In a world where most chart-topping artists and songs seem manufactured, Tove Lo is the refreshing and genuine pop star we – especially women – all need.
Tove Lo. You’ve heard her name, definitely danced to her music, and probably seen these two words at almost every festival lineup this year. If there is one female artist who needs to be heard right now, it is her. The Swedish pop sensation first broke into the international music scene with single “Habits” in 2014, the famous chorus “I’ve gotta stay high all the time to keep you off my mind” catapulted Tove Lo – born Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson – into international stardom overnight.
She told us who she was from the start: an honest, raw artist who was unafraid of exploring the depths of her emotions and experiences with love, sex, and drugs in order to make fantastic pop music. Lo was also clearly flipping the middle finger to the industry’s gender stereotypes, touching on all the subjects which women seemingly couldn’t dare to cross. Sure, you’ve heard a pop star sing about being heartbroken after a breakup, but has she ever told you about throwing up in a tub, going to sex clubs, getting high to get over a lover, and drinking all of her money? Not until Tove Lo came around.
Queen of the Clouds
Tove Lo’s debut album, Queen of the Clouds, was in equal parts a celebration and examination of the stages of a relationship, a common theme across her records. Split into three parts, “THE SEX,” “THE LOVE,” and “THE PAIN,” Lo depicts the highs and lows of every stage of a relationship – from the initial conquest to the lessons learned after having your heart broken. One thing is clear from the start: Lo has the power.
On album opener “My Gun,” she commands the object of her affection on the first line: “rip off your clothes for me.” She tells him to “jump on [her] cloud,” and the use of “my” when referring to her guy shows her dominance over the situation. Tove Lo is flipping the script. People scoff at her preferences on “Like ‘Em Young,” but she doesn’t care because “all is fair in love and war.” In “Talking Body,” another hit off Clouds, she instructs her lover: “now if we’re talking body, you’ve got a perfect one so put it on me,” and adds conditions to this love – “if you love me right, we fuck for life.”
“Moments” is a beautiful ode to her flaws. “I’m not the prettiest you’ve ever seen, but I have my moments/I’m not the flawless one, I’ve never been, but I have my moments.” She embraces the things which make her imperfect and human, like “get[ting] a little drunk, get[ting] into all the don’ts” and escaping the sheltered environment she grew up in, but uses them to empower herself. After all, she is “charming as fuck.” “Not on Drugs” is an honest expression of genuine happiness brought about by her relationship. There’s an underlying vulnerability in this song – Lo is open enough to tell people just how happy this relationship is making her, and doing so requires being extremely transparent. Still, she does not lose her position of power, in the chorus she proclaims: “I’m Queen of the Clouds, make my wish come true.”
“Thousand Miles,” the first song on “The Pain” section of the album, examines her skepticism about the direction the relationship is going towards and her willingness to fight for it to work. She’ll run a “thousand miles to get [him] back.” He is slowly slipping away from her grip, but she won’t let him escape so easily. It is the last attempt at rekindling a romance which seems to have faded away. Lo accurately portrays the obsessive and sometimes desperate nature of one’s love in lyrics like “wonder what you’re up to/ what state of mind you’re in.” “Habits” comes in as the coping mechanism for the heartbreak right after her relationship took its last breath. What’s most powerful about the song is the candidness of Lo’s feelings – she is well aware that this is her grieving process, and isn’t scared to admit she’s doing all of these things to numb the pain and escape reality. “This Time Around” closes the album full circle, where she is with the person she once loved again but their relationship isn’t the same.
A brilliantly crafted album, Queen of the Clouds does exactly what a debut album should do: it introduces us to different facets of the artist and explores multiple areas of their sound. By the time the album ends, you’ve lived all the highs and lows of this relationship with Lo, you’ve felt her pain, her joy, and when she empowered herself she empowered you too. When she talks to the listener during the interludes, she’s confiding in you the wisdom she has ached to learn. As soon as she exposes her not-so-glamurous moments and desires in song, she is kicking herself off a pedestal, levelling with her listener and telling you “Hey, I’m flawed and imperfect, and I fuck up and hurt too.”
Though Queen of the Clouds was great, it proved to be a safe bet from Lo after the release of her sophomore album, Lady Wood, in 2016. The term “lady wood,” coined by Lo herself, is “the word for a female hard-on.” The album is divided into four parts, “Fairy Dust,” “Fire Fade,” “LIGHT BEAMS,” and “PITCH BLACK” – the first two belonging to Lady Wood, and the last two released in a different album at a later date.
Lady Wood is kicked off by “Influence,” in which she announces on the first line: “I’m fine as fuck.” Again, Lo proves to be in control, “it’s a blur but [she] want[s] [her] way.” Lo’s world is an inclusive environment, “the best place in the world” where “boy meets boy, girl meets girl.” On title track “Lady Wood,” Lo is pursuing her lover and asserting her power:
I know what people say about you
They say the same about me
I don’t care if it’s all true
I want you hanging with me
And again, she embraces her flaws on the line,
Dirty on the inside
damaged goods but nothing but pride
“Cool Girl,” Lady Wood’s lead single, was inspired by another powerful, albeit slightly deranged, woman – Rosamund Pike’s character in Gone Girl. In the song, Lo describes the phase at the start of a relationship where neither side wants to completely give in to their feelings and instead toys around with the idea of playing hot and cold. Instead of displaying her frustration at this situation, Tove Lo changes the narrative – she’s the “cool girl” calling the shots, and he “can’t tell if [she’s] being ironic.” Her frustration exists, but Lo once again manages to make something empowering out of situations where women are typically portrayed as fragile and helpless.
Lo explores her insecurities yet again with “Imaginary Friend,” where she talks about the people who doubted her abilities to make it and the moments when she questioned her own abilities. But she is stronger, “got [her] armor on like superglue, can power through,” and holds on to her imaginary friend to keep her grounded. The song’s outro has Lo speaking to the listener for the first time: “I guess it’s kind of like a voice in my heart, reminding me that there’s nothing to fear in the things that I’m afraid of.” The song fades out with this powerful message. If on “Habits” Lo’s coping mechanisms were drugs, on “Keep it Simple” she uses sex to heal her pain. “How to forget how fucking broken I’ve been?/ But I’m healing” she states, using “physical to trick [her] heart… Physical to feel okay.” Once again, Lo puts salt on her own wounds and lays out her imperfections and bad habits for the world to see – but once she does that and recognizes these issues, they can’t be used against her.
However, it is on the second chapter of Lady Wood, BLUE LIPS (lady wood phase II), where Lo really shines and exceeds all expectations. Released on November 2017, BLUE LIPS takes Lo’s common themes of sex, drugs, emotions, and heartbreak, and exacerbates them. Her lyrical candidness is taken to an extreme. With almost three years in the spotlight, Lo has matured and solidified the message she wants to send out as an artist, and effectively delivers during every second of BLUE LIPS. She is here to empower, have fun, feel pain and pleasure, and most importantly, be human. Oh, she’s also here to make incredible pop music.
“LIGHT BEAMS” is the first half of the album. “Disco Tits,” the album’s lead single and opener, is an examination of lust through intoxicated eyes. Lo has no reservations in her lyrics:
I’m sweat from head to toe
I’m wet through all my clothes
I’m fully charged, nipples are hard
Ready to go.
Exciting, sexy, fun, but also candid. She commands the object of her affection: “You can follow my bloodstream” – Tove Lo runs this party. “shivering gold” is pure sex. The whole song talks about how someone else is giving Lo pleasure, she “shiver[s] in gold” and her partner is “smiling, covered in [her].” A woman’s pleasure is almost never talked about, but Tove Lo is here to prove that yes, women feel pleasure too, and they are equally as important as men and so deserve the space to talk about this. Tove Lo has started to carve this space out with “shivering gold.”
“stranger” is the perfect pop song. It mixes an addictive guitar hook with great beats and incredibly powerful vocals. In the song, Lo describes finding someone to spend the night with – she “love[s] making [them] beg for the win/[She’s] the prize [they’ll] get.” Even though she portrays herself as begging for this affection, which normally would be associated with a lack of power, she makes it clear that she is dealing the cards in this scenario, everything that happens will happen because she wants it to.
In “bitches,” Tove Lo talks about her bisexuality and celebrates women. She is in power:
let me be your guide
when you eat my pussy out
Cause I’ve had one or two, even a few
More than you
In a simple phrase, she tears down anyone who criticizes female desire: “I call it respect when you givin’ what you get” – a woman is allowed to and should feel desire, sex is based on reciprocity, and the way Lo sees it, only women understand this.
After celebrating sex, desire, and empowerment in “LIGHT BEAMS,” Tove Lo dives into her rawest emotions in “PITCH BLACK.” “cycles” is where she confesses to being stuck in a vicious cycle in relationships, always seeking the same thing and living the same experience. She admits that this hurts her, but it’s something she’s unsure of how to change. “9th of october” starts exploring the breakdown of her relationship. She talks about the intensity of this relationship and how different it was from other people’s – “never had time for useless fights/ ‘Bout dirty laundry” but admits they “never wanted a normal kind of love.” The memories of what she lost hurt her so much she “can’t think of it sober.”
Tove Lo closes the album with one of the strongest songs of her career. “hey you got drugs?” is an achingly human, lonely ballad about a love lost and the pain which resulted from this loss. She is completely vulnerable, unsure of what tomorrow holds, and wishes to hold on to every last strand of this relationship repeating “I don’t wanna go home.” She ends the album in the same way which she was thrusted into the spotlight: looking for drugs to cope with loss – “Hey you got drugs?/ Just need a pick-me-up.” These scars run deeper now, and she ends up resisting the offer, saying “Take it if you want/ Think I’ve fallen out of my feelings.” Though this is a ballad which makes your heart hurt, Tove Lo’s vocals and melodies showcase the strength which she eventually got after going through the pain. And another one of our journeys in the world of Tove Lo has come to an end.
Tove Lo has made a career out of being candid and unashamed. The importance of her figure as a foreign woman who has made it to mainstream popularity in America is undeniable, and she’s using her platform and mostly her music to spread positive messages. In her honest and explicit depictions of sexual escapades, desire, drug use, overwhelming love, and pain, she is giving women a voice which they’ve struggled to find in an industry that tries its best to lock women into boxes delineated by patriarchal standards. And the best part about it all is that Tove Lo does it naturally. When “Habits” was released she never imagined she’d become a game changer and influential figure in the global music industry, and even back then she was letting people read her like an open book. In a world where most chart-topping artists and songs seem manufactured to tick certain boxes and maximize sales, Tove Lo is the refreshing and genuine pop star we all, especially women, need.
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photo © Emma Holley