Call it the curious case of Tove Styrke. While plenty of former teen pop stars grow up by getting blonder, flashing more skin and proclaiming their newfound maturity (a sign of changing tastes, sure, but also savvy marketing), this Swedish singer-songwriter is doing it Benjamin Button-style on her new album Kiddo, her first LP in five years and her debut U.S. full-length. The 22-year-old looks much younger on its cover than she did in the years following her breakthrough on Swedish Idol as a 16-year-old. No longer is she rocking platinum locks, strutting across stages relatively pantsless or begging a lover to “f-ck my brains out” in a song that’d give the raunchier Tove Lo a run for her money. Nowadays, you’re more likely to find her, as she was at a recent New York City show, performing in oversized red basketball shorts and a matching baseball cap, singing spunky, island-inflected songs a world apart from the weapons-grade electropop she’s left behind. (May “Call My Name” rest in peace alongside Sky Ferreira’s similarly stellar yet disowned “One.”)
Maybe that unusual career trajectory is just because she’s from another country, distanced from whatever forces transform Miley Cyrus from Hannah Montana into a twerking, tongue-wagging avatar of American cultural anxiety and construction-site menace. The more likely scenario? There’s nothing accidental about the way Styrke presents herself this time around. From the pop-culture references and winks at famous divas that pepper the record, you get the sense Styrke has less in common with the artists being consumed and more with the audiences doing the consuming—and she prefers it this way.
Take for instance “Snaren,” a clever curtain call for dudes cramping your personal space that quotes Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” and moments later shouts-out Queen Bey herself. It’s a more telling introduction than the seesawing power-tool thump of album opener “Ain’t Got No…,” as Kiddo may be the most explicitly feminist pop album to emerge since Beyoncé broke down the concept on her 2013 surprise opus. Beyoncé’s music makes big, bold statements from the top about girl power, relationships and income inequality, but Styrke’s focus is more personal, chronicling with the enthusiasm of a sociology major what it’s like to find your voice as a woman when the deck is stacked against you. For her, growing up isn’t about updating your brand. It's like surviving a war zone.
Her self-described protest song “Borderline" is literally about burning down the patriarchy (and one of five songs here returning from last fall’s Borderline EP). In a an adopted patois over clanging reggae guitars, Styrke describes waking up from society’s brainwashing and rebelling against the men of the “empire” that try to put her in a box. “I’m borderline happy and I’m borderline sad, I’m borderline good and I’m borderline bad,” she sings. It’s an appropriate summary for the record: part of what makes Kiddo a rich coming of age album is the way it’s brimming with personality, with Styrke alternatingly sarcastic, pensive, angry, elated, cocky and cheeky over songs as musically diverse as their emotions. That idea of how a woman “should” be (and who gets to decide) is also one she revisits on the punchy “Walking a Line,” one of a few of occasions on Kiddo where Styrke laughs sexism in the face with a little ironic misandry.
It's no secret that Sweden makes the best pop music—stop me if you’ve heard this one before. But unlike her peers, Styrke forgoes the club for something more playful, drawing on a palette of global sounds and occasionally busting out some juvenile, rap-like rhymes instead of traditional melodies. Sometimes there’s no larger message: “Ego” is Kiddo’s most straightforward pop song as well as its most infectious, though her relaxed high notes in the chorus betray just how forceful a hook she’s written. (One consequence of eschewing powerhouse dance tracks is that she doesn’t always sink her teeth into a song the way you wish she would.) Other times her message gets lost as she distills her ideas down to a pop-song format, like the twinkling closer “Brag,” which doesn't read as the social media commentary she intended. Still, more often than not this approach lets her sneak big ideas into her music.
“I know you feel that pop doesn’t really have a clue,” she shouts on the convulsive “Even If I’m Loud It Doesn’t Mean I’m Talking to You,” which is sort of like if Gwen Stefani’s high-school fantasy “Hollaback Girl” was done by a foreign exchange student who just discovered 5-Hour Energy. But the song, which Styrke explains is both “a shocking pink f-ck-you to all the people who think their penis bands are automatically more talented than one twenty-something girl on stage” and a call to claim male-dominated spaces, proves her transgressor wrong in barely three minutes. Rockism, male privilege, double standards—that’s a hell of a lot to work into an already chaotically busy pop song without sounding heavy-handed. But the most refreshing thing about Kiddo is its reminder that there needn’t be a choice between earworms and and a message. She may not be talking to you with the latter, but you’d be wise to listen anyway.