Your next Swedish Pop Crush Zara Larsson on Third Wave Feminism
Before jumping onto the phone with Swedish pop sensation Zara Larsson I felt an old but instantly recognizable pang: I was about to speak to a teenage girl. But rather than adolescent angst, this was the usual nerves of a new interview. The feeling, however, was apt—many of 18-year-old Larsson’s songs are melodic reminders of all that is frightening about teenage girls.
Larsson is an ascending global pop phenomenon, having gone from winning a televised Swedish talent show aged ten, to a triple platinum album in her home country, a nomination for best new artist at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards, and performances at the opening ceremony of the 2016 UEFA Euro soccer tournament. She’s comfortable in her pop identity: “What I like about pop is that it’s so broad, it can pretty much be anything, so even if I did make an R&B song people would call it pop. Like you see Rihanna and Beyoncé and they place them in R&B soul and it’s like—that’s not R&B soul, that’s pop!”
Larsson is tired but in high spirits as she jumps onto the phone, having just landed in Sydney, Australia for a series of shows. Managing when, where, and how to sleep is a constant struggle for any touring musician, but while many of her peers turn to darker resources in search of a knock-out, Larsson gets there by watching ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) videos on her laptop, which she tells me are “sounds that are supposed to make your brain tingle and relax you.”
Larsson is comfortable using both English and Swedish, but like so many artists for whom English is a second language she prefers not to use her native tongue on stage: “I like obviously to write posts and stuff in Swedish, just because it’s my first language and I can handle that way better than English—but for writing songs it’s so fucking corny, it feels like every single word is a joke. It’s way too close for me. And also, there are nine to ten million people in Sweden and that’s just not enough for me.”
The young singer has been a tough self-critic, comparing her early work to that of her heroes: “You know when I first started, I would do a song and be like, ‘Ugh, would Beyoncé do this song? Would Rihanna do this song?’ But now I’m like, ‘Why would I do that? I have a song that I know Beyoncé would never sing, but it’s still a damn good song.’” Finding one’s own voice is a great challenge for many artists and Larsson sees her progression through this process as a marker of creative growth: “Once you start focusing on yourself, and focusing on—do I think this is cool?—then I feel like you’ve come a long way.”
Her new single, “Ain’t My Fault” (off her yet-unnamed upcoming album) is a trap, pop, dancehall hybrid with a vocal cadence that in parts could be compared to that of her heroes. It’s sassy and catchy, with a satisfying drop that is accompanied by the word ‘nope’ on loop, which in the video is coupled with a wiggling index finger. My personal favorite part is a kind of hyper-vibrato that she does on the pre-chorus; it grabs your attention and sticks with you long after the song is over.
Going through the large stack of Larsson’s YouTube videos with millions of views, it’s quickly apparent why Time magazine named her as one of “The 30 Most Influential Teens of 2016.” The nomination came a surprise to Larsson, who was aware of her influence in Sweden, but was shocked to learn of her international reach. “It’s important for me because that’s who I am as a person,” she tells me, “I’m very opinionated. I’m pretty vocal—or at least I have been.”
With strong opinions on women’s equality, equal pay, and the sexualization of women, I ask whether she ever feels a conflict in being both a pop star and a feminist, to which she replies, “I think today it could be an inner conflict of being a girl and being a feminist. I feel like it’s sort of a third wave of feminism. You know, you look at Beyoncé, and she looks so hot, she’s super sexy in that leotard but then you have Jay Z in a suit next to her and you’re like, ‘Well why aren’t you in a leotard Jay Z?’” She pauses thoughtfully, “You know, it’s just the way that society sexualizes woman—but I feel like woman are reclaiming the right to be sexual beings, and reclaiming that right because we want to be.”
Envisioning Jay Z in a leotard shows something of the fire that Larsson brings to the paradox of being a feminist pop star. However, I think we can all be grateful that given the countless issues this country is facing—Jay Z in a leotard isn’t one of them.
Written by Danny Pratt
Photographer: Kristiina Wilson.
Stylist: Joshua Liebman for Honey Artists.
Hair: Linda Shalabi for See Management.
Makeup: Cedric Jolivet for See Management.