Luleåbiennalen 2018

Ode to Honey
Kristian Vistrup Madsen

Honey is from a different biosphere. We are talking other kinds of viscosities, more dense and ancient fluids. Honey is a geological matter.

In this song by Robyn there are the things we want and the things we need, a distinction we might think ourselves equipped to handle, but which soon slips between our fingers. Within Honey’s cartography, what we need is on the surface: light and water. The waves come in and they’re golden, Robyn sings – mmm, and the sun – it sets on the water. This sounds like what we want, doesn’t it: holiday, wholesomeness, warmth. But it’s more basic than that. What we need is not about what appeals, or what would be pleasurable, but about biology: photosynthesis; the conditions for life.

What we want, then, belongs to a different category on the topographical map, or rather off it: at the heart of the flower, strands of saliva, right where the hurt is. To get what we want, we have to go deeper, further, longer – both spatial and temporal metaphors are equally (in)adequate here. Did you know there’s life without photosynthesis? Or not life exactly, but a “deep hot biosphere” ubiquitously distributed in Earth’s crust. It is only in the last few decades that scientists have begun to grapple with this world inside our planet, beneath the world as it has so far been understood. There’s energy there, a kind of thumping that never saw the sun. It’s a biosphere of a magnitude only comparable to all the oceans. But far below them, down in the deep.

The spectrum of depth that spans from need to want finds its emotional equivalence in the measured distance between a Self and its object of desire. We might need the intimate presence of another, but – within the Honey-paradigm – what we want is to lose ourselves and everyone around us. On Robyn’s previous record, Body Talk, tracks such as Dancing On My Own posited an emotional alone-ness caused by severance from the twosomeness of certain others. By comparison, Honey plunges the depths of the existential. That is to say, the inescapable, always, already, and again kind of loneliness – one that has ceased to chase redemption. To call on someone and say that, no, you’re not gonna get what you need; light and water will not be offered, no life is in the making here. Once melted and now ossified, like resin turned to amber, in the deep hot biosphere, water has long since transformed into honey, and honey, Robyn holds – although it plays no part in photosynthesis – is sweeter. 

Why? Honey has the beauty and freedom of abstraction; living without a body, or in a collective body. Body Talk, on the other hand, is figuration. Figuration indexes accountability and its let-downs: In Call Your Girlfriend, for instance, a “you” and an “I”, and this “girlfriend”, who must, at Robyn’s delusional, verging on psychopathic request, be “called”. We’ve all been there, wanting something so bad we just cannot see the truth for what it is (he is never going to call her), but Robyn went and sang it out loud – to all the dance floors. That song and its narrator – how she believes in her own words, but is betrayed by the music and the drag of her voice – lives in the time of waves and tides, governed by the sky and its lights. Sure it’s getting late, but Robyn’s “I” is still awake enough dream.

So let’s think about Robyn’s oeuvre as a descent into night. The time of Body Talk is approximately 12-midnight to 3 AM. This is the time of hope-fuelled drunk texts at which even sadness – I’m right over here, why can’t you see me? – glows with the memory or expectation of happiness. Then there’s a transitional period during which the laws of physics change: I’ve turned all my sorrow into glass, Robyn explains on Honey’s opening track, it don’t leave no shadow. Honey only really starts at 4. At this point, the “you” and the “her" of Dancing on My Own and Call Your Girlfriend have liquified to expose the unknowable nucleus over which their projections were cast. It is not life exactly, but whatever lies beneath the oceans, a cool pulse. Life at ontological collapse, un-life: the sweetest and deepest. Let go of your doubts and say yes. Robyn asks us to join her in the hollow, but her beckon is one that can only be heard by those already there with her. Flesh, for those who un-live through these hours of the morning, is like a sponge, soaking up the viscous into which every figure has decomposed. That is what Robyn’s song is about: becoming one, becoming no one. You never had this kind of nutrition, she assures us.

Nutrition at this nadir, as it’s distributed across Honey-the-album, takes the unsteady form of an echo. Beach2K20 is the beach life fantasy of someone whose technology would short-circuit if it came into contact with water. Its tinny voice pleads let’s go party, promising a tropicana that only seems more nightmarishly hyperreal as desperation intensifies: I mean it’s right on the beach, they do really nice food. Closing Robyn’s party, Ever Again has left all nuance behind for the emotional clarity of a hologram never ever to be broken-hearted again – trust me. It has the delirious levity of a room with no air: energy flowing from an empty reservoir; the cadence of life without photosynthesis is as exasperated as it is infinite.

Robyn’s music is all about desire insofar as desire is all about lack, and lack often stems from loss. For twenty years, the theme of her music has been relentless perseverance in the face of equally relentless loss. The loss of love, or even the fear of it while still securely in your grip. The fact that its value lies in being entirely outside of your grip, always. It’s unbearable. And although, in Robyn, a good thing could never make up for all the pain, her only suggested cure is to become completely consumed by it.

Much if not all music is about desire, but not all music is about loss. And few pop artists take it where Robyn takes it: pretty far into delusion and sabotage, of self and others. Robyn knows the vastness of forests; she understands just how cold and remote things can get. If the Robyn of Body Talk keeps dancing, she’ll get to Honey, and to the place where all that’s left are bodies – no talk – only miraculously upright promises of fleshy pools. And as we fall deeper into the night of her music, it doesn’t matter that, in the end, the light returns. We’ve felt the strength of the deepest currents, and there’s no coming back from that.

Kristian Vistrup Madsen is a writer based in Berlin, and the editor of this issue of the Lulu Journal.