love, sex, and other unhappy things

a night with pop star tove lo

When I think of Sweden, two things come to mind: furniture and indie singers. Ignoring the former for now, consider Robyn, the 90s and 00s star turned critical queen, beloved now by hipsters and poptimists alike. Then there’s Lykke Li, whose mainstream relevance amounts to a song for “The Fault in Our Stars,” and iamamiwhoami, a duo known by critics for their artistry and by the Internet for their weirdness. Of course there’s ABBA, the iconic seventies-era group best summed up as the Ikea of pop music, and Zara Larsson, a new artist with a few European hits already under her belt. But by and large, the primary exports of Sweden’s musical landscape are of the indie variety.

It’s difficult to place Tove Lo on this spectrum of Swedish singers. Recall Lo’s breakout hit, “Habits (Stay High),” a narration of a jilted ex-lover’s need for drugs, clubs, and raunchy sex to keep moving forward in life. Described by Lo as autobiographical, the song is not only darker and weirder than the efforts of her fellow Swedes—the lyrics discuss binging on Twinkies, “greasy” hookups, and eating dinner in bathtubs—it also became a hit in America. Lo cemented her image with the success of “Habits,” which topped the pop radio chart and peaked at #2 on the overall Billboard Hot 100, the highest for a Swedish song since 1994.

Despite her success, Lo is not necessarily a popular figure in America. She hasn’t reached the heights of her peers who broke out at similar times, such as Meghan Trainor and Ariana Grande, who rode the success of their singles to pierce the gates of celebria. American notoriety is not necessarily the ultimate goal of anything, but her indifference is unusual. Indeed, Lo doesn’t seem to really care about success in the States; while her voice is a constant presence on the radio, she spends little time in the USA. She attends few red carpet events and graces few magazine covers. She has a few interviews here and there, but when she does deign to appear on American soil, it’s typically to perform.

Tove Lo stopped by Providence on her Queen of the Clouds Tour to perform at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel on Friday, October 16. Perhaps as a sign of her relative anonymity as a celebrity, everyone in attendance said her name wrong: Tove Lo is pronounced too-veh loo, not tuhv or tohv or luh or loh. Lo has said she doesn’t mind what people call her, claiming she’d rather not educate people on Scandinavian linguistics wherever she goes, and while waiting in line, I was treated to a smorgasbord of incorrect pronunciations. When the show was a bit late in starting, a chant of “Tohv! Tohv! Tohv!” broke out. It was ineffective in enticing the singer out.

“Queen of the Clouds,” her debut LP that gave the concert its name, is a concept album divided into three parts: The Sex, The Love, and The Pain. Based on her music, none of them sound like happy experiences. “My Gun” (The Sex) weaponizes coitus as Lo asks her lover to “do it gently”—a futile plea, since guns only have one setting. The images described in “Not On Drugs” (The Love) are bizarre and hallucinogenic, making the titular claim questionable and her pleas ineffective. The aforementioned “Habits” (The Pain) is more focused on the depression that fuels Lo’s hedonism than it is on her time at the club, with her wavering voice personifying her stumbles and falls.

The set list was primarily songs from “Queen of the Clouds,” and Lo scrambled the order of the songs for her concert, dissolving the three conceits into one gloomy showcase. Sad doesn’t equal drab, however, as Lo sang with conviction, even excitement. She cracked jokes: “This is my first time in Providence, and as they say, you never forget your first time,” she said as the synths of “My Gun” died down. “I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say that here, since there’s no age limit tonight. It’s a little different back in Sweden.”

There was nobody more excited to be there than Lo. She bounded around the stage, gyrating awkwardly yet hypnotizingly. She encouraged our yells during “Scream My Name,” demanded that we point fingers during “The Way That I Am,” and flashed her breasts right before the final chorus of “Talking Body.” She belted her way through the concert, the stage lights in a never-ending explosion of color about her.

Despite the subject matter of her songs, her joy was nearly palpable. “We’re going to do some sad ones now, since we can’t only do happy ones,” she said after about an hour, a coy smile on her face. The remark struck me as odd. None of the previous songs had been particularly cheerful, and as the night progressed, it became increasingly difficult to discern what she considered happy and what she considered sad.

Either Lo has the worst emotional barometer in the world, or there’s something else at play. I took one video that night, of the closing song, “Habits.” When I watched it later, I was disappointed; my phone had stripped the performance of 95% of the sound, leaving a strained Lo barely audible over a growling bass. But unmistakable was her grin as she looked out into the crowd, faithfully singing along to the saddest song of her career. Perhaps Lo’s source of happiness was not the songs themselves, but in confronting them on the stage and experiencing a personal catharsis. Performance as therapy is not an unfamiliar concept, but to see it executed so subtly, yet so effectively, gave me pause.

Maybe that’s just another symptom of Lo’s strangeness. After all, little about her is conventional. She’s a songwriter who weaves pain into paeans and love into elegies. She’s not quite indie, not quite mainstream, and she uses her stardom to be heard and not to be seen. She’s a performer who paints heartbreak in searing technicolor, who sings of sadness and loss with a smile on her face. There’s something admirable in that, something interesting, something that’s managed to capture the attention of a legion of fans.

That’s all she seems to care about, anyway. Tove Lo just wants you to scream her name, even if you’ll scream it incorrectly, and for one night in Providence, in a crowded room at Lupo’s, there was only one name on everyone’s tongue. History will inevitably forget that night, that tour, those songs and that singer—but I doubt she cares at all. To understand Tove Lo, her complexities and contradictions, all you have to do is listen to her music. Then will you eventually stumble upon her greatest lyric, hidden away as her mantra: “I sing to the night, let me sing to you.”