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22-year-old Norwegian singer-songwriter, Sigrid, has a daunting task: Meet the high demands of Scandinavian pop music, a genre that often sets the standards for the construction of pop songs in general — and arguably helped elevated pop from its status as a “lowbrow” genre to the realm of higher art. Pop music as a whole has historically been seen as lowbrow and is still often derided for appealing to the lowest common denominator. It’s been explicitly and implicitly identified as a “female” genre and criticized as such: It’s too frivolous, superficial and emotional.
The view of pop music’s validity as an art form has been changing, and a large part of that is due to the influence of Scandinavian pop music in the US. Ironically, this “female” genre is dominated by Scandinavian men behind the scenes. Think of any bop of the past 20 years and you’ll probably find Swedish producer/songwriter, Max Martin — or one of his many proteges — attached to it (“Baby One More Time,” “Since U Been Gone” and “Blank Space” all bear Martin’s fingerprints, just to name a few). However, female Scandinavian stars like Robyn, Tove Lo and Susanne Sundfør have been using their influence to change this narrative by writing, singing and producing their own music, paving the way for younger stars like Sigrid.
So, with this musical landscape surrounding her, it’s no surprise that Sigrid has confidently carved out a space for herself as a pop star from up north. Her debut album, Sucker Punch, which came out this past Friday, establishes Sigrid as someone who can take the cues from the genre while adding her own spin to it. Although Sucker Punch has a team of Scandinavian male producers behind it, it’s also entirely co-written by Sigrid, so if she continues in the vein of this album’s strongest tracks, she’ll soon become as recognizable as her Nordic counterparts.
Part of the power of Scandinavian pop lies in the formula – catchy hooks, tightly constructed beats – but another part of its power feels drawn from the geographic landscape itself. These are lands of the extreme, where the sun doesn’t go below or come above the horizon depending on the time of year. Total light and total darkness often rule the skies, a juxtaposition that defines the bittersweet aspect of modern Scandinavian pop music as it balances between the seeming superficiality of pop and the severity of heavy emotions.
Sucker Punch opens with its title track, which has a lighter pop sound but is grounded by darker lyrical themes, namely, trying not to self-sabotage a relationship before it’s fully begun. It’s soon followed by the scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs banger, “Strangers,” an anthem that incorporates an epic chorus with the sadness of impending heartbreak; “Strangers” is about a relationship that doesn’t live up to the standards of love set by Hollywood,and speaks to the broader experience of living in our world of images: “Like strangers / Perfect pretenders / We’re falling head over heels / For something that ain’t real.” Our images can become so entwined with real life that it’s difficult to separate reality from fantasy and the song offers welcome catharsis for that disconcerting feeling.
One of the most notable aspects of Scandinavian pop is its ability to balance the mass appeal of well-made music and specific appeals of an outsider perspective. Songs like Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” or Tove Lo’s “Habits” can be experienced either as a celebration or lamentation depending on your mood. It’s a dichotomy that makes Scandinavian pop particularly resonant with LGBTQ audiences and others who feel outside the mainstream, and it’s a feeling that Sigrid captures successfully on Sucker Punch.
Several songs encapsulate this tension (like “Never Mine,” which sounds like a heavier track from Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion) but the one that does it best is “Don’t Kill My Vibe.” It’s a slow burn as it builds to the chorus: “You think you’re so important to me, don’t you? / But I wanted you to know that you don’t belong here / You think you’re so important to me, don’t you? / Don’t kill my vibe.” According to an interview with iHeartRadio, the song was inspired by a writing session that left Sigrid feeling unheard by male peers. It’s not difficult to imagine either triumphantly or angrily shrieking this at every man who’s ever dismissed you.
“Don’t Feel Like Crying” takes on a similar theme of self-empowerment as Sigrid rejects the desire (or demand) to wallow after a breakup, instead finding her power by drying her tears and leaving the house. As the strings swell and chorus kicks in with a ‘90s dance feel (a la Robin S.’ “Show Me Love”), you’ll find yourself leaving the sadness behind as you run to the dance floor. “Don’t Feel Like Crying” will be right at home with the dance breakup anthems of past, present and future.
The album ends with the piano ballad, “Dynamite.” There are no beat drops here, no tear-your-skin-off energy but the lyrics read like an anthem: “You’re as safe as a mountain / But know that I’m dynamite.” Sigrid’s voice explodes at the end, leaving a lasting impression of who she is – a powerhouse.
While there are some filler tracks, “Business Dinners” feels childish, and the low-key “Level Up” leaves something to be desired, Sucker Punch is mostly packed with catchy, memorable songs, as Sigrid taps into her sadness and deeper emotions to produce a debut that finds a balance between lightness and darkness. As she told Apple Music, “You can’t be positive without knowing what sadness really is,” and the album captures that powerful space in between, establishing her as a singer-songwriter who will easily join the ranks of her highly-esteemed Scandinavian pop peers.
Listening to Sucker Punch, I can only wonder what’s so low about the genre of pop? What’s so low about music that transcends time and space (“Dancing Queen” still bangs 43 years later) to cross the boundaries of identities and appeal across the board? Perhaps this aspect of pop music actually is feminine,or just not masculine, as it engages an awareness of others outside of the self of the singer. Sigrid leans into this feminine energy, drawing on her own power as a young woman with a distinctive voice to tell us about life from her perspective — the good, the bad and everything in between.
Sucker Punch is out now via Island Records/Universal Music. Get it here.