Lindsay crusades against lazy “Scandinavian ice princess” metaphors.
Because you’re a woman, the music industry puts you in another corner. I want to be fighting with the men.
– Lykke Li
On her first record she was the submissive. Now she’s the dominant. I know massive success is going to happen. When? I’m not that clever. I just know it will.
-Atlantic Records U.K. Chairman Max Lousada
Lykke Li recorded her first album, Youth Novels, when she was 19. On it, the Swedish singer introduced herself as an introspective, honey-voiced wallflower who found pop music a means for communicating her feelings; “Couldn’t possibly tell you/How I mean but I/can dance dance dance” went the standout track, “Dance Dance Dance.” The maudlin ballads on Youth Novels were balanced out with punchy pop anthems like “Breaking It Up” and “I’m Good, I’m Gone,” on which she offered up a few choice words for the haters: “If you say I aim too high from down below/Well say it now ’cause when I’m gone/You’ll be callin’ but I won’t be at the phone.”
Though Youth Novels found Li trying out a variety of different personas like so many oversized ponchos, the “honey-voiced wallflower” (or, to quote her US label exec Lousada, “submissive”) image won out in the media depiction of her. This was perhaps due to the context in which many were introduced to her terrific and sultry breakout hit, “Little Bit:” soundtracking Heidi Klum’s pensive wanderings through a windblown glass elevator in this inspired Victoria’s Secret ad. Li then won over more new fans when Degrassi‘s own sultry dude Drake sampled it on his breakout mixtape So Far Gone.
Li and Drake’s words meld together seamlessly on the chorus of his reappropriated version of “Little Bit,” but plenty of writers responded to Youth Novels Li was in terms that you’d never see in a Drake review. In Spin, Sean Fennessey called Li “an adorable little thing” and attributed the triumphs of Youth Novels to Li’s producer Bjorn Yttling, praising him for “keep[ing] things from ever getting too cute.” (If that’s what a producer’s there for, shouldn’t we offer up similar thanks to Yeezy for cutting all those references to rainbows and unicorns in “Find Your Love”?) Also, good luck finding a review or an article about Li of her that doesn’t contain the word “beautiful,” “sexy” or make some sort of comment about her looks.
As she began work on her second album, Li started to speak publicly about this particular variety of bullshit. “It seemed like people weren’t listening to what I had to say,” she said in a November 2010 interview with Pitchfork. “I just felt like I must be some kind of porn dream or something because all they seemed to listen to was my high-pitched voice…I just wanted people to listen to what I have to say instead of focusing on anything else. And of course, there are a lot of things I’m angry about.”
Her recently released second album, Wounded Rhymes, channeled that anger into an even more confident and assured sound. Songs like “Youth Knows No Pain” and “Jerome” pack an even harder punch than “I’m Good, I’m Gone,” and the single “I Follow Rivers” is a mesmerizing and deeply felt ode to devotion. The album’s talking point, though, has been “Get Some,” the sexually assured lead-off single on which Li sings in the chorus, “Like a shotgun needs an outcome/I’m your prostitute/You gon’ get some.” It’s a confrontational line, deriving power from its forthrightness about the nature of female representation in the music industry — and its ability to jar the listener. But Li explains it’s not necessarily about sex: “It’s about this power play in the war of the sexes…If [women] say, ‘I’m your prostiute,’ they mean, ‘I’m the power.'”
Most of the reviews of Wounded Rhymes have been positive and — better yet — free of the kind of brash sexism that often plagues discussions about women in the industry. But, alas, by “most” I mean “not all.” Spin’s review of the album seeks to contain Li’s expressions of sexuality into to neatly defined, male-gaze curated stereotypes, calling the Wounded Rhymes “equal parts seething ice princess and lonely snowwoman.” If you didn’t get the whole “woman asserting control over her sexuality = ice princess” trope, allow them to beat you over the head with this sub-headline: “Ms. Freeze: Steely vamp turns heartbreak into a chilling spectacle.” And perhaps just for the sake of squeezing one more tired, female stereotype into a two paragraph review, the piece concludes, “So much for the the cutie pie routine.” Drowned in Sound takes subtler, though no less confounding approach, criticizing Li through the lens of that trusty meme of pseudo-enlightened cultural relativism, the “first world problem.” (Do the people who use this hashtag all the time really not get that complaining about “first world problems” on their Twitter feed or tumblr is fast becoming the most quintessential first world problem there is?) Adam Johns’ review classifies the historically feminized thematic of “problems with romance” as a petty “first world problem” (and he does it with this zinger of an opener: “First world problems are a bitch.”) and reinforces the notion that Men’s Problems are Important and the things that women tend to sing about are trivial, petulant and insignificant. And, as you’ve probably assumed by now, Hipster Runoff found occasion to drag out the ol’ slutwave dead horse for one more thwack. How…incisive.
Perhaps the article that’s most emblematic of the tricky power dynamic Li now finds herself in is the cover story for Spin‘s February 2011 Next Big Things issue. The cover is indeed devoted to her, but the finer points of its Maxim-esque staging are also echoed in the text of the story, in which writer David Marchese fawns over Li’s mysterious sensuality and gives us such journalistic gems as “Lykke, by the way, means happiness, which proves ironic, and is pronounced Likk-ya, making her name intriguing to me on at least two levels.” I think for once I can purport to speak for all femalekind when I say “Barf.”
Wounded Rhymes and its reception represents an interesting moment in Li’s career: in some ways it presents itself as a brash (though, to be sure, not too brash) reclamation of female sexuality, but it seeks success in an industry obsessed with defining, manipulating and boxing in all expressions of feminine desire. Li’s public comments about sexism and the evolving power dynamics in her music attest to a performer interested in staying one step ahead of the status quo — but for any female performer, that’s a difficult dance to pull off.