Better Than: An all-night drug binge.
Pop music runs in Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson’s blood. Better known by her stage name, Tove Lo, the Swedish-born singer has penned tracks for Icona Pop and Girls Aloud, and recently worked with Adam Lambert as part of powerhouse producer Max Martin’s songwriting collective. But since releasing “Habits” last year, Tove Lo’s own star has been on the rise and burning brightest. She’s been featured in several hit collaborations, most notably Lucas Nord’s “Run on Love”; a supporting slot on the upcoming Australian leg of Katy Perry’s Prismatic World Tour should only cement her place as pop music’s heir apparent. But Tove Lo rocks a specific brand that veers slightly from most other women in pop — she paints herself as the hard-drinking, hard-drugging, DTF party girl, admitting the somewhat destructive nature of these preoccupations but celebrating them all the same. Whether the trope is real or imagined doesn’t matter; her image gives her just enough edge to make her something of a guru among a hookup-culture demographic with many of the same proclivities.
In a different world, Tove Lo could’ve been a motivational speaker or a life coach. That’s the effect she had on the sold-out crowd at Webster Hall last night. The VH1-sponsored mini-tour in support of her recently released debut LP, Queen of the Clouds, billed her as an artist “You Oughta Know,” appropriately referencing another lass once buzzworthy for her somewhat lewd assertions — Alanis Morissette. The crowd already knew what they were in for, and a video intro on a huge HD screen featuring an extreme close-up of Tove Lo’s lips as they related a story of animalistic attraction left few doubts. As with her music, it’s a visceral connection that Tove Lo yearns to tap into, and she could do no better than to kick her set off with the aggressively flirtatious “My Gun.” Backed by three leather-clad, uber-Swedish boys (one on synths, and two drummers with hybrid kits), Tove Lo bounced around on stage for just over an hour, running through her still-small but insanely catchy catalog with an admirable energy.
Though she doesn’t always hit all of the high notes, she’s far less of a train wreck than her lyrics or drug-positive stage banter would imply. Through the entirety of the show, she drank only bottled water, a far cry from the whiskey-swigging heavy rockers who originally embodied her devil-may-care ethos. She actually doesn’t come across as a hopeless addict — while she does talk about using drugs and alcohol to numb the sting of bad breakups, she never hints at any deeper pain, just raises a glass to the temporary solution for her temporary problems before the distractions of the next love affair set in. It’s always her crushes that are her biggest vice, emphasized by the next few songs in the set — “Not on Drugs,” “Over,” and “Love Ballad.”
While her cravings may not be the most craven, what does come through in her performance is a preternatural confidence, the kind that drives standout smash-hit “Moments,” in which she sings, “On good days I am charming as fuck.” The juxtaposition of that certain savoir faire against those dirty little profanities is how Tove Lo manages to come off as slightly grittier than her pop counterparts. She’s not so much the nihilistic maladroit headed to rehab for the third time, but has all the markers of the carefree festival faerie: hair worn in loose waves and haphazard braids, midriff-revealing top, and bare feet dancing to a groove in her heart.
During dubstep-influenced numbers like “The Way That I Am,” she let herself come slightly unhinged, tossing her locks like the best of metal-loving headbangers. It was no surprise that the crowd sang along with tracks that have been circulating for a while, like “Out of Mind” and “Timebomb,” but it is a testament to Queen of Clouds‘s accessibility that everyone knew the words to her more recently released material, too. These songs are gems, to be sure, and they beg for clubby remixes and late nights and crowded dance floors. Though some might peg the constant references to illicit substances as irresponsible, Tove Lo’s hedonism has an empowering slant, too. She isn’t caving to peer pressure — she’s admitting her “bad” behavior and even attempting to get at its root. Encoring with “Run on Love” and (of course) “Habits” made it clear that even when overindulging, Tove Lo is still the one in control.
In a culture that will find any reason to criticize the conduct of young women, particularly those making pop music, there’s something refreshing about a singer-songwriter who makes no excuses, who unabashedly owns up to her lifestyle decisions. Because hey, it’s her life after all. If she wants to eat dinner in a bathtub every night, who is really going to stop her?
Random Notebook Dump: Ninety percent of Tove Lo’s dance moves could be straight out of those late-night infomercials for Dance Ab workouts.
Overheard: “I bet she’s a Pisces.” – an amateur astrologer, incorrectly identifying the Scorpio’s sun sign
Overheard 2: “I’m not eating Taco Bell anymore because it makes my stomach explode.” – someone less prone to late-night food runs than Tove Lo
Not on Drugs
Out of Mind
The Way That I Am
Like Em Young
Run On Love
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 2, 2014