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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.