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Robyn turned Madison Square Garden into a queer temple

Written by
David Goldberg

On Friday night, the Swedish pop visionary Robyn brought her “Honey” tour to Madison Square Garden. It was her biggest stateside show to date, and for fans who have waited since her 2010 “Body Talk” tour, a long overdue reunion. The show could have gone in any direction: Her 2018 album Honey is far more sparse and experimental than the jumbo-sized pop fantasy Body Talk. Who knew what kind of crowd Madison Square Garden would attract. But screw the cynicism: The show was a miracle, the kind of night that could only happen in New York. 

Madison Square Garden was sold out, flushed with queens—hordes of us, coming out of the bathrooms, stunting on the escalators, cruising by the Chicken & Things stand. There were teens, just starting to play with their gender expression, and endless groups of women who had been dancing alone to “Show Me Love” since it came out on cassette. 

The night opened with Channel Tres and (frequent Robyn collaborator) Kindness, performing on a sculptural, white, perfectly Swedish set—littered with sheets and sculpture, and draped with a massive white scrim. When the first drips of “Send to Robyn Immediately” started humming, it felt like we were all entering a collective sleep, wading into the same unconscious. The pixie empress Robyn walked on stage, and the dream began.

The focused, prayer-like delivery, the all-white stage, the thousands of supplicating fans—it reminded me of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. It’s the most sacred, fearsome day on the calendar: We fast all day, open the holy arc, release our sins, mourn the dead, and start the new year in an altered, scorched state. At the start of “Honey,” Robyn grabbed the sheet and ripped it down. The arc was open, the priestess was here. We were all exposed now.

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But it wasn’t all ceremony; we came to shake our asses. And she gave it to us, early, with a sudden pivot at song three to “Indestructible,” followed by “Hang with Me.” The set lighting could turn—from trippy irridescent to discotheque purple—as fast as Robyn could pivot. She’d go from tearing her heart out in “It’s in the Music” to pounding the floor for “Call Your Girlfriend.”

We were losing our minds. Look, there’s a lot of darkness to gay male diva worship—in our prizing of hyper-femininity, of loving straight women unconditionally while castigating the artists in our own community. But to see an arena packed with men celebrating vulnerability, heartbreak and free love, rather than violence, sex and was stunning. It made me feel like I was 18, at my first gay club, before I knew that I was supposed to judge everything.

It would have made sense for Robyn to speak, to preach, to have a message—In 2019, in New York City, on International Women’s Day. But she didn’t. She was too in it, too busy feeling things many of us didn’t know we were allowed to feel. For women, for fans beyond the gender binary, for anyone in the room who knows what it is like to live silently in heartbreak, she was finally giving us a language. To make it literal would have been the performance. This was presence.

It all built up to a breathless climax, a one-two punch of “Love is Free,” followed by the eternal heartbreak ballad “Dancing on My Own.” At the chorus, Robyn gave the mic to the room, and we bellowed it back to her.

After swaying us through an emotional ending that included “With Every Heartbeat,” “Human Being,” and “Who Do You Love,” Robyn left, returning to her throne on the planet Saturn. As we exited the stadium, the bridge-and-tunnel judgments from earlier in the night suddenly felt cheap. We all knew one another. There was that queen you made out with when you first moved to Crown Heights, there’s that DJ from your favorite party in Bushwick, there’s a 17 year-old and their best girlfriend, who took the train in from Paramus. “It’s winter pride!” one fur-draped queen declared, while we kiki'd at the 31st street hot dog stand.

We’ve all felt so weary—from corporations suddenly sniffing queer blood, from the coming tide of trademarked World Pride activations, from Drag Con, from seeing our favorite holes in the walls get shut down, from Jussie Smollett, from the president. But it felt for a minute like there was possibility on our side. An armada of queers and outsiders had just taken over the most iconic stadium on the continent. We had made midtown—midtown!—into Candyland.

A massive tribe of fans would keep the party going, bursting into an impromptu chorus of “Dancing on My Own” while waiting for the trains underground at 34th Street. Nobody was going to forget this. We would go on to finish what Robyn started, back in our separate tribes, dancing shirtless with the Carry Nation at Good Room or melding into the delirium of Papi Juice at Nowadays.

We’ll dance again this year, many times, at Holy Mountain, on Fire Island, at Riis Beach, but not as one. Because we don’t yet know how to give ourselves permission, to be sad and sweet and jubilant without anyone judging us, and without judging ourselves. It was offered to us, with love, by Robyn. And we'll wait, for another eight years if we have to, to get it again. 

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