In a pop landscape where turned-up-to-11 is the new quiet (thanks, Skrillex) and a handful of familiar faces dominate the charts, what does a group of newcomers have to do to turn heads? “I Love It”, the summertime smash from Swedish duo Icona Pop, found a winning answer: GO BIG. Penned by UK goth-pop It girl Charli XCX, “I Love It” sounds like “Since U Been Gone” rewritten on a keyboard with the caps lock jammed, and Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo deliver line after anthemic line like a t-shirt canon pointed at the cheap seats. “I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs,” they shout in unison, perfectly capturing the spectacularly apocalyptic joy of a first night out after a breakup. “I crashed my car into the bridge, I don’t care!” Pounding, glitter-flecked production from Patrik Berger (who produced fellow Swede Robyn‘s already-classic “Dancing on My Own”) evaded the inevitable “Where’s the drop?” by crafting an entire track that is basically just two-and-a-half minutes of drop. “I Love It” is textbook pop perfection: a track so mood-transforming, so replayable, and so endlessly gratifying that anybody who dared wonder this summer if Icona Pop had another one of these up their sleeves should have been answered by an out-of-office auto reply: “Check back after Labor Day.”
As Icona Pop ready their full-length debut for a 2013 release, The Iconic EP gathers together “I Love It” along with a few previously released singles to show the strides they’ve made since their enjoyable if somewhat generic four-track EP, Nights Like These. From the self-empowered subject matter (by my count, four of these six songs would make appropriate soundtracks for glitterbombing your ex on a dance floor) to the Immaculate Collection-sized hubris of its title, the Iconic EP is a more assured collection of songs that sheds some light on what sets Icona Pop apart from their Swede-pop compatriots. They’re sort of like a photo-negative of the Knife circa Deep Cuts; instead of teasing out the dark imagery in supposedly wholesome feelings of love and desire, Icona Pop turn pain into cathartic party-rock anthems.
Though “I Love It” stands head and shoulders above everything else Icona Pop have done to date, a few other tracks on the Iconic EP approach its brilliance. “Manners”, which was first released on the Nights Like These EP and later as an extended single with eight remixes, is still their second-best song. Its slinky verses and signature infectious, shout-along hook (“You better reconsider! You will never do better! There is no one like me!”) are fused together by a steely, robotic beat, making “Manners” sound a little like Kraftwerk assembling an Ace of Base hit. It’s followed by the sunbursting “Top Rated” (originally the double-A-side on the “Manners” single), yet another kiss-off to a domineering partner (“You put yourself on top and that just makes me slip and slide, and see my color fade”). The track gleams and pulsates like a minor key version of “Starships”, which means it gets explosively cathartic once the chorus hits: “Try to take me down, I’ll be right up… Always been top rated, you think you can change it?”
Occasionally, the lyrics get clunky enough for you to wish that Charli XCX could co-write every Icona Pop song, or at least be on call for edits. “Good For You” has a decent melodic hook that gets unfortunately muddled by a lyrical tongue-twister– “You love my love, you’re never gonna find better love/ You hate my love because you’re dead without it.” It’s a far cry from the streamlined sloganeering of “I Love It”, whose every line felt like something that belonged on a billboard. “Ready for the Weekend”, on the other hand, feels a little too streamlined– the indistinct lyrics and pitch-shifted, helium vocals scrub away Icona Pop’s signature sound. It’s the EP’s only true misfire, a wannabe club banger that insists a little too hard and momentarily misplaces Icona Pop’s effortless cool.
The Iconic EP is neither self-consciously artsy enough nor American pop-radio-ready to play directly to either side of the pop/indie divide, but Icona Pop are emerging at a time when it’s starting to feel as though artists like them don’t have to make that sort of choice anymore. They don’t have to look far for role models: Robyn’s made huge waves with her heartfelt fembot-pop and hasn’t had to compromise the eccentricity of her vision, and Charli XCX seems to be charting a similarly individualized course as she preps her debut LP. Add in the mounting influence of K-pop’s neon dreamscapes, and this inventive and promisingly liberated moment in pop seems like something Icona Pop are primed to seize. When we interviewed them for our Rising feature last year, the pair ticked off a wide array of influences, from M83 to Prince to Britney Spears, before Hjelt declared, “You can do whatever you want and call it pop!”
The moments when Hjelt and Jawo sing solo seem fewer, or at least more forgettable, than the times they sing-shout together, but it’s not to Icona Pop’s detriment– it’s kind of what they’re all about. In the same way that Robyn songs like “Dancing On My Own” and “Dancehall Queen” embody female independence and self-sufficiency, Icona Pop project something oddly unrepresented in pop music right now: female friendship. As I was reading about the recent Nicki-vs.-Mariah blow-up and thinking about how much the media still love a good “catfight” narrative, watching interviews of Icona Pop felt like a breath of fresh air. They met on a night not so unlike the one immortalized in “I Love It”– Jawo had just been dumped, and a friend dragged her to a party at Hjelt’s house. They raged all night and vowed to start a band the next day. “We just clicked,” Hjelt recalls. “It was kind of electric.” If they can continue to channel that electricity into their debut, next year might be a big one for Icona Pop.
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