Tove Styrke and Emily Burns at Heaven, 2nd November
Gigging at Heaven, “The World’s Most Famous Gay Club”, risks a glib headline from a lazy critic: “I felt like I was in Heaven”; “I felt like I was in Hell”. But it is not an exaggeration to compare the experience of Tove Styrke’s set to the intermediate realm: Purgatory. Try to think too hard about the nuance or meaning behind the lyrics or production and you will enter a state of existential dissonance. Do you submit to the beat, though often its sheer volume disguises banality? Do you get down with Styrke’s perma-partying persona, or try, vainly, to find traces of the person beneath? Is enjoying music like this really as grubby as some would have us believe? What is the path of righteousness??
But first, to the warm-up act, which was authentic, if tame. You would expect Emily Burns, a pink-haired queer singer performing at Heaven, to be more unique; but she is the kind of singer-songwriter who crafts personal songs and then realises, or God Forbid never realises, she feels and thinks more-or-less the same feelings and thoughts as the generic pop star. To her credit, the crowd, an eclectic mix of 20-somethings and surprisingly old men (was this why the curfew was 10pm?), very much enjoyed her set. Not that this is always a mark of quality. Her musical vibe is akin to “I came 3rd on X Factor”; and so is her style: jumping between pop subgenres, from acoustic (“the public can finally see the real you.” Simon would’ve said) to ballad (“I tried not to be eliminated” Burns would’ve said). This is to say: she has not found her style yet. Expect, I guess, pop – which isn’t a style, so much as shorthand for an aspiration. The crowd did like it though, and she is talented; her voice is beautiful and she is genuine. All the same, lyrics like “maybe that’s not crazy, that’s just me” are insipid.
Then: Tove Styrke, someone who did actually come third on (the Swedish) X Factor. Styrke is, urm, striking … wearing the best jacket that can be made of plastic bin bags, jet black spandex and a studded bra. But the Prize for Audacity is really awarded to her for the sparkling cowboy hat with her name underside. How this aesthetic relates to the fluorescent roses on stage is an artistic mystery. For the beginning of the set, it’s hard to tell if she’s even singing; whether the mic is even on – probably an unfortunate technical problem rather than another artistic mystery. But she is happy, and so are the crowd. Styrke has the charisma of Sigrid and cuts a similar figure; which gets you thinking: where are all these boyishly cool Scandinavians coming from (besides Scandinavia; co-ordinates please)?
A subsequent slow-tempo song confirms her mic is indeed on. Her voice isn’t the most powerful, but in a way that suits that her electropop sound. On one track, ‘On the Low’, her voice is so On the Low that she sounds like she’s drowning; how appropriate that the stage and its roses were coloured an ocean blue. Thankfully, her confidence does all the work her vocal chords do not; she maintains your attention, even if you’re more attentive to her persona than her performance.
Like most electropop artists, her lyrics don’t give much away (“Everybody loves a Number One!”? What?). Singers in this genre are usually hidden in plain sight; indeed, would you be able to recognise the omnipresent Zara Larsson, who has been viewed well over a billion times on YouTube; or do you just know the chorus that goes “I just wanna be part of your symphony!”? One track, ‘Liability (Demo)’, begins vulnerability; but is then, of course, overpowered by an eardrum-breaking electropop beat. Many of the songs lack any vulnerability, so they just blur into each other – a concert of catchy songs does not make for a concert of memorable songs.
Styrke’s set is energetic; she’s jumping, she’s running, she’s grinding. It’s when she briefly retreats to the back of the stage and, even when she squats to drink some water, continues to grind, that you realise what she actually is: The Ultimate Party Girl Robot. She’s extroverted without putting anything personal out there. She wears clothes that would only make sense on a hen night. She is an anthropomorphic drug; all fun, little substance. Nothing done on stage isn’t planned, and this surrounds her with an aura of inauthenticity. But that’s not why she’s here; she’s here to give you a fun time. She succeeds and convinces you that, sometimes, a fun time is all you need. Sure, Stryke is probably more product than person, just a better packaged version of her warm up act – but sometimes a better package makes all the difference.