There’s a particularly annoying question I like to pose on social media from time to time, due to the patriarchy conditioning me to needlessly pit women against one another: Robyn or Sia? For most of the people I hear from, even asking such a question is an insult. There’s no contest.
They didn't have polls when I asked this earlier, but this is important.
— Luke O'Neil (@lukeoneil47) January 7, 2016
I fall squarely in the Robyn camp personally, although Sia has been making a strong case in the past couple of years since the release of 1000 Forms of Fear. But, as luck would have it, the two pop stars being booked to headline the first two nights of the Boston Calling music festival this weekend would give me a chance to at least add a few data points to the experiment. Much to my surprise — to the surprise of many based on reactions online — it was a bloodbath, and not in favor of the one you might expect.
While there are certainly superficial similarities between the two performers and their typically heartrending, anthemic music of empowerment and wishful empowerment gone awry, at their core each represents a mirror-image of one another. Both are an exemplar of the thinking woman’s pop star, yes, but it’s a question of what time of day and what type of mood she happens to be in when you run into her. Whereas Sia is reserved almost to the point of paralysis — as usual she appeared obscured by her iconic wig on stage on Friday night and didn’t move from her spot the entire performance — Robyn is the unbridled id of the “cool girl” personified. If Sia’s predominant mode is licking her wounds the morning after and threading together an internal monologue of a pep talk, Robyn is already planning in whose specific face she’ll be dancing out her frustrations at the next night’s party. Sia is heartbroken, Robyn is ready to break some hearts. And, true to form, in her hour plus performance, the latter presented that effortlessly stylish, confident persona. Although in this case it was a bit too cool for the crowd she was playing for.
Just before Robyn’s set on Saturday night, a press release was sent out informing media that she would in fact be playing a set of remixes of many of her most beloved songs: “With Every Heartbeat” by Joakim, “Dancing On My Own” by Cassius, “Indestructible” by The Black Madonna. The majority of the crowd didn’t seem to know what they were in for.
It was an intriguing prospect, but ultimately too ambitious for a headlining slot at a music festival for a general audience more interested in hearing her actually, you know, sing her hit songs. While it may have hypothetically been the most energizing set ever in the context of a smaller club show, here in the cavernous echoing space of City Hall Plaza it amounted to a tiresome, repetitive, and downright boring slog, not exactly the type of descriptions you’d typically associate with Robyn. If you’d asked me before whether or not it would be fun to watch Robyn almost wordlessly leading a Zumba class I might’ve said yes, but I would’ve been wrong. It got worse with every drum beat.
While she was indefatigable, dancing throughout the entire set, there was very little singing on display, and when she did it was mostly inaudible. By the time her set of indistinguishable beat-centric and almost unrecognizable remixes was wrapping up, the space had nearly emptied out. One of the complaints I typically have of big music festivals like this is that it’s impossible to get close enough to the stage to actually appreciate the performance in person. That wasn’t a concern late Saturday night.
It’s a shame, because Robyn was obviously going for something different and experimental — an album of remixes is on the way — and, if you appreciate her for taking chances, and are aware of how remix-heavy and beat-focused much of her work — like the collaborations with Röyksopp — has been of late, then it should’ve been refreshing to see. Obviously you can’t blame a veteran artist for changing up their set, but a headlining slot on a big music festival probably isn’t the best timing for a surprise, denying thousands of fans even a shred of what they came for in the first place. We regularly praise artists for reinvention, one just wishes the end result here was something more than a relentless thud.
Remember when Robyn didn’t sing Call Your Girlfriend at Boston Calling????
— Jennifer Gregorio (@jengregs612) May 29, 2016
As the Boston Herald review noted: “a dark house-music cloud hovered over her set and she danced more than she sang. It was not successful. Concertgoers rushed toward the exits in droves. She nearly emptied the place.”
The Boston Globe was similarly disappointed. “She sang only around four songs in full, all with less appealing arrangements, plus a couple of house-music songs released last year. A few live musicians played over music spun by a DJ. Robyn danced, but her voice — arresting every time she opened her mouth — was mostly stilled. The crowd thinned out.”
Sia, on the other hand, presented in her Platonic Sia form the night before. Granted, that’s one of a fractured psyche, as evidenced by the teams of dancers acting out her precisely choreographed dramas while she stood motionless in the back corner of the stage. So finely tuned were the dancers that it was hard to tell if the ones on stage were actually those being shown in perfectly synced apparently prerecorded videos. When the audience cheered for the appearances of Kristen Wiig, Paul Dano and Ben Mendhelson appearing on screen, were they actually there? It didn’t really matter.
What did matter was the emotional heft of Sia’s vocal performance. Unlike with Robyn, there wasn’t much to dance to — even her dancier numbers were stripped bear to minimal instrumentation and slowed down — but there was a lot more to feel. Fans of both came because these two women put their emotions into words. Only one of them gave them the opportunity to sing along.
Photos by Mike Diskin (courtesy Boston Calling)