknown 2006 movie Container.

As for Robyn, a decade after her debut, she's returning to America sharper than the Knife. The evidence is there on "Who's That Girl," a standout track from her new — to the US — album, Robyn (Interscope). Coproduced by Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer, the song has greater vitality and wit than the duo's own critic's-darling recordings as the Knife. After a Jacuzzi-set intro that parodies rap and R&B boasts via claims that Robyn taught moves to Bruce Lee, "Who's That Girl" kicks off the initial 2005 version of Robyn released on Robyn's boutique label, Konichiwa, in Sweden. The marketing wizards at Interscope have messed with that sequencing: through some additional tracks and a revised order, their version of Robyn seems out to position her as a blond MIA.

No matter. Regardless of how you shuffle recent songs by Robin Miriam Carlsson, her unpretentious humor, melodicism, and neurotic toughness remain upfront. With its casually careful cataloguing and then rejection of all the things that good girls do, "Who's That Girl" winds up containing more everyday wisdom than Spears' entire output. (Ironically, Spears' team turned to Robyn for a contribution to 2007's Blackout on Jive.) If that doesn't seem like much of an achievement, factor in that it's also twice as good as that old Madonna song called "Who's That Girl" and exactly the type of effervescent catchy tune that the Material Girl is no longer capable of writing, and you have a better idea of Robyn's talent. It's a talent that extends from string-laden stalker confessions ("Be Mine!") to statements of independence ("Handle Me," Chris Crocker's MySpace anthem for a spell earlier this year), staying honest all the while.

A decade since Robyn Is Here, more people in the States are wise enough to know that Sweden's honey-dripping groups and tough alliance of solo acts could fill an ark of the world's best pop music. Robyn is here again to prove it.

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