tove styrke's emotional pop songs will get you in your feelings
Talking to the Swedish pop sensation about her new album and epic queer skater video.
Do you remember 2011? Katy Perry was donning a new technicolored wig every other day and shooting whipped cream out of her tits like Candy Land’s newest adult film star. Britney Spears was back on her A-game, dominating airwaves with dubstep-infused hits and high budget videos. Lady Gaga’s magnum opus Born This Way sold a million copies in its first week, proving pop’s potency as a driver for cultural progress. Fresh, full-fledged female pop was the trend.
Fast forward to 2018, and it’s evident that the tides have changed. On her highly anticipated comeback single, Christina Aguilera lets multiple rap verses occupy the spaces where her pristine vocals could’ve soared. Not only did former female giants like Taylor Swift fail to infiltrate the zeitgeist with their last projects, but no woman could even crack the top five biggest songs of last year at all. Under pop’s newly formed glass ceiling, Gaga’s once juicy meat dress is likely stuck in storage somewhere, turning to jerky.
One person, however, still believes in the life-changing vitality of pop: Tove Styrke. “My heart beats fiercely for pop,” the Swedish singer tells me, her voice lighting up over the phone. “It’s probably the best thing I know.” In a world where “Gucci Gang” is capable of worming itself into the psyches of even the most unknowing listeners, and where one of Spotify’s most popular playlists is called “Anti Pop,” Tove Styrke’s third album Sway is an all-inclusive resort of a record for those in need of an ear candy buffet.
“For me, making pop music is such a good tool for taking a feeling or an emotion and boiling it down to its simplest, most direct form,” she tells me. “I want to find a shortcut to your feelings. I want you to get snapped into it immediately.” After placing third on Swedish Idol in 2009, the poptimist went on to release two full-length albums consisting of songs infused with her spunky personality yet seemingly unsure of what exactly they wanted to sound like. On Sway’s succinct eight tracks, though, Tove cuts the fat, and the finished product somehow feels more extravagant and layered than ever.
Take “On The Low,” for example. Perhaps the most bare song the album in terms of production, the hushed instrumental backing Styrke’s sweetly subtle whispers makes you feel like you are tiptoeing towards something, as she tries to explain to her lover why they shouldn’t keep their relationship status a secret anymore. On “Mistakes,” you hear — if you’re an attentive listener—the quiet buzzing of a bee during the line, “You got me buzzin’ like a street light.” Later on in the song, she sings, “You make it really hard to leave, I / know I’m gonna wanna get out of my Levi’s,” and throws in a subtle zipper sound effect on the last word. Title track “Sway,” an elated head rush of a song, captures the mixture of anxiety and euphoria that comes with ripping off the band-aid and just kissing your crush. Its video, a stunning docu-style depiction of budding queer skater love, ends with Tove in a sporty look belting “Sway” to a crowd of sweaty underground youth.
Therein lies the intoxicating magic of Tove Styrke — she pulls out all the stops in every aspect of her career, including the production, lyrics, visuals, and narratives. She wants her pop to mean something. “I wanted to make [the album] sound as clean and simple as possible, but still interesting, which is not an easy feat,” she tells me of her meticulous production sensibilities. “I really wanted each song to have its own I.D., its own personality so that you can recognize it just by how it sounds.”
Snuggled right in between breezy effortlessness and fierce attention to detail, Tove creates her very own pop utopia that reads like stream-of-consciousness but comes off as grandeur. “My last album was me saying all these things and very much aimed outward for everybody to hear,” she says of Sway’s shift to introversion. “This time, I wanted to put words from that personal inner dialogue that you have with yourself.” It’s no surprise, then, that her lyrics often sound like an involuntary reaction, a fleeting thought, too intimate to say out loud. The project finds Tove at the top of her game, and arguably bears many “crying in the club”-esque similarities to fellow Swedish pop juggernaut Robyn’s groundbreaking album Body Talk.
Closing out the record is an upbeat rework of Lorde’s heartstring-tugging piano ballad “Liability,” a song you never would’ve thought could be flipped around in the way Tove does. “Even though the song feels so human and so personal, it’s still very, very relatable to a lot of people,” she gushes. “At the end of the day, who’s going to love me besides me?”
Whereas some see the directness of pop as a shameful shortcut, Tove Styrke sees an opportunity. The lyrics on Sway are not conceptual or astrological, not even the slightest bit vague. Instead, backed by production that meets the mood, Styrke studies the intricacies of human emotion, ultimately creating pure pop bangers so dynamic that they seemingly morph to address each listener individually.
Toward the end of our conversation, I ask Tove if she could describe her new album in three words. She struggles, listing off reasons why this album has been transformative not just in the discoveries she made of others, but those she made of herself in the process. “You use other people as a mirror. Who am I when I’m with this person? Do I like myself? It has really been a journey, so it’s hard to boil it down.”
I suggest — “Maybe the three words can be ‘changed my life’?”
“Changed my life,” she repeats. “That’s good, yeah.”
Photography Frida Marklund at LUNDLUND.
Styling Emelie Johansson at Linkdetails.
Hair Martina Senke at Mikas Looks.
Makeup Regina Törnwall at LUNDLUND.
Photography assistance Linn Hansson, Philip Älfvåg.
Styling assistance Olivia Khalin