Zara Larsson Is Pop’s Poster Girl For Love

By Erica Russell

Love is the “röd tråd” — literally, “red thread,” a Swedish expression meaning throughline — on Zara Larsson’s new album. Whether it’s toxic infatuation, heartache, self-love, or the bliss of burgeoning romance, love serves as the thematic connective tissue at the heart of Poster Girl, the Swedish singer’s sophomore full-length record, out today (March 5).

“Love is this universal thing that people want to listen to and talk about and just surround themselves with, which is completely understandable,” Larsson, 23, tells MTV News. “It’s something most people can relate to emotionally. That’s what music does; it’s why we put on sad songs when we’re sad. You might think it doesn’t make sense, because it makes us even sadder, but by listening to a sad song, at least for me, I feel understood, like someone else out there is really sad, too.”

The album opens with what might be a lyrical manifesto, leaning into Larsson’s love obsession with reckless abandon: “Never thought I would love again / Here I am lost in Love Me Land.”  “I don’t think I’m never not in love,” she says, admitting that she always has a crush on someone and also quite enjoys being the object of someone else’s affection.

Earning adoration has never been much of a challenge for the multi-talented performer. At age 14, Larsson was signed to her first record label in Sweden, just four years after enchanting the public with her powerful, crystalline voice on Talang, a Swedish TV talent show. (She was only 10 when she won the 2008 season.) Not long after, she signed a contract with Epic Records in the United States. In 2017, she released what she considers her debut album, So Good, which included her hit tropical house-influenced single “Lush Life” and the sweeping Clean Bandit collaboration “Symphony.”

The Zara Larsson who debuted internationally nearly half a decade ago, when she was “still super young” and a little unsure of herself, is very different from the confident pop star she is today. “Because I had a huge label backing me, they had the money for stylists, choreographers, directors, songwriters. And it’s not that they were trying to change me, but for a really long time I felt like I was working for those people. I’m a people pleaser, so I just wanted everyone to be happy. … I had to remind myself that if I want to be authentic, I need to voice my opinions. And I have lots of opinions.”

Another thing that’s changed for Larsson is how she sees herself as an artist. She reveals that when she first started out, she wasn’t “really a songwriting girl, sitting on [her] bed writing poems or lyrics on [her] guitar.” Instead, she focused on mastering her persona and presence as an entertainer: “I would stand in front of my mirror and sing into a fake mic and tell my fake crowd, ‘I can’t hear you! Sing it louder!’”

The older she gets, however, the more Larsson wants to be involved with every facet of her music, hence her songwriting credits on early Poster Girl tracks like “Love Me Land” and “Look What You’ve Done.” She re-recorded nearly every song on the record “two, three, even four or five times” just to get the sound right. “I wanted it to be as good as possible, I’m never really satisfied,” she says. While some lyrics came easily, challenging discourse was sparked during the writing session for “What Happens Here.”

The song about female sexual liberation marks one of the more politically charged moments on the album, as it tackles the sexist societal double standards girls and boys face when it comes to being sexually active, as well as the loaded language embedded in concepts like “giving yourself away.” “I feel like girls think that they’re giving something up when they have sex,” Larsson says. “It’s like, ‘I’m giving you my pussy,’ or ‘I’m letting you have [this part of me],’ and to me, that doesn’t make sense because sex is something that you both participate in. It’s not something that someone can [consensually] take from you.”

The song was inspired by an experience Larsson had with her first-ever boyfriend, back when she was in school. He told her he wouldn’t tell anyone if they had sex, prompting confusion.  “I get that he was trying to be nice, but the core of that is a problem, because whatever I do, I do because I want to do it. If I’m a ‘ho,’ then you’re a ‘ho,’ because we just did the same thing. But as I got older, I realized that the world doesn’t look at it like that. I don’t agree with that.”

Larsson’s feminist perspective (the singer is passionate and outspoken about women’s rights, as well as LGBTQIA+ issues and racial injustice) is splashed across the artwork for Poster Girl. The cover sees Larsson lounging dreamily in a neon-pink bedroom, a glamorous poster of herself pinned up on the wall over her shoulder. It’s a poignant statement of both self-actualization and self-love — a young woman embracing her own power, success, and destiny, in spite of our culture’s insistence that women’s self-admiration is vain or vapid.

Poster Girl was technically finished at the beginning of 2020, but the pandemic caused Larsson and her team to hold off releasing the record, optimistically thinking things would be “back to normal” by last summer. Larsson adjusted to operating remotely and with a much smaller crew in tow, shooting a more “minimalistic” treatment of the “Love Me Land” music video with Vivi Huuska, a director who worked virtually from Finland. (“She looked like Plankton’s wife, Karen, from SpongeBob — just a little face on an iPad,” Larsson shares.)

Like many people, Larsson grappled with the stillness and isolation of quarantine, a struggle amplified by her typically active, travel-heavy schedule as an artist. “I just sat on my couch for all of 2020. It was really cozy the first week but after a while I was like, ‘What’s my purpose?’ I was a little lost in the sauce.” That aimlessness made Larsson realize just how inseparable she’d become with her identity as a musician: “I think a lot of people who work in entertainment went through that. You associate yourself with your work. I thought I was going to be creative and write songs and start producing in quarantine, but I didn’t do that. And then I felt guilty about not doing it.” Larsson’s sister, Hanna, was eventually able to drag the singer out of bed. “She’d be like, ‘Go on a walk!’ I didn’t have anything to do and I really needed a routine.”

Larsson studied at the Royal Swedish Ballet School in Stockholm when she was younger, an experience she credits with helping her develop a sense of discipline. “When you start off doing ballet by the bar, you do the exact same exercises over and over and over again. The only thing that really changes is you add some extra steps. When you’re just starting off, you can’t do ‘Swan Lake’ right away. I learned that you gotta be disciplined and you gotta do the repetitions to be good at something.”

Her command of dance school-learned “body control” is on full display in the music video for latest single “All About Love.” In the clip, Larsson and her real-life boyfriend, Swedish-American dancer Lamin Holmén, perform a mesmerizing dance as Larsson sings about not wanting to ruin the moment by talking about their feelings. The couple’s chemistry is kinetic, bursting offscreen through intricate choreography as the pair entwine and move around each other, ebbing and flowing between moments of tender intimacy and explosive, fiery passion — a visual metaphor, no doubt, for the butterflies-in-your-stomach stage of falling in love.

“I love to dance at my shows, but now we don’t have shows,” she says. “So I was like, ‘You know what? I’ll put [dance] in my ‘Love Me Land’ and ‘Talk About Love’ videos, so people can still see that.” Above all else, Larsson considers herself a performer and, with a handful of European shows already scheduled for the summer months ahead, she’s looking forward to getting onstage and in front of her fans once again. In the meantime, there’s Poster Girl. “Even if only two people bought [my new] album, I’d be like, ‘Good for you,’ because it’s a great fucking album. I can’t believe I’ve been in the industry this long and I’m just coming out with my second album, but I’m really proud of it.”

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After suffering a family tragedy in 2019, Wild Belle singer Natalie Bergman retreated to a monastery in New Mexico’s Chama Valley, spending weeks in silence. Bergman’s stay there inspired her upcoming solo debut album, Mercy , including the latest single, “Shine Your Light on Me.” The hypnotic hymn wraps around you like a warm desert wind, serving as a psychedelic prayer for a more hopeful future. “I’ve been lost in the desert, won’t you lead me to green pastures?” Bergman sings, asking a higher power for help during dark times — something I think we can all relate to after this past year. —Chris Rudolph

Jesswar Transformed Her Anger At Being Overlooked Into ‘Venom’

By Sam Manzella

From the very first verse of Jesswar’s “Venom,” we know she didn’t come to play. The rising Fijian-Aussie rapper lets the poison flow, pairing fierce beats with slick rhymes that extol her excellence. But this unapologetic self-assuredness didn’t always come so easily. Zooming with MTV News from her new digs in Australia’s scenic Yugambeh Country, Jesswar recalls her first foray into making and performing music as a 16-year-old living in Brisbane. “It started as me working through my own problems with music,” she says. “And then I just started playing with some bands. I was fully not confident at all. It took me a while to get up and even talk in front of people.”

Those early years of practice served Jesswar well. Today, her charisma and confidence are contagious, even through a computer screen from halfway around the world. She’s proudly claimed space for herself, a Pasifika woman of color, in a scene still dominated by men, fashioning the anger she felt at being patronized by her male peers and industry gatekeepers into her bop-filled debut EP, Tropixx, out today (March 5). MTV News caught up with Jesswar to talk about honoring her heritage, including members of her community in her music videos, and finally putting her years-in-the-making EP out into the world.

MTV News: You’re Fijian-Australian, and I know you’re super proud of your heritage. What does being Fijian mean to you?

Jesswar: It’s my identity. It’s in my blood; it’s in my bones. I always want to represent my culture no matter what, especially living here in Australia. It gives me strength, and I feel proud of it. As I go on in life, I never want to feel ashamed of who I am. So [being Fijian] influences a lot of my day-to-day life, my personal life, my music and art, and just who I am as a person.

MTV News: Were you raised in Fiji, or did you grow up in Australia?

Jesswar: I spent most of my life here in Australia, so I haven’t been back to Fiji in quite a while. At times, I do feel far away from my culture. That’s why I always want to represent it. It’s in my blood, so I never want to forget it, and I want to show other Pasifika artists or Pacific Islanders that you can be proud of your culture.

MTV News: What’s the hip-hop scene like in Australia?

Jesswar: It’s growing and changing, especially in the South Pacific and Asia Pacific. I feel like it started out small and it’s just sort of getting its legs. There’s a lot more people who are diverse and people of color working in the industry. It’s changed a lot from a year ago to 10 years ago. And now, you’re seeing artists even have the chance to take their craft internationally as well, which is really beautiful. The scene is male-dominated, but there are some amazing female rappers there. Tkay Maidza, Sophiegrophy — there are so many.

MTV News: Your new EP, Tropixx, was three years in the making. How are you feeling about releasing it into the world?

Jesswar: It was such a personal experience]. So it’s interesting to see it be so public as well, but it feels good. I’m trying to get used to the way it is — releasing music again, that schedule. I was living a quieter, more undercover life before this. But it feels good because I’ve held on to these songs for so long. Three years? That’s wild. I just can’t wait to release the next project after this because I’ve listened to these songs all thousands of times.

James Hornsby and Georgia Wallace

MTV News: Is it strange promoting new music in a pandemic? I’m not sure what it’s like right now in Australia, but in New York, in-person concerts are basically nonexistent.

Jesswar: It’s very strange. We played this one show where squares are painted on the floor. And the security guard sort of briefed me, like, “If anyone goes outside of the square, you sort of have to stop them or the show gets shut down.” But in some places like New Zealand, they’re having complete, full-on music festivals. Like, thousands of people.

MTV News: Your first single, “Savage,” dropped in 2017. How has your sound changed since then?

Jesswar: Even outside of music, I’ve evolved so much. With your artistry, how you are in that moment of time definitely influences the music. When I released that song in 2017, I had no plans to [make a music video]. I was just going to put it on SoundCloud. It was a song that we played at our pre-games, you know? It was pretty amazing how I got approached to make a video clip for that and put it online. I listen to it now and I just sound… I don’t know. I feel like I was really cheeky. You can definitely tell I had a lot more years in me to grow and evolve and get better at my craft. I feel like in “Savage,” I was saying punchlines just to be cheeky because I could.

MTV News: You previously said that writing “Venom,” a single off Tropixx, was self-care for you. Can you tell me more about that?

Jesswar: While writing this project, I was going through a pretty rough time personally in my life. I was being overlooked and talked down to a lot. So writing this project was a complete retaliation to that treatment. I feel like through that anger and rage, I found a calmness. Now I can look back on that and be like, oh, I’m really glad I got that [anger] out.

MTV News: It’s so interesting, writing about anger as a woman. The world doesn’t want you to express your anger.

Jesswar: One-hundred percent. But it feels so good! Everything I say in that song is a timestamp for me at that moment in my life. Sometimes I can listen to a song, and I’ll go back to exactly where I was living, what I was wearing — I remember all that. But I think it’s good to remember that because now, I feel much more calm and much more steady in my life.

MTV News: What about “Medusa”? The visuals for that song in particular are stunning.

Jesswar: “Medusa” was written in that same sort of vein as “Venom,” and the video was made in that sense as well. Except when I was making “Medusa,” there were so many powerful women around me — and there still are — who I was watching just absolutely kill it with success. We had heaps of people from my community come through [for the music video]. We hand-painted all the jackets and all the jewelry. We were just trying to make do with what we had. And some of those women I’ve known since I was in high school. That was where I got a lot of my inspiration from, too. Maybe not so much from people who are famous, but more so people who I know in my day-to-day life. And seeing that really inspired me because I was like, “I can do this, too.” I made the song for us in a way, and the video as well.

Britney Offered Pop Superstardom — But It Also Sent a Message We Ignored

By Ilana Kaplan

An eponymous album marks a major moment in an artist’s career. For women, owning one’s work, body, and artistry can be especially powerful, even political. Throughout Women’s History Month, MTV News is highlighting some of these iconic statements from some of the biggest artists on the globe. This is Self-Titled.

Several images have defined Britney Spears throughout her career: debuting distressed in a (then) controversial, edgy Catholic school-girl outfit about how her loneliness is killing her; steamy in white, kissing Madonna at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards; distraught and battling her mental health and tabloid culture as she beat a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella a few years later.

But one particular scene stands out as a cultural reset for the star: when Spears performed her raunchy hit “I’m a Slave 4 U” at the 2001 VMAs with an albino Burmese python named Banana draped around her neck. It could’ve been just another awards show performance, but it became pop-music history. The set was striking — a jungle of Spears’s own making — featuring the singer and her washboard abs scantily clad in a green chiffon scarf-bra and gem-encrusted boy shorts that eventually helped fund the Halloween costume industry.

As the lead single of her self-titled album Britney, “I’m a Slave 4 U” was a hypnotic, hip-hop-infused anthem that touted a more mature sound than listeners had heard before. But it wasn’t just a single: It symbolized a new era. Her VMAs rendition further solidified it. The performance, like the song, had power. Gone were the pink-ribbon pigtails and cardigans: Spears was embracing her raw sexuality and also making a declarative response to the criticism she received for being too risqué. Whether the public liked it or not, the pop icon was growing up, and her liberated sound and provocative performances were now going to match.

Spears’s MTV performance came just two months before she’d release Britney, her boundary-pushing third album that served as a primer for pop longevity. Britney pushed genre boundaries and found the artist toying with everything from rock and R&B to hip-hop and disco. For Spears, Britney was emblematic of her pop potential, and its coming-of-age narrative paralleled Janet Jackson’s 1986 reset Control. The 12-track record flaunted her versatility via the retro-futuristic, R&B-laced “I’m a Slave 4 U” and “Boys”; the electro-ballad “That’s Where You Take Me”; the defiant dance-pop jaunt “Overprotected”; and the fiery cover of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’s anthemic “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

Britney also allowed Spears to be seen as more than a performer. While they weren’t singles, Spears co-wrote five of the album’s tracks: “Lonely,” “Anticipating,” “Cinderella,” “Let Me Be,” and “That’s Where You Take Me.” She partnered once again with hit producers Max Martin and partner Rami Yacoub, who helped her transition from her first two records to a more mature phase. It also proved she wasn’t afraid of edgier production, enlisting The Neptunes to help produce what would be two of the album’s hit singles (“I’m a Slave 4 U” and “Boys”).

While Britney was contemporaneously written off as “a concept record about herself,” 20 years later, the album scans as an earnest depiction of a young star coming of age under a microscope and trying to experience life on her own terms. If 1999’s debut …Baby One More Time touted innocence and 2000’s follow-up Oops!…I Did It Again tackled the loneliness of fame, Britney grappled with wanting to have autonomy — over her body, life, and choices. Her feelings about the desire to live freely and without judgment were in plain sight. “All you people look at me like I’m a little girl / Well, did you ever think it’d be OK for me to step into this world?” Spears declares on “I’m a Slave 4 U.” “Overprotected” reflected the crushing weight of fame and Spears’s desire for normality — due in part to the overwhelming paparazzi. The Martin- and Dido-penned “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” reflected the in-between state Spears found herself in and the space she needed to explore it.

But Spears was never really given that space. The New York Times’s recent Hulu documentary Framing Britney Spears — which re-examines her career, the cruelty of the media, and contextualizes her conservatorship — recalled how Spears, not quite 20 years old when this album dropped, was met repeatedly with questions about her virginity and sex life. And Britney was a statement that required no further questioning — a portrait of a young girl reckoning with both adulthood and her sexuality. Yet this self-actualization was ignored, and Spears was not only plagued endlessly by intimate questions but christened one of pop culture’s “Lolitas,” alongside Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Lindsay Lohan, and Christina Aguilera. Unfortunately, that gross sentiment overshadowed the pop star’s own story and haunted her career during her journey of self-discovery.

The narrative and release of Britney also lent itself to a visual component. In early 2001, Spears and her team helped craft a script for a film where the singer would make her debut in a starring role. That script became 2002’s teen drama Crossroads, which followed three childhood friends Lucy (Spears), Kit (Zoe Saldana), and Mimi (Taryn Manning), as they embarked on a road trip where Mimi could audition for a record label. The film was somewhat reflective of Spears’s own journey of growing up and pursuing her pop-star dreams. It was also shaped by tracks from Britney that shaped a blossoming narrative. “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” can seem like a schmaltzy ballad, but it was a formative moment for Spears and her onscreen character who read the song as a poem and later performed it. It remains a metaphor about a young woman at the peak of stardom who was bending and could break without the breathing room to grow up.

Twenty years since the release of Britney, the album is representative of the complexities of young stardom. For the past 13 years, Spears has been stuck in an in-between state that recalls the sentiment of Britney, in a conservatorship that has controlled her life in ways she perhaps couldn’t have imagined back in 2001. In the context of the recent Spears renaissance, the record is simultaneously a pop masterpiece, a plea for autonomy and respect, and a statement to the media. Her loneliness wasn’t killing her anymore, but the scrutiny surrounding her life and image was. While Britney helped establish a foundation for Spears’s pop superstardom, it also reflected the harrowing state of early 2000s media culture, slut-shaming, and the way it suffocated young women. Britney was a message we ignored, and we should have known better.

Drake’s New EP, Not Certified Lover Boy, Will Be Here Tonight

The good news: Drake‘s got a new release lined up for tonight at midnight (March 5). The bad news: It’s not Certified Lover Boy, the rapper’s long-delayed sixth studio album he first announced would be dropping in the summer of 2020. The LP is still on ice (for now), but in the meantime, he’s giving us another installment of Scary Hours, likely similar to the EP of the same name he released in 2018.

On Instagram, Drake teased the artwork, including two blue diamonds in the center, possibly suggesting the latest Scary Hours release may be a two-pack, as the 2018 installment was.

If this all feels like déjà vu, that’s because it kind of is. In January 2018, Drake dropped the first Scary Hours EP, featuring “God’s Plan” and “Diplomatic Immunity” — right as he laid down a long rollout for what would end up as his fifth album, Scorpion. Now, 2021’s Scary Hours is almost here as we keep waiting (and waiting) for Certified Lover Boy, likely to come at some point later this year.

The rapper’s sixth studio album was originally scheduled for a mid-2020 release, then it got pushed back to January 2021. All we know so far is that it’ll feature last year’s Lil Durk collab, “Laugh Now Cry Later,” though if the promotional teaser video is to be believed, the album may represent the culmination of over a decade in the industry and various different eras. Or it could just be another Drake album.

We’ll find out when we find out. In the meantime, make sure your phone is charged: Scary Hours is out at midnight.

Life Support Is The Album Madison Beer ‘Fought So Hard For’

By Jack Irvin

As the musician’s star began to rise, Madison Beer had imagined a huge, extravagant party would toast the release of her debut album, Life Support. But even before the coronavirus pandemic postponed its arrival nearly a year and prohibited such gatherings for the foreseeable future, she had already changed her mind about the grand soiree. “I don’t think I want to celebrate my album with a bunch of people who couldn’t really give less of a shit whether I have music out or not,” Beer, MTV’s March Push Artist, says. “They just want a reason to party.”

When the album dropped at midnight on Friday (February 26), Beer celebrated instead with a small pod of the people to whom she’s closest: her manager, her Life Support co-writing team, and a couple of friends. (“By a couple of friends I mean, like, two, ’cause I only have like two friends,” she says with a laugh.) Her preference for an intimate gathering may come as a surprise, as a young celebrity whose life is regularly on display to over 22 million followers, but it compliments the vulnerable material of the album. It’s been a long road to Life Support for the 21-year-old artist, complete with an intense mental health journey and many fights for her artistic freedom.

After posting a cover of Etta James’s “At Last” on YouTube when she was 13, Beer landed a deal with Island Records and put out a string of bubblegum singles, like 2013’s piano-driven tween bop “Melodies.” Those early tracks won over her large online following, but the music was a far cry from the soulful taste reflected by her YouTube covers. She felt like a “cash cow,” parting ways with the label in 2017 in search of a new direction. The following year, she independently released As She Pleases, a collection of R&B-laced tracks including the Gold-certified anti-hookup anthem “Home With You.” Despite co-writing the majority of the project, Beer still wasn’t putting out the music she wanted to make.

In 2019, she signed with Epic Records and began working on Life Support, determined to retain full creative control throughout the process. Co-writing and co-producing the entire record, it’s far more representative of Beer’s personal taste than any of her previous material, spanning pop, alternative, and electronic sounds inspired by Lana Del Rey, Tame Impala, and Daft Punk. Prefaced by singles including the sweeping, emotional ballad “Selfish” and infectious, sultry banger “Baby,” it’s an eclectic body of work that showcases Beer’s powerful vocal chops and impeccable songwriting skills. If you’ve ever mistaken her for a social media star with a music career on the side, think again.

MTV News: How did you set out to create this album differently from your previously released music?

Madison Beer: Well, when we started making it, I was like, “This has to just be me. It has to feel like me. It has to read like me. It has to feel super authentic.” I want my story to be told in a very genuine way, so I knew from the moment we started creating it that it was going to be this journey of finding myself and finding my sound at the same time.

MTV News: You’ve spoken about feeling like your previous record label wanted to place you in a bubblegum pop mold, and you even felt like a “cash cow” at times. Now, you’re putting out this record where you co-wrote and co-produced every song, and you handled creative direction on every video. What does it mean to you to now have full creative control over your work?

Beer: It’s everything to me. I get really emotional — even when you started asking me that, I started tearing up a bit. I felt like I was never going to be able to actually release stuff that was me, or that felt good. I was like, “Is this what being an artist is? Is every artist just not themselves?”

It was so tough, and I had to fight so hard for so long to get to where I am now. Even with “Selfish,” with all love and due respect to [Epic Records], they didn’t want “Selfish” to be a single. They were just like, “We think that this one would be better,” and I was like, “I’m sorry. I want ‘Selfish’ as a single.” I’m so glad now, looking back, that I fought so hard for it. I feel like that song has so heavily impacted so many people.

MTV News: It must feel pretty validating now that “Selfish” is your fastest single to be certified Gold by the RIAA.

Beer: Yeah, extremely. It’s hard going against such powerful executives. It’s pretty intimidating considering with a snap of their fingers they can be like, “OK, bye Madison Beer. See you later.” I was scared, but I’m so glad that I fought for it. I think that it definitely has given me a bit of jurisdiction to have more creative control and push for what I feel is right.

MTV News: Which track was the most difficult to finish?

Beer: “Selfish” was the first of the emotional, vulnerable songs, but then “Effortlessly” was just a tough day. That day was pretty close around the time that I was really suicidal and pretty much 5150’d. I was just in a horrible place, and I remember I couldn’t even form a sentence. I just think back to that time, and… Sorry, I’m trying not to cry. It was a lot for me.

I remember being in the studio that day, and just talking for hours with my team about how I took the simple things for granted, [like] being able to smile without having to force it. I remember I said, “I used to do all these things so effortlessly,” and [a co-writer] was like, “That’s a really dope song concept,” and then [we] started writing about it. Immediately, it was one of my favorite songs that I’d ever made. It’s my dad’s favorite. It’s an incredible song. I love it so much, but yeah, it was a tough, tough, tough day for me.

MTV News: You’ve been incredibly open about your journey with mental health, especially your diagnosis with borderline personality disorder. Is it scary to share that with the world, especially with how quick people can be to judge online?

Beer: Yeah, my platform has felt more like a chopping block in the past. I sometimes feel like people seek out a reason to hate on me or be mean to me. The first thing I really opened up about was my self-harming journey [when] I was a year clean, and that was scary. It was really hard for me, because I’ve been conditioned by the public, and the media or whatever, that I am gonna be canceled or hated for anything I say. I question everything all the time.

When I opened up about having BPD, as much as people have been super encouraging, kind, and caring towards me, I’ve also literally seen text messages of people I thought were my friends being like, “No wonder she’s so crazy. She has BPD.” I saw a message from a girl who I used to be friends with who basically said that I’m a manipulative person with no soul because I have BPD. I was like, “Wow, that’s shocking to read.” On social media, I’ve seen the same kind of stuff.

I’m like, you guys have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s actually really offensive and so wrong to just assume that you know things because you did a little Google search. First of all, BPD, and any type of mental disorder, is completely different for everybody. Everyone goes through different things, and so it’s been really tough. There’s such a stigma around mental health.

MTV News: You gained your following from a very young age, but music has always been at the forefront for you. Have you ever felt like your social media presence has overshadowed your artistry?

Beer: For a long time I really did feel like people were [focused on my online presence, which] I didn’t value as much, and I feel like I was guilty of it. I was the one feeding the beast of social media and growing my following, but that’s because I was hopeful that, one day, I would have a big enough following that I’d be able to push my music. So now I feel like it’s kind of paid off, and it’s great, but I feel like for a while it was a bit of a double-edged sword.

MTV News: What do you want your fans to take away from this album?

Beer: I hope it just provides healing, help, and a sense of light in any way that it can, and [that it] makes them feel something, whether it’s happy, or they want to dance to it, sing to it, or whatever it might be. I just want them to feel comforted or helped by this album.

MTV News: Looking back from where you are now, what advice would you give to your 13-year-old self posting covers on YouTube?

Beer: I would just tell her to hang in there. You’re going to be fine. There will be really tough times. You’re going to want to give up, but don’t, ’cause you’re going to make it to a place where you’re really proud of yourself. You’re going to be really happy that you stuck around to see it all happen. That’s all I would say. She’ll be fine. She knows what she’s doing.

Bop Shop: Songs From Chloe x Halle, Yasmin Williams, Jesswar, And More

Four years before her critically acclaimed A Seat at the Table, the seven-track effort True served as a transition between Solange’s tinkering with boisterous, pop-friendly R&B melodies and her murkier, moodier concoctions. “Looks Good with Trouble” feels like the most clear preamble to her next phase, wherein just 90 seconds her airy, warming harmonies over weightless synths find comfort in a new young lover, seemingly with two faces: She calls off their trouble in one line, and beckons it in the next. Both worlds seem to be just fine.—Terron Moore

Cloud Nothings Couldn’t Tour. They Released 27 Live Albums Instead

By Danielle Chelosky

Dylan Baldi has a lot of ground to cover. The leader of prolific Ohio indie rock band Cloud Nothings could be talking about July 2020’s quarantine album The Black Hole Understands; December’s follow-up Life Is Only One Event; one of their 27 live albums all unleashed last year; their seven Bandcamp exclusive EPs released from August 2020 until now; or this month’s new LP, The Shadow I Remember, which drops on February 26.

Or he could be discussing his noseless dog, Lavender, who he adopted with his girlfriend, Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz, around Christmastime. “She’s a one-of-a-kind dog,” Baldi tells MTV News. “People will just stop and be like, ‘Look at this dog,’ and want to be with this dog in a way like no other dog I’ve seen,” he says. “It’s like having a rare Pokemon.”

During Baldi’s lockdown, Lavender has often graced the official Cloud Nothings Twitter account with stealth cameos. And without touring, that social-media presence is one of the few active pieces of the band: “Right now [Cloud Nothings] just feels like it’s a Twitter account that I post stupid stuff to every once in a while,” he jokes. Over the past decade, the project has evolved into a full band after beginning as Baldi’s outlet for songwriting in 2009. These days, when they are more than just an internet persona, Cloud Nothings consists of Baldi on vocals and guitar, TJ Duke on bass and backing vocals, Jayson Gerycz on drums, and Chris Brown on guitar, keyboards, and backing vocals.

“It doesn’t feel like a functioning band at the moment. But throughout [quarantine], we’ve still been able to get stuff done. It just feels like an important, vital part of it — the live show is, I think, how a lot of people come to know us and like us — is missing, and that’s sad.”

Just by listening to the music, you can tell Cloud Nothings are meant to be heard live. The songs have only gotten more complicated and packed with moving parts as their career has progressed, from Attack on Memory’s iconic 10-minute noise crunch “Wasted Days” to the breezy, early The Shadow I Remember single “The Spirit Of.” There is always an intentional culmination at work underneath the loud surface. Patience is necessary, but it’s rewarded. This is all revealed during shows when the members trail off into explosive jam sessions and fans fling their bodies around in violent ecstasy.

And while it’s strange for fans to not be able to attend shows, it’s even more disorienting for musicians to lose the freedom to tour and travel. “My brain and body had gotten pretty used to being somewhere different relatively constantly,” he says. “It’s a very normal thing for me to do, so it’s weird for me to strip that away entirely.” One of the band’s first quarantine ideas was to drop a ton of live records — nearly 30 — of performances all over the globe, from New York to Brussels to Paris. Not many bands can do this while maintaining the integrity of each release; Cloud Nothings, who use shows as an opportunity to experiment every night, can. Without touring, though, they’ve had to make alternate arrangements for making a living.

“Even doing as much as we did, our guitarists paints houses,” Baldi explains. He and Duke have been temporarily working as tech guys for court depositions over Zoom. They’ve also established themselves via Bandcamp’s subscription service. For $5 a month, a Cloud Nothings subscriber gets two exclusive albums a year and an EP every month, as well as 20 percent off merch. “Just by creating all of this stuff, it keeps a dialogue going, at least between us and fans of the band,” he says. “The records, I kind of beat myself up about really trying to make good. This stuff feels low-stakes, but it’s for the true heads.”

Relatedly, in December, one of Baldi’s tweets gained traction and subsequently caused controversy: “your spotify wrapped is basically just a list of artists you owe money to lol.” While Baldi dismisses most of his updates as “shitposts,” he admits there should be a conversation about the issue of streaming services. “If you use Spotify, you could use a different service, or you could do something else. You could! Why don’t you, actually?” he says. “But at the same time, obviously Spotify is an evil company that is to blame for these things. The way they pay artists is cruel and unusual.” The discourse over this tweet centered on exactly this tension. How fair is it to blame consumers when the root of the problem is a corporation? Do consumers have to be held accountable for contributing to what they know is harmful?

Even in the face of this, Baldi is still inspired and optimistic. “You gotta just find the people and things that are doing interesting stuff,” he says, “even within the confines of an industry that doesn’t always bring that to the forefront.” His attitude is that you can get burned out doing anything, that it’s inevitable — and that you can either quit or work through it. Has he considered quitting? “Yeah, but then, like, what would I do, you know?” he quips.

Kat Cade

And so he is promoting The Shadow I Remember, which is old to him at this point. The 11 songs were recorded in Chicago with legendary noise maestro and trusted collaborator Steve Albini, who previously, and notoriously, played Scrabble when working on Attack on Memory. (He played Scrabble again this time, but Baldi understands: “When I take a break, I look at my phone, scroll through pictures of dogs on Instagram. It’s the same thing,” he says.). It perpetuates the fundamental Cloud Nothings philosophy, which Baldi sums up in the press release as his goal of making “a three-minute song to be an epic.” “They can have all these different parts and moving things going on so that nothing ever gets dull but it makes sense in a way so it doesn’t just sound like chaos,” he explains. “There could be a different melody, every instrument’s playing something different, but it all sounds like one cohesive thing.”

In both their music and in an unprecedented time of global uncertainty, Cloud Nothings approach the edge of chaos while still managing to keep it clean and organized. It’s what Baldi has been refining since the beginning. It culminates in their latest 33-minute album and in the simple act of creating and and doing whatever you can — because there is nothing else to do.

An Oral History Of The A*Teens, The ABBA Cover Band That Defined Y2K Pop

By Brennan Carley

In 1998, Britney Spears traveled to Stockholm to record songs for her debut album, …Baby One More Time, with producers like Max Martin and Rami Yacoub. She was one of many stars at the time who ventured to the Swedish city to capitalize on the words and sounds of its burgeoning pop scene. Months later, at a dance school only a few miles away, a team of record label executives convened to audition a group of 100 teenagers for a project they were calling the “ABBA Teens,” an homage to Sweden’s most popular musical export.

That year, ABBA were celebrating their 25th anniversary as a group, though they hadn’t released new music in nearly two decades. Beloved by an older generation of Swedes, ABBA were known around the world for their outrageous (and tax-evading) costumes, as well as their massive hits like “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo.” Their songs hadn’t yet been repurposed into a long-running Broadway musical, which later inspired a blockbuster movie franchise starring Meryl Streep. ABBA weren’t, for lack of a better word, cool. But the ABBA Teens were meant to change that by introducing the foursome’s hits to a new wave of music consumers: pop-savvy pre-teens discovering their taste as they came of spending age.

One name change later, the four singers chosen became the A*Teens. Their first album, The ABBA Generation, topped the charts in Sweden and sold over 2 million copies worldwide. But it was their all-originals follow-up, 2001’s Teen Spirit that broke the group in non-Swedish markets. “Bouncing off the Ceiling (Upside Down)” pierced the Billboard Hot 100 and became their biggest hit to date, catapulting the A*Teens from opening act to headliners. They toured the globe. They became Radio Disney mainstays, playing concerts across the United States with other popular early-aughts acts like the Baha Men and Aaron Carter. Teen Spirit went to No. 50 on the U.S. chart, but captured the hearts and attention of young listeners around the world.

On the surface, things seemed perfect for the foursome, but after the release of their third studio album Pop Til’ You Drop, the group quietly disbanded without much notice. Fans were treated to a Greatest Hits album in 2004 and then… silence. It took until 2006 for a member to acknowledge publicly that the A*Teens were no more; it took many more for the group to reunite as friends, ready to revisit the whiplash six years that changed their lives forever.

While ABBA has seen their own cultural resurgence in recent years due in large part to the success of the star-studded Mamma Mia! movies, the A*Teens’ impact lives on, having given early opportunities to producers and songwriters who went on to work with major talents like Avicii, Zara Larsson, and Lady Gaga. 20 years after the release of Teen Spirit, the album that crystallized that legacy, MTV News Zoomed with each member of the group as well as the creative team who helped shape them into global superstars. (Members of ABBA declined to comment.) This is the oral history of the A*Teens, a teenaged cover band not built to last that somehow overcame all expectations to become one of the most beloved and successful groups of pop’s pre-fab era.

Fryderyk Gabowicz/picture alliance via Getty Images

In 1998, approaching the 25-year anniversary of ABBA’s official formation at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, Stockholm Records began discussing plans to celebrate while injecting new life into the Swedish group’s back catalog.

Ola Håkansson (founder, Stockholm Records): I used to work with Agnetha [Fältskog, from ABBA], so I know the members quite well. I had a company called Stockholm Records and the idea was to try to launch Swedish artists internationally. Niklas was the marketing manager, and he came up with this idea: “What if we do something with the ABBA catalog?”

Niklas Berg (marketing manager, Stockholm Records): We had a concept and we had tour dates, because we were tying it to the anniversary. I bribed this one tour sponsor. I promised them we would be No. 1 on the charts, otherwise they didn’t have to pay for it. I said to my boss, “This must work.”

Anders Johansson (A&R, Stockholm Records): We ended up trying a show school in Stockholm. We started off trying to find kids with a singing background, but a problem we have here with Swedes is that people love being successful but also comfortable. With the recording industry, being comfortable is not a good thing.

Berg: The idea was to have people 10 to 11 years old. But when we started to meet these people, we thought, “Oh you couldn’t put a 10-year-old girl on tour.” When we met Amit, Sara, Dhani, and Marie, we said, “Oh, this is much better,” because they were 14 and 15 years old.

Håkansson: We went down there with a camera and said, “We’re going to put together a group that will sing and dance ABBA music.” They sang a song a cappella. We picked out Marie, Dhani, Sara, and Amit. They could sing and they could move, and they were young and really enthusiastic.

Amit Paul (member, A*Teens): I was brought up in an academic home, but I always had music with me. I was playing the piano when I was 4, and we were always singing. My main passion came through Lasse Kühler’s dance school, where we were discovered. I joined there when I was 13 on a whim. I spent almost all my time, apart from studying, at the dance school. I quit all sports and just did that.

Sara Lumholdt (member, A*Teens): I did the choir there as well, so it was everything from ballet, tap, show dance, jazz, choir, and jitterbug. I wasn’t there for that long before we got the audition.

Dhani Lennevald (member, A*Teens): I started there when I was 7 because my older sister danced and I was like, “I don’t want to play football and hockey. Fuck that. I want to do this.” When I was 14, the head of the school called me and said, “I would like you to come next weekend. We have a little audition.”

Marie Serneholt (member, A*Teens): I’ve known since I was very young that I wanted to entertain. Our dance teacher said a record company wanted to hold a big casting for a secret project. It was just supposed to be an album, and we were going to tour in Sweden for a summer. It was not supposed to be anything bigger.

Lumholdt: There were two different auditions. On the first, I sang “The Rose” by Bette Midler. On the second, I sang “Mamma Mia.” That’s where they teamed us together. They put a song on and they’re like, “OK, dance around, have fun!” They wanted to see chemistry in the group. We had such good fun. No one really knew how big it was going to become.

Håkansson: We put together the group like The Monkees. It was not something we do in Sweden. You can’t do a Monkees here. That’s not the right thing to do.

Serneholt: When we got cast, TV shows like [American] Idol didn’t exist. We were the first group in Sweden that was cast.

Berg: We had really big plans from the start, so we had to discuss with them, “Are you prepared to be famous?” It was a stupid question. Of course they were not prepared.

Håkansson: Radio DJs remembered ABBA. But the young kids, they didn’t have a clue. They heard [A*Teens’] “Mamma Mia,” and they saw this young, nice band and said, “That’s a good thing.” But the guys at the radio said, “This is an ABBA song. I don’t want to play it.” For me, the big challenge was how to persuade the gatekeepers to give it a chance.

Berg: In April of 1999, we released “Mamma Mia,” and it went No. 1 on the chart. I think it sold 225,000 copies just in Sweden.

Lennevald: When we released it, we were called ABBA Teens. The whole concept was supposed to be ABBA, but teens that make more updated versions so the new generation can connect to it. Thanks to growing up in Sweden, you don’t think it’s impossible. “I can do this because ABBA did it.”

Serneholt: I remember when we went to the States, everyone thought that we were the kids of ABBA. A lot of the young kids didn’t know about ABBA. They heard our songs and they thought that these were original songs. They had no idea they were covers.

Berg: The name “ABBA” was owned by the record company at that time. So I talked to a guy and I said, “Could we do this? Because we are not ABBA.” He said, “Yes, but you have to talk to Björn [Ulvaeus from ABBA].” So I had a very short meeting with Björn, and he said, “Yeah, it sounds good. No problem.”

A month later, there was an article in the Swedish papers saying, “[ABBA’s] Benny Andersson: This is not OK.” And people came to me and said, “Are you stupid? How could you start ABBA without asking ABBA?” In the end, this was the perfect thing to happen because we took so much PR from ABBA that we were No. 1 on the single charts in Sweden. They all started talking about us. And we had to change the name.

Håkansson: A manager came up with the idea of A*Teens and then some dots. [I thought it was] clever, because A is a top grade in the U.S.

Serneholt: The record company felt like there could be a future for this group with original songs. Like, “We have something here.” We changed the name when we released “Super Trooper.”

L. Cohen/WireImage for Geffen Records

In 1999, just one year after their initial auditions, A*Teens released their first album, The ABBA Generation. It debuted at the top of the Swedish charts, going double platinum there and gold in the U.S.

Lumholdt: Marie and I got to go to Varberg, a small city outside Gothenburg, where we had to record the album straight away. This was in December 1998, so it was only eight weeks [after the auditions]. I still have my old folders from back then with all the text and lyrics. We recorded six songs. It was just my and Marie’s voices at first, obviously, because the ABBA songs weren’t featuring much of the boys’ singing.

Serneholt: We didn’t think; we just sang. It had a very different sound to the old ABBA songs, but we just did it. I just sang it, but a lot stronger, because they wanted it to be aggressive.

Paul: That album was really our learning process. By the time we came in, the only thing that was missing on the tracks were our voices. There was zero flexibility.

Lennevald: The ABBA songs were what they were. You don’t want to interfere too much with the creative part of it, because you’re just, like, walking into the museum in Paris and being like, “Oh, Mona Lisa needs to be repainted. I think this needs a little mustache.”

Paul: The international expansion didn’t really start until 1999. That fall, we did a performance in San Francisco in front of the Universal Group managers. It was Aqua, and then it was us, then it was S Club 7. After that, they accepted us and pushed us into the world.

Serneholt: All of a sudden, everyone wanted us. I think we had 300 travel days each year. Every day was planned. That happened so quickly, but I was so thrilled. This was my dream.

Paul: At the first show in Sweden, there were a few thousand people in this town square. Those crowds were growing. Towards the end, it was 10, 15, 17,000 people in the crowd.

Lumholdt: When we were signed up to go tour with *NSYNC, that’s when we were like, “Oh shit, this is big.” We got [Britney Spears’s dance coach] Wade Robson to do our choreography. We were kids having fun, enjoying tour, singing, dancing, traveling. No one really thought of it as a job.

Serneholt: We were sitting on a plane on our way to Chile to perform and they told us, “You guys are really big in South America.” When we landed at the airport, it was like a movie, with thousands of fans. There was a van that was riding next to us with a TV reporter hanging out the window. We had armed security day and night. I got a bit scared, because so many people were trying to grab us. I lost my shoe, and then I saw that a reporter found my shoe and held it up on the news.

Fryderyk Gabowicz/picture alliance via Getty Images

As the A*Teens became a global commodity, the pressure was on for Stockholm Records to strike while the iron was hot. In the middle of touring with acts like *NSYNC, Britney Spears, and Aaron Carter, the band began work on what would become their first all-original album, 2001’s Teen Spirit.

Håkansson: I wanted them to make another ABBA album because there were lots of songs I wanted to record. They said, “No, we want to do this thing,” because they were young. I said, “OK, fine.”

Serneholt: I think we all already knew during the first summer [of 1999] that we were going to get into the studio again to record a new album with original songs.

Johansson: To understand Teen Spirit, you have to take yourself back to Stockholm around that time, 1999 to 2000. Stockholm was booming. Everyone was in town making pop music. [Renowned producer] Denniz Pop had passed away, but Max Martin was taking it to the next level.

Paul: We were a big thing in Sweden at that time. But there wasn’t a lot of room for artistic development. You came into the studio, you delivered, and then you were out again.

Serneholt: It was a lot of fun recording it, even though we did it quite fast. Instantly when you heard “Halfway Around the World” and also “Upside Down,” you knew they were going to be singles.

Johansson: There was a lot of competition out there, so we needed to be quick. I was running around studios because I knew, “If they send that song to Nick Carter for Backstreet Boys, he’ll steal that one.” It was a really good time for pop. People call it a factory — yeah, there was a certain factory mode to it, but I think in a good way.

As far as the writing on that record, I had some briefs that I sent out. There was a camp down in southern Sweden where they came up with “Upside Down” when they played around with the Motown sound. Later on, we had “Halfway Around the World” come in, and then “Sugar Rush,” then “Firefly” — that was Marie and my favorite song. I think we cut about 20 songs.

Lennevald: That was when I started to work a lot with RedOne [who went on to produce Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance,” “Bad Romance,” and more]. We did a song with Savan Kotecha, too, one of the most talented writers I’ve ever met [who went on to work with Ariana Grande].

In 2002, the A*Teens released their third album, Pop ‘til You Drop!, in the U.S. The next year, they put out New Arrival for the international market, which recycled six Pop songs and would become their final studio album. All the while, they toured the world.

Paul: We didn’t have a lot of exposure to sex, drugs, and rock and roll. We were quite contained and protected, and one could say that’s boring, but I’m very grateful for it today. There were a couple of other Swedish acts — I don’t want to mention any names — that were signed to other labels and they were ground down into dust. There was nothing left of them when they came out of it.

Johansson: We saw that with people that we toured with. You saw it with Nick Carter. You saw it with Aaron Carter, with Beyoncé with the breakup of Destiny’s Child. And Britney, of course — we did a bunch of tours with her.

Paul: It wasn’t that she didn’t want to hang out with us. It was that there was physically no time. The way that they worked her was insane.

Lennevald: One time, me, Marie, and Sara were in Beverly Center on a day off in 2003. We walked around and then we just saw, far away, a big group of people shouting and taking pictures. We went into a store and then five minutes later, these two big guys came inside. We turned around and in came Britney. Then she saw us and was like, “…A*Teens?!” We were like, “Britney fucking recognizes us! This is amazing!”

Paul: I had braces at the time. We were touring, then I came home, and I would have two weeks for being in the studio, for doing the exams that I needed to do for high school, and for getting my braces tightened.

Lumholdt: Marie and I got feedback on our website about what we were wearing and what we look like. We didn’t have Facebook. We didn’t have social media. We had comments on our website. People were discussing whether or not we had eating disorders. Are we gaining weight? All of a sudden, it wasn’t just having fun being on tour. It just went straight from joyful to, quickly, something else.

Scott Harrison/Liaison

In 2004, the band released Greatest Hits, which contained only one new song, a cover of Nick Kamen’s “I Promised Myself.” The band quietly went on hiatus. The A*Teens’ breakup was officially announced in 2006, two years after they parted ways privately.

Lennevald: With Greatest Hits, we were all like, “Isn’t it time to move on — maybe?” We had such beautiful success. Are we really going to be that band that just forces things out? It came naturally to us to take a break.

Paul: We didn’t really grow our relationships [within the group]. We missed those years in the basement, growing together. There were some different visions, and some different incentives, and different goals.

Lumholdt: We were still doing really well. The record company didn’t want us to stop. I don’t think our parents really wanted us to stop, either — we as teenagers said, “We don’t want to do this anymore.” That didn’t come from anywhere except us. We were the ones who sat down and said, “We can’t lie anymore. We can’t pretend that we’re having a great time. Slowly, the magazines are going to realize that we’re not the same crazy, fun, happy teenagers that we were three years ago.” That’s when we decided we couldn’t go on.

Paul: This passive-aggressive silent breakup, it’s a really Swedish conflict-avoiding way of dealing with it.

Serneholt: We got to be part of the music industry when it was really blooming, and you would sell records. But we also were part of the record industry going down. You could feel at the end that it’s not as fun working in this industry. It had changed a lot.

Johansson: By the third album, it was pretty clear that they wanted to go do other things. Times were changing. [Justin] Timberlake was teaming up with Pharrell and Timbaland. The sounds were so different. As in every big trend, it’s pretty clear once it passes the expiration date.

Lennevald: There wasn’t ever a fight. In that way, A*Teens must have been the most boring band ever. People really wanted to angle it like, “Oh yeah, they’re splitting up. They’re arguing.” We’re like, “No, it’s fine. Call it quitting, or that we’re taking a break.”

Paul: It was such an intense period. Getting spit out on the other end was interesting. I refer to it as the best and the worst time of my life.

Serneholt: I lived with my parents and I didn’t move out until a few years after we ended A*Teens, when I was 25. I just wanted to land a little bit and spend time with my family because we were away so much.

Lumholdt: We were four kids that had grown apart within six years. We started off being best friends, but there wasn’t any time for us to be creative. We were a product. We performed, we interviewed, we did what we needed to do to get the CDs and tours sold and booked. That’s it.

Paul: Coming out of that whole thing was… There were so many gifts. Now that I have two kids, it’s a different life. The last few years, [A*Teens] has been starting to come up again and I’ve been dealing with it. Some of the imprints that it’s made on me as an individual have started to feel urgent to look at it.

Lumholdt: When we finished, I wasn’t ill, but I had really bad health. I was only 20 and I had the body of a 45-year-old. It was a lot of work, travel, and bad eating habits. My God, we ate McDonald’s I-don’t-know-how-many times a week. I had to write my will and testament in the same week as I got my health checked and it was kind of like, “Wait, what? I’m 20 years old and I’m dying.” [Afterwards,] I got a dog. I got my own apartment. I moved away from the city. I had to push the stop button.

Håkansson: I think that they should have done another. We had another fantastic record that we could do with ABBA songs. But I think when they look back, they say, “This was a fantastic experience.” It was a good ending of the story for me as well.

Wiebke Langefeld/picture alliance via Getty Images

After parting ways, all four members eventually returned to music, but only one remains in the industry today.

Lumholdt: I went to Los Angeles. I tried to do [music with the stage name] Sara Love, which was a really fun journey. A lot of those songs, they’re still my favorites, and they’re unreleased. I went to Stockholm Records with my demos. They didn’t want it because it was like Lady Gaga, and that was before Lady Gaga was famous. I came up with [the song] “Glamour Bitch,” and they were like, “No, it’s never going to work.”

I had a great record — 10 amazing songs. I would definitely release them if I would find them because that’s the problem now: I don’t even know where they are. I tried again in 2012, for Melodifestivalen [Sweden’s version of Eurovision]. It wasn’t just me singing on the stage; it was more for proving that I was worthy of being a part of the pop group.

I didn’t have any interest in doing more. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. But I’m really happy I got the opportunity because if I wouldn’t have done that, I would probably not be as confident and comfortable as I am today. That made me realize that I’ve done my part. I don’t need to do more music. I don’t need to prove anything.

Lennevald: Because I had been in the studio experimenting with producers, I thought it was so much fun. I was the biggest Justin Timberlake fan. That was the direction I wanted to go. Anders came to me and was like, “We have this opportunity with Sony. They’re going to release MP3 players trying to fight with the iPod.” That’s how long ago it was. “Let’s put out a single with them that comes with the first 10,000 units.” We found a song called “Girl Talk.” I wasn’t super happy about it, but Anders was like, “This is such a good opportunity for you for the exposure.”

Since then, I’ve started working with different artists. Carl Falk and I did the Stories album with Avicii in 2015. We went to L.A. and helped him finish it. By then, I had started developing an artist called Sandro Cavazza. Sandro sang on two songs on Stories. It was just such a great moment for us as music creators. I’m working on my own music now, too, as Dhani, and I have another project called DHARC. That’s all coming this year.

Paul: I joined business school. I jumped straight into that. After a couple of years, I ended up going back into the studio and recording my own thing and, frankly, getting a classical lesson in what it is the record companies actually do. Coming in thinking it’s all about the art, and coming out thinking, “OK, the art’s done but nobody cares.” That was an extremely painful process and also a fantastic learning experience. The songs A Key Of Mine that I released, I’m super proud of them.

Serneholt: I would have probably never gotten the opportunity to do something solo if it wasn’t for A*Teens. I got in contact with [songwriter] Jörgen Elofsson, because I knew what he had done for other artists [like Britney and Céline Dion]. I was hoping to get one song from him, but he really believed in me and wanted to make the whole project together. He made the whole Enjoy the Ride album for me.

I did the solo record, but then I got approached to do TV as a presenter. I’ve been doing that for the past 10 years. The last music I released was in 2012, when I was part of Melodifestivalen. I don’t really miss it. I love to entertain, and I get to entertain when I do what I do now.

Though they’ve never reunited as A*Teens, all four members have kept in touch, meeting for important life moments and the occasional dinner in Stockholm when their calendars align.

Serneholt: I have the A*Teens dolls still. I have some T-shirts from when it says “ABBA Teens,” the really early ones. That was so weird that we had dolls.

Lennevald: We said, “Let’s meet twice a year.” But that never happened. But we have a group chat on WhatsApp to be like, “OK, guys, when can you meet?” Now everybody has kids except me.

Johansson: [I said to them in the beginning,] “If you want to do this for a long time, you have to be best friends. You don’t have to be best friends all the time, but you really have to get along and complement each other.” I’m actually really proud when I’m looking at the four individuals today because they’re really good people.

Paul: In Sweden we say, “You don’t become a prophet in your own country.” ABBA was big, but if you compare it to the United Kingdom’s response to ABBA, Sweden was nothing. There was barely any interest at all. I think we started the revival. We came up alongside this whole Mamma Mia! musical and movies, and then it took off again. I think we laid the groundwork.

Håkansson: I remember every nice thing. I think it was a really fun time to do it. And I think they were absolutely fantastic as people and as artists.

Paul: Sara and I have always had a close bond. I went to her wedding. Every now and then, we all do group dinners, but it’s infrequent. On a spiritual level, on a fundamental level, I feel very close to Sara, and both Marie and Dhani. They’re very dear to me. I love them.

ryderyk Gabowicz/picture alliance via Getty Images

Lumholdt: I love the thought of reuniting. I would say yes. If someone gave me a phone call and said, Hey, we want a reunion tour,” I’ll be like, “Fuck yeah.”

Lennevald: It just depends on the actual occasion, you know? If it’s for a good cause, then I would do it too, in a heartbeat.

Paul: If it is for charity, for the planet, for the world? In a minute, I’d be there.

Serneholt: If we were asked to present an award, of course I would be up for that.

Lennevald: From the A*Teens, I learned you can do anything. When we were rehearsing for the Britney tour, we were standing there with the biggest people in the business and I came from a small little dance school in Stockholm — like, what? There must be 1 billion people that can sing and dance better than I can, but it’s not about that. It’s about working hard.

Julien Baker Can Run Away, But She Won’t

By Danielle Chelosky

“I go back and forth about whether that would be the right thing to do,” singer-songwriter Julien Baker says about running away and making music in the woods. On this 10 a.m. phone call, Baker is doing what she seemingly always does — weighing the morality of a situation. “If I isolate myself from this world that I am confused and saddened by, the confusing sadness of the world doesn’t stop existing. I just get to distance myself from it.”

The 25-year-old artist has reason to contemplate it all. After playing in bands from a young age, she took off with her striking solo debut Sprained Ankle in 2015. The impressive follow-up Turn Out the Lights came two years later and only heightened her fame. In 2018, she joined forces with fellow emotive musicians Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus to form Boygenius and release vulnerable, collaborative songs. Most recently, the three of them were invited onto Hayley Williams’s debut solo record Petals for Armor on the track “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris.” And now it’s time for Baker to return to her natural role of standing alone, with her third solo album, Little Oblivions, out February 26 via Matador Records.

“I feel like The Grinch,” is one of the first things Baker tells me, calling me from Tennessee, “but I hate Christmas.” By asking how her holidays were, I’ve unlocked something deeply passionate and a smidge nihilistic from within her. Suddenly, she is ranting about the transactional nature of it all: “You have to assign a value, a budget, to how you’re going to creatively tell people you love them with a gift,” she says. And people often pester her for this — why can’t you just enjoy it? — and the answer is one that’s inevitable: “I overthink every single thing in the world,” she announces with a laugh.

It is not that she chooses to be this way. Cynicism is hard to break out of; Baker is aware of this, calling herself a “grump.” It can be hard being friends with a grump, but it’s even harder to live inside the brain of one. It seems like music is one of the few places where Baker can avoid complications and messiness and overthinking — and not in the words, but in the instruments.

For this record, she got a band on it to give the songs more movement. “Instead of me in my room meticulously constructing poetry over really beautifully reverb-laden guitar,” she says, “I would write a song and record it on an acoustic with super dead strings that didn’t sound particularly good, and then [producer Calvin Lauber and I] would try to find subtleties to make it interesting. We put little crushed things in — lo-fi drums and sounds that were the direct antithesis to the sort of traditional, beautiful [nature] of how I made the last record.” It feels as if Baker is letting go a bit and changing the way she expresses herself. “Hardline” begins the record with abruptive, harsh chords that quiet down to let Baker’s earnest vocals make confessions. She immediately strips herself of expectations and responsibilities: “Start asking for forgiveness in advance for all the future things I will destroy / That way I can ruin everything.”

Throughout 12 songs that play with this tension of abrasive noise against peaceful silence, Baker reckons with accountability, redemption, punishment, mercy. It captures an individual in the midst of accepting the past and figuring where to go next. It does not feel like someone trying too hard or trying to fulfill expectations; it feels like someone naturally extracting meaning from intense personal experiences.

“There’s something amoral about hearing music and hearing sounds,” she explains. “You can assign an agenda or a meaning or a value system to lyrics, but music itself — the organizations of sound — is really comforting to me. It’s a place where I can either play the notes or I can’t. I can either arrange them in this certain way or I can arrange them in some other way. There’s nothing right or wrong about that.”

She has mastered the art of using songs as a form of communication, but the hard part is then having to then explain herself in interviews. “There’s so much to extrapolate from the lyrics, it then becomes a discussion not even about the music or the music’s purpose but about my life and how my ideologies have changed. I want to make sure those are represented accurately and then those can never be because they’re gonna be told through somebody else’s words.” She is tangibly stressed about this, out of breath by the time she finishes that sentence. With a laugh, she adds: “That’s why I love talking about gear. I’m like, Yes, great, I’m so glad I don’t have to postulate about what God is right now.

At the same time, she remembers struggling in the music industry at 17 years old, begging anyone to care about or even just notice her art. Now 25, she recognizes that there are millions of artists who are still trying to get people to care about their art, still trying to make a living off of their art. “It’s such a cruel paradox,” she says. And so this is why she sometimes considers running away to the woods.

However, she hasn’t yet. She made Little Oblivions, her junior effort that started taking form in 2019. In the past, Baker has put a lot of pressure on herself. “I was balancing guilt and trying to make these timeless songs. I stripped drums and synthesizers and everything away because I wanted it to be in the style of the Woody Guthries and Leonard Cohens of the world who somehow can set poetry to music with just three lame chords and make it universal and philosophical and true.”

Before she began making Little Oblivions, though, she asked herself, What’s the worst-case scenario? “Eventually people are gonna not care,” she realized. “Eventually I’m gonna be not even a footnote in musical history. Or human history.”

Baker found comfort in the fear of being forgotten, which allowed her to move more freely through her music. “It almost makes me cringe a little bit when I hear people talk about legacy,” she says. “You want people to think you’re nice, you want your coworkers to think you’re nice, you want your family to think you’re smart and hardworking, you want your partner to think you’re attractive. We are constantly managing people’s perceptions of us and it’s impossible.”

Unfortunately, being aware of this doesn’t make someone immune. That’s part of the appeal of going off the grid and living secluded from society. Yet there may be something selfish about saving ourselves while everyone else is burning. “I could make it a lot better for myself and I could go grow squash in the Appalachian Mountains,” Baker speculates, “or I could recognize that this is my job and I have a chance to contribute something thoughtful that might change how another individual thinks. I can really only hope for individual change. I don’t know if structural chance is possible without that.”

Every Christmas, Baker tells herself she won’t be participating — it will finally be the year she detaches herself from the tradition. “And then I end up feeling like: Do you really want to be that asshole at the family gift giving ceremony?” she says. And then she gets last-minute gifts for everyone. Little Oblivions is not a last-minute gift, nor is it given under pressure. It is just a gift from her heart, for the sake of it.