When I talk about Tove Lo, I typically get one of two reactions. The first most popular response is a full-on, mouth agape “Who?,” which usually winds up with me spelling out the Swedish pop star's name and singing some of the bars of her hit song “Habits (Stay High)” until some realization hits. With big billboard artists like Tove Lo, sometimes it's hard to escape having their big hits infiltrate your mind, perhaps without you even realizing it.
The second reaction tend to start with an enthusiastic “Oh my God,” and ends with the other person singing the chorus of “Habits (Stay High)” to me, and then I chime in and talk about how when that song first came out last winter, my roommate and I would listen to it on repeat. The song, off her 2014 debut studio album Queen of the Clouds, was a sleeper hit that gained enough momentum to carry Tove Lo through this year. This past Saturday, her Queen of the Clouds tour brought the singer to perform for a sold-out crowd in First Avenue's mainroom, and she saved the self-deprecating heartbreak ballad for the very last of an impressive 15-song set.
There's a few things that set Tove Lo apart from other pop stars of today, which serve to make her a bit more of an accessible option for fans. Watch any of her music videos on YouTube and you'll see that the star is rather no-frills, typically letting her long brown hair down, untamed, and dressed in clothing that you could actually wear on the street (no Miley antics here). The 27-year-old is at times self-deprecating, at other times seductive and commanding, but manages to maintain that girl-next-door appeal that makes her feel like a real person rather than an industry machine.
The dynamic of an all-ages show made things a bit more interesting on Saturday, as audience members of drinking age were asked to remain upstairs with their drinks. This created a pretty clear division of fans. It seemed like most people were restless through opener Erik Hassle's sleepy set, and at times the roar of conversation at the upstairs bar sometimes drowned him out. “Ugh, this is like, so boring,” a girl next to me complained to her boyfriend. “When is Tove Lo gonna come on?” Two statuesque blondes occupied the space before me, giggling and showing each other their phones.
Hassle is another 27-year-old singer/songwriter from Sweden. Accompanied onstage only by his DJ, Hassle's opening set felt somewhat obligatory. There was a reasonable crowd response, especially from those downstairs, and some screams heard before and after he performed “No Words,” his latest disco-funk single. Vocally, Hassle has even been compared to Prince, but the heavy wobbling bass of his songs did much to overpower his falsetto and distract from the vocals. It didn't help that the crowd was so distracted, making it even harder to really take in his music. He seemed confident onstage, but lacking the dynamic necessary to truly command everyone's attention.
After an intermission that seemed to go on for far too long, the curtain finally rose and the crowd came alive as Tove Lo walked barefoot onstage, dressed in what at first appeared to be a flight suit. Big neon-lit toy blocks spelling “TOVE LO” were set the backdrop, glowing behind her band. She opened with “Not on Drugs,” pleading, “Baby, listen please, I'm not on drugs, I'm just in love.” The crowd pushed anxiously forward, singing along at the top of their lungs. She looked comfortable and at ease, her voice confident and amply warmed up.
“It's fucking amazing to be here for the very first time,” she exclaimed to a responding roar of screams, then dove into “Got Love.” Again, the crowd sang along at the top of their lungs. At Tove Lo's behest, everyone raised their hands into the air and made a heart shape along with her. The energy in the room felt electric, alive; we were under her spell.
Her third song, “The Way That I Am,” cemented the good-girl/kind-of-bad girl thing that Tove Lo does best, and perhaps the reason why her fan base has such a vast reach. “So you're proud to be a good one,” it begins, “but the good ones always complain about the stuff they never did.” Most of the songs off of Queen of the Clouds betray a sense of self-deprecation and loneliness, even misunderstanding. In “The Way That I Am,” she admits to falling in love and sings of her fear of being accepted for who she is. “I've been told I'm the problem, and the problem's my honesty,” she sings. It feels real, and taps into that familiar teenage angst that tends to cling around through your 20s.
It's an angst that she knows resonates with her fans, and she plays it well. “This song is about not being perfect,” she says, then went into “Moments,” which declares, “I love freaks; I don't care if you're a wild one.” It's like her songs are miniature diary entries where she admits to her faults, imploring the listener to understand and accept. During each chorus of “Moments,” everyone screamed along with her, “I can get a little drunk, I get into all the don't, but on good days I'm charming as fuck.” At one point she even grabbed her crotch, provoking a scream to rise through the room.
At this point, she took a little time to talk to the audience about her first trip to Minnesota. “Last night we passed by this place called the Gay 90's,” she said. “Then we ate at a place called Pizza Luce,” she continued, to a roar of approval. “It was awesome. I was like, this city is my place!” she exclaimed, and everyone went absolutely nuts. It was a wise move on her part to make these specific references, again enforcing that realness that makes her so appealing and the air of accessibility. She's just another person like you and me, not some kind of untouchable Katy Perry-level pop star. Sure, Katy Perry is just a person, too, but Tove Lo's appeal is that she makes it look and feel natural. It's easy to imagine her slinking into the 90's to dance off the day, then ending it with a few slices — no big deal.
A couple songs down the line she performed “Like 'Em Young,” which somewhat deflated the balloon of admiration I'd been toting thus far. The track itself has a very teeny-bopper feel to it, in obvious attempts to connect with her youngest fans. It's more uppity than the others, and the message kind of threw me off/creeped me out. I'm not sure what creeped me out more really — to hear everyone up in the 21+ area screaming along at the top of their lungs, “I like em young, hey!," or the verse, “I don't know what really gets you more, is it that my guy's gonna outlive yours?”
Strange question for a 27-year-old to be asking. Musically though, this song broke the spell she'd cast on me. Even her performance of it lacked the authenticity of her previous songs. It seemed like filler material, like a kitschy and catchy song for her high school listeners. In the grand scope of things, it does make sense though. In addition to her solo work, Tove Lo has co-written songs for other pop stars like Hilary Duff and Ellie Goulding.
In fact, as she progressed through her set list, I began to notice somewhat of a formula to her songs. Structurally, they're made to be the perfect pop songs. Slower moments quickly build into more climactic ones, and all of her choruses are quite epic. Though the music sticks to a pop mentality, there's an obvious EDM influence to her tracks. Each chorus feels like that moment in a dance track where the beat finally drops, a tactic that keeps the crowd fully invested in the show.
Ten tracks in, Tove Lo disappeared from the stage for a moment while her band jammed out. She re-appeared abruptly, dressed in a studded leotard and stockings, with a leather jacket. Now she was 100 percent bad girl, shimmying around stage suggestively. During “Crave,” she seemed lost in her own world up on the stage, dancing uninhibitedly.
Then came “Talking Body,” the second single from Queen of the Clouds. She ripped off her leather jacket, running her hands down her body as she sang, “If you love me right we fuck for life,” the audience still singing along to every single word. Though the song has a party feel to it, the abject sadness present in most of her work still prevailed in lyrics like, “Day drunk into the night, wanna keep you here 'cause you dry my tears,” and “Smoke, smoke me broke, I don't care I'm down for what you want.” At one point in the song, still seemingly lost in her own world or high on her music, she was hit by a pink bra that was thrown onstage and responded by briefly flashing her breasts to the audience, laughing. The crowd reaction was deafening.
Surprisingly this display was followed by the most tender moment of her set, a performance of the song “Paradise,” which she played herself on keys. “This is one of the first songs I ever wrote,” she prefaced it by saying. “You're getting vulnerable. It's awesome but fucking terrifying.” After the song she thanked the crowd and exited the stage abruptly, an obvious false exit as she still hadn't performed her biggest hit and there was very little fanfare to her goodbye. Moments later she reappeared and delved into “Run On Love,” her track with Lucas Nord. Then finally, the moment we had all been waiting for.
When the very first note of “Habits (Stay High)” came over the system, and we heard that familiar “Oh, oh,” that starts off the song, people began screaming and rushing the stage again. It's one of those songs that feels like it never gets old, at least for me, and the song that perhaps defines Tove Lo best as an artist. She admits to her bad habits, the lyrics again like a diary entry written after a long week of binge drinking by a girl hanging on the hinges of a bad break-up. The chorus is a sad admittance, an unexpected pop hook: “I gotta stay high all the time to keep you off my mind...” all the while sung with a smile, but the desperation palpable in her voice.
In a sea of radio artists, Tove Lo truly stands on her own. Her easy confidence and manner of swagger combined with the honesty of her songwriting and the caliber of her voice are clearly enough to win over several generation's hearts. My hope is that blowing up so quickly and being a globally successful pop star doesn't negatively impact her future songwriting, but rather allows her a platform to continue making music that feels true and writing songs that her listeners can connect to on a deeper level because of her willingness to be vulnerable. That vulnerability is what won me over in the first place, and Saturday's show was proof that as an artist Tove Lo not only opens her heart and bleeds for her fans on her album but also does it in person, working the room to win us all over and leave us with that floaty satisfied feeling as we exited into the night.
Critic's bias: My roommate introduced me to Tove Lo last year, and at first I wanted to hate her. I made fun of her "Habits (Stay High)" song and complained about her trying to capitalize off of singing about getting fucked up. Then I listened to the song a couple hundred more times, became completely addicted to it, and gave in to being a Tove Lo fan. It's now in my top break-up song list. I'm still not totally sold on all of her music, but I really appreciate her lyrics. I'm a lyrics person, and I'm pretty sick of pop stars singing about nothing.
The crowd: Anyone and everyone. I talked to a bunch of people who had driven in from the suburbs for the show. There were a lot of young women and dutiful boyfriends in attendance. At the upstairs 21-plus bar area, there was a large crowd with a surprising amount of men. Tove Lo has a huge reach, and her fan base is all across the board.
Overheard in the crowd: "Oh my God, I know the lyrics to like, every song" -said by about 5 different young women
"Wow, this guy really sucks, don't you think?" — a young woman to her date during the opening act
Not On Drugs
The Way That I Am
Like Em Young
Scream My Name
This Time Around
Out of Mind
Run on Love
Habits (Stay High)